AMONG HIS other distinctions, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky may well qualify as the most grossly maligned figure in musical history.

His music remains in a seemingly impregnable position of popularity with the broad musical public, but the artistic stature assigned to him by Western musical scholars and commentators has been subject to wild fluctuation and at best has never been high--there's almost always a tone of concession involved, as if it would be preposterous to suggest that Tchaikovsky may have been a truly great composer.

A good deal of what has been written about him, and passed on in the form of popular lore, is arbitrary in foundation, cavalier in attitude, muddleheaded and biased. At an extreme of caricature, one can see the results in the Ken Russell feature film which circulated a few years ago. With most of his English-language biographers and interpreters as "friends," Tchaikovsky has had no need of enemies.

The latest indignity concerns the manner of his death in 1893. Over the past three years a controversy has arisen over a theory that Tchaikovsky did not die of cholera, as most histories have recorded, but committed suicide. What's outrageous is not the exceedingly flimsy basis on which the theory has been promulgated, but the ready--one might almost say avid--acceptance it's received in high places.

Not only has the suicide hypothesis been given the imprimatur of the prestigious New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, where it is put forth as unassailable gospel, but also as notable a critic as Arlene Croce of the New Yorker now takes it for granted.

Please don't misunderstand; I have no stake in the matter and no axe to grind. It is possible that Tchaikovsky really did commitsuicide. The point is, if he did, no one has yet come forward with a shred of reasonably convincing evidence, though rumors of suicide began to circulate almost immediately after the composer's death.

The present controversy surfaced when an emigre' Soviet musicologist, Alexandra Orlova, published some articles embodying the suicide hypothesis, and then gave the story to Joel Spiegelman, who wrote about it in the February 1981 High Fidelity (a condensed version ran in The Washington Post in March 1981).

In August of that year, the magazine carried a rebuttal article by three scholars in the field of Russian culture--Nina Berberova, Malcolm Brown and Simon Karlinksy (hereafter referred to as BBK). Meanwhile, the New Grove Dictionary had appeared, with David Brown's Tchaikovsky entry squarely behind the suicide. Afterward, an exchange of views between critic Donal Henahan and BBK was aired in The New York Times.

The Orlova theory, as reported by Spiegelman, amounts to the following: About a week before his death, Tchaikovsky was hauled before a "court of honor" composed of former fellow students of his at the St. Petersburg College of Law, and "condemned" to commit suicide to prevent a public scandal over his homosexuality. Once the deed was done, Tchaikovsky's doctor (one of the most eminent physicians in Russia) along with his brother Modest and other relatives, witnesses and friends, all conspired in a cover-up story about cholera.

How did Orlova unearth all this? Her story is that in 1966 she heard it in Russia from a man who heard it from a woman who was told of the conspiracy by her husband, who died in 1902 and was supposedly one of the perpetrators. The rest of Orlova's support for her notion is on equally shaky ground, as BBK demonstrate in their article by disputing key points about health precautions following cholera deaths, and about Russian attitudes toward homosexuality at the time in question.

The suicide hypothesis, however, is seriously undermined in other ways. In New Grove, David Brown asserts that the composer died "almost certainly from arsenic poisoning." But Spiegelman reports the conclusion of a pathologist that arsenic could not have been the agency; "He probably died from some other poison," Spiegelman writes. Whatever the alleged mystery toxicant, it took four days to take its toll.

There's a lot more of this kind of reasoning involved in the Orlova position. In the memoirs of a fellow student of Tchaikovsky, Orlova finds that the composer was visited by a lawyer friend, August Gerke, the day after the presumed "court of honor." The author of the memoirs states that Gerke (also a director of the Russian Musical Society) came to discuss a new edition of a Tchaikovsky opera. But Orlova concludes, without further ado, that he was one of the conspirators and had really come to deliver the poison: " . . . I am sure he delivered the poison. Tchaikovsky couldn't have gone to the pharmacy himself, and he couldn't send anyone. It was probably agreed that the poison would be obtained for him," she told Spiegelman. There are further details of this kind which it would be pointless to reproduce here--the fact is that the whole suicide argument, as BBK cogently show in their rebuttal, is a tissue of inferences from one unsupported conjecture to another.

In his Times article, Henehan contends that "It does not take a tremendous leap of imagination to conceive of such a tortured man committing suicide to keep the truth from coming out." Yet Brown, in the New Grove, writes of Tchaikovsky's misery in "knowing that his abnormality must now be common knowledge," at the time of his marriage in 1877.

And in any case, conceivability isn't the issue--of course it's conceivable that Tchaikovsky was a suicide. The question is: Was that actually the way he died? The Orlova thesis is reasoning by supposition: as BBK aptly parody, "this could have happened, therefore it certainly did." By the same logic we could also decree that Tchaikovsky consorted with grizzly bears and was the real author of Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung"--after all, it's possible, isn't it?

