'PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY died on Nov. 6 at 3 a.m.," read the headlines of the St. Petersburg newspapers on Nov. 7, 1893. Then, and for the next 87 years, cholera was listed in all official accounts as the cause of the great composer's death.
New information reveals, however, that this may not only be far from the truth, it could have served as a cover-up for one of the most shocking and tragic scandals of the 19th century and perhaps in the history of music.
According to evidence unearthed by Alexandra Anatolyevna Orlova, a Tchaikovsky scholar who recently emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union, the composer was the victim of a "judgment" pronounced on him by a kangaroo court made up of his own classmates from the Imperial College of Law. This quasi-official judicial body, known as a "court of honor," sentenced Tchaikovsky on Oct. 31, 1893, to take his own life by poison, and Tckaikovsky, amazingly, carried out the grim sentence.
How could Tchaikovsky, at 53 the most popular composer in the world and at the peak of his creative powers, be persuaded to kill himself? And why would his death be sought by the leading intellectuals of a country that idolized him?
When he arrived in St. Petersburg on Oct. 22, 1893, the triumph of introducing his Sixth (Pathetique) Symphony just a few days behind him, Tchaikovsky could never have realized the appalling fate awaiting him. He was, however, accustomed to living with fear -- fear that his double life would be exposed. Tchaikovsky was a homosexual in a society that loathed the very idea. There was no illegal practice that could bring down swifter or more terrible disgrace in czarist Russia than homosexuality. It was considered a criminal offense that merited prison or exile to Siberia.
The story of Tchaikovsky's death, as reconstructed by Mrs. Orlova, comes from an eyewitness to the court of honor, Elizaveta Karlovna Yakobi. She was the widow of Nikolai Borisovich Yakobi, head prosecutor of the Russian Senate and a classmate of Tchaikovsky's at the Imperial College of Law in St. Petersburg.
This is Elizaveta Yokobi's account:
Just as Tchaikovsky arrived in St. Petersburg to conduct his Sixth Symphony, a ranking member of the nobility, Duke Stenbock-Thurmor, wrote an outraged letter of complaint to Czar Alexander III. The duke claimed his nephew was being corrupted by Tchaikovsky, who, he said, had induced the young man to engage in a homosexual love affair. The letter was given to Yakobi, with instructions to deliver it personally to the czar.
Yakobi, according to his widow, was stunned by the duke's accusations. He was not surprised to read of the composer's homosexuality; many people were aware of it, although no one talked about it -- apparently Tchaikovsky was forgiven everything by his inner circle of admirers. What galvanized Yakobi was the thought of a court case involving Tchaikovsky, which would have meant a scandal, not only for Russia, but for the whole world. The czar's intense regard for Tchaikovsky and his music was well known; Yakobi knew that a public airing of the affair would bring disgrace on the royal house itself.
Since the duke's letter was an official complaint, Yokobi couldn't ignore it, but instead of delivering it to the czar, he decided to call a court of honor to determine what was to be done. The court would be made up of himself and any other graduates of the College of Law who could be rounded up on short notice. The "court" was finally composed of eight men. On Oct. 31 they met, along with Tchaikovsky, at Yakobi's office at his home while his wife sat in an anteroon knitting.
Mrs. Yakobi was later to report that she couldn't hear the words spoken at the meeting but she did hear shouting, agitated and angry voices, sometimes long silences. Five hours after the group had convened, Tchaikovsky dashed from the room. His face was white, said Mrs. Yakobi, and his eyes were glassy. Usually a model of courtesy, on this occasion Tchaikovsky only glanced at Mrs. Yakobi and fled from the house.
After everyone else left, Mrs. Yakobi said, her husband told her the court had made a "judgment" on Tchaikovsky. They had asked for his death to save the Imperial College of Law and the czar from disgrace. He was to take his own life, and he was to do it in such a way that no one would know. It was apparently agreed that poison would be obtained for him.
Tchaikovsky became ill on the morning of Nov. 2. He refused to permit a doctor to examine him until that evening, when he must have known the poison had taken effect. He died four days later.
Mrs. Yakobi's account was discovered by Mrs. Orlova almost by chance. In 1966, doing research on Tchaikovsky, she found herself in the numismatic section of the Russian Museum in Leningrad. There she met Alexander Voitov, the section's curator. Voitov, it turned out, had made a lifelong second career of collecting information about graduates of his alma mater, the Imperial College of Law. When he learned of Mrs. Orlova's parallel passion for collecting everything that could be known about Tchaikovsky, he told her he had some secret information he had been keeping since 1913. He said that since he was old and did not want to carry it with him to the grave, he would tell her.
He said Mrs. Yakobi had been a lifelong family friend, and although she had promised her late husband never to tell the infamous story, she too wished to die unencumbered by the secret, and she told Viotov about Tchaikovsky's condemnation and death.
The cover-up began the moment he died. Rumors had begun to circulate almost immediately that Tchaikovsky had committed suicide. To counteract them, New Times, a St. Petersburg newspaper, published an article on Nov. 7, the day following his death, titled "The Illness and Death of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky." Its author was Lev Bernardovich Bertenson, the composer's physician. Dr. Bertenson described in detail how Tchaikovsky's last illness progressed with all the concomitant symptoms of cholera. On Nov. 10, the day after Tchaikovsky's funeral, New Times published another article, this one by the composer's brother, Modeste, also describing in detail the illness and death of Tchaikovsky.
Comparison of the two versions, says Mrs. Orlova, reveals a mass of inconsistencies. And, she reports, in 1938 she read in the Tohaikovsky archive at Klin, just outside of Moscow, the original of a letter written by Dr. Bertenson to Modeste Tchailkovsky. It was dated immediately after the composer's death and it contained detailed instructions on how to describe a death from cholera. That letter (along with a great deal of other material pointing to Tchaikovsky's suicide) has since disappeared from the Kiln archive.
There are other facts that contradict the original story of Tchaikovsky's death by cholera. Complete quarantine was always the rule for the house of a cholera victim. Tchaikovsky, in the four days of illness that proceded his death, had an uninterrupted stream of visitors, and he died in the presence of 16 people: four doctors, his brothers, sisters and nephews, servants, nurses and a priest.
After Tchaikovsky's death, none of the customary precautions was taken. His body remained on view for two days instead of being immediately sealed in a zinc coffin, as the rules of the time dictated. Mourners began to gather around his casket a few hours after his death. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer of "Scheherezade," was astounded. "How strange," he wrote, "Tchaikovsky died from cholera, but access to his body was completely unobstructed." He added that many people kissed Tchaikovsky's face as they filed by the bier.
Why, when so many members of Tchaikovsky's inner circle knew the true facts about his death, did no one speak up for the public record? Because none of them wanted to be the instrument of his posthumous disgrace. Both homosexuality and suicide were without question outside the limits of a society that was more Victorian than England itself. If anyone had publicly admitted that Tchaikovsky committed suicide and had given the reason, the composer would have been rapidly interred in some remote spot, instead of being given a glorious church funeral and a memorial with full honors in St. Petersburg's Kazansky Cathedral. It was essential to cover up the entire affair, and everyone who knew the truth helped to keep unspoken what couldn't be said.
When Czar Alexander III learned of Tchaikovsky's death, he said, "Oh, my God, there are so many men in Russia, but Tchaikovsky, he is one alone!" The rest of the world demonstrated similar shock and grief. One wonders what the reaction would have been without the successful cover-up of Tchaikovsky's better finale.