Brown, in disposing of the matter for the New Grove, allows no room even for dispute: "Nine days later Tchaikovsky died. That he committed suicide cannot be doubted" (italics mine). Brown is evidently a prodigiously equipped scholar, but no pedigree can absolve this kind of irresponsibility.

Let us see how his judgment operates in other areas. In the preface to the first installment of his projected three-volume biography of Tchaikovsky (Norton, 1978), Brown writes: "I have not attempted any deep elucidation of his personality, for I am not a medical psychologist, nor do I wish to add to the quantity of half-baked commentary and even mischievous rubbish masquerading as penetrating psychological insight that has been written on some other composers in recent years."

But 50 pages later, this paragon of scientific fastidiousness is telling us: " . . . and it is perhaps above all through his passionate relationship with his mother that we may perceive the seeds from which sprang those growths of psychological abnormality which insidiously bound themselves round him, constricting, distorting, and unbalancing his emotional life, until, unable to channel itself into the closest of personal relationships, that life burst out importunately, and with blazing force, through his music."

This same uncanny power of Brown's to read a man's sexual inadequacies in his musical compositions breaks out with redoubled vigor in the New Grove article, where he says that the "overstatement" and "heightened emotional temperature" of some works "must surely arise from the need to find an outlet for emotional drives that could not be channeled into a full physical relationship."

Unfortunately, Brown is not alone in his armchair psychologizing; very few writers seem able to resist the temptation where Tchaikovsky is concerned, however thin their qualification or deductive powers may be. A quick example from a 1973 biography by Edward Garden: "It was probably as a result of being unable to feel sexually aroused, of intolerable emotional frustration, that he dispelled all pleasure by taking up again the composition of his First Symphony, started the previous March." Once you begin to examine the Tchaikovsky literature with a critical eye, it's not long before you realize how much of our picture of the man and artist rests on quicksand.

The question of his homosexuality, for instance, which is presumed as fact by nearly all biographers. If you think the matter is clearly documented, take a look at a fascinating, little known book on Tchaikovsky by Vladimir Volkoff (a distant relation of the composer) published in 1975 (and admiringly mentioned, with some caveats, by Brown in his own preface). In "Tchaikovsky: A Self-Portrait," Volkoff scrutinizes every bit of hard evidence, and some softer stuff, too, relating to Tchaikovsky's sexual character, and matches it against the pronouncements in the literature. His point is not to prove that Tchaikovsky was not homosexual, but only that our grounds for believing that he may have been are extremely tenuous and open to varying interpretation. The truth may never be known--the Soviets have restricted scholarly access to primary materials, and many original sources may already be destroyed or lost. Other significant aspects of the composer's life are more nebulous than the standard biographies would lead one to think--his alleged attempted suicide in 1877, for example, knowledge of which depends on the memory of a single Tchaikovsky friend, Nicholas Kashkin, who wrote of the incident nearly two decades after it occurred.

Commentary on Tchaikovsky's music often has been as rash and ill-grounded as much of the purely biographical literature. The melodiousness and accessibility which have endeared Tchaikovsky to such multitudes of listeners have been stumbling blocks for scholars and critics, especially those who have habitually applied severely rationalist, Germanic yardsticks to the music of this Russian composer.

In 1936, for instance, the atmosphere was such that Gerald Abraham could write (in "Masters of Russian Music"): "to confess a liking for it Tchaikovsky's music these days is almost equivalent to an admission of bad taste." Even those who were presumably concerned to augment the appreciation of Tchaikovsky had a peculiar way of showing it. In the introductory essay to the collection, "Tchaikovsky and His Music," Edward Lockspeiser wrote: "And yet pathos, despite the fervour of his suffering, is not a quality that Tchaikovsky could express with any sense of nobility . . . his grief and sorrow remain imprisoned within himself, so that it is never pity that he expresses, but self-pity and with it self-love and self-hatred . . . He is the musician of indulgence."

The almost wholesale underestimation of much of Tchaikovsky's musical output--the piano pieces, for example, with their abundance of still hardly known treasures--has all had an effect on our collective image of the composer.

The best that David Brown could find to say about Tchaikovsky, at the end of his New Grove entry, was that he worked hard, that he had a wide range, that he tried assiduously to solve problems of structure, and that his "professional competence was of the highest." Perhaps it's lucky for us that those who listen to music and those who perform it don't consult these books too often, or don't take them too much to heart--unlike the learned academics, they recognize creative gifts and musical mastery of the rarest order when they hear them.

If Tchaikovsky were alive today, the composer of "Swan Lake," "The Sleeping Beauty," "The Nutcracker," the "Manfred" Symphony, the "Romeo and Juliet" Overture, "Eugene Onegin," and so much else of deathless beauty, might be driven to suicide by the things that have been written about him in his absence.