Life and Death


The Life & Mysterious Death Of Tchaikovsky

From Civil Servant To Prolific Composer

Young TchaikovskyPyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 at Votkinsk, in Vyatka Province, in the Ural Mountains, approximately 600 miles east of Moscow. He was the second son of Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, a mining engineer and manager of the local iron works, and Aleksandra Andreyvna Tchaikovskaya. At a young age, Tchaikovsky began piano lessons, and within a few years he became adept at reading sheet music.

Tchaikovsky’s parents decided to send him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersberg, which mainly served the lesser nobility, and would prepare him for a career as a civil servant. Tchaikovsky participated in the school’s choir and made his first attempt at composition after the sudden death of his mother from Cholera in 1854 when he was just fourteen.

A month after his graduation in 1859, Tchaikovsky began working as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice. Although he remained there for four years, he quickly found that the job was ill-suited to his talents. Meanwhile, the Russian Musical Society (RMS) was founded in 1859 with the aim to foster native musical talent instead of importing western European talent. In 1861, Tchaikovsky began taking RMS music classes, which were a precursor to the soon-to-be-founded Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which opened in 1862, and Tchaikovsky enrolled as part of its premiere class. Conservatory education benefited Tchaikovsky by giving him the professional tools to help him thrive as a composer, as well as the in-depth exposure to European principles and musical forms.

After Tchaikovsky graduated in 1866, Anton Rubinstein’s brother, Nikolai, offered him a position as a Professor of Music Theory at the soon-to-open Moscow Conservatory. For many years, Tchaikovsky continued to teach and compose, and his works were performed frequently with very little delay between their completion and first performances. Also, the publication of his songs and piano music for the home market from 1867 onward helped boost the composer’s popularity.

TchaikovskyWith the financial patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, in 1878 Tchaikovsky was able to resign his teaching position with the Moscow Conservatory, allowing him to focus full-time on composing. He also traveled extensively throughout Europe and even to America in 1891 where he led the New York Music Society’s orchestra in his Festival Coronation March at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall. In 1892, Tchaikovsky was voted a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France, only the second Russian to be so honored (the first was sculptor Mark Antokolski). The following year, the University Cambridge in England awarded him an honorary Doctor of Music degree.

Tchaikovsky’s Final Days

At the end of October in 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, in Saint Petersburg. Nine days later, he died there, aged 53. The mysterious circumstances around his sudden illness and death have been scrutinized and dissected ever since, with a handful of theories coming to the fore of the mythos of the legendary Tchaikovsky.

Leiner’s Restaurant, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Leiner’s Restaurant, Saint Petersburg, Russia

The most commonly reported account is that on the night of November 1st, Tchaikovsky experienced an upset stomach after returning from a late dinner at Leiner’s restaurant, an establishment frequently visited by him and his brother, Modest. By morning his symptoms had worsened, but was assumed to be his usual “indisposition” which usually passed quickly. By evening, however, his condition had continued to deteriorate and Modest was obliged to summon a doctor, family friend Vasily Bertenson. Vasily summoned his more experienced brother, Lev, who diagnosed Tchaikovsky with Asiatic Cholera.

Despite a brief improvement in his symptoms, his illness rapidly progressed. Lev Bertenson was concerned with the development of the disease because Tchaikovsky’s kidneys failed to function, but he hesitated to use the one method considered effective at the time: immersing the patient in a hot bath. Tchaikovsky and his family shared a superstitious fear of the treatment because their mother died from Cholera just as she was taking such a bath. On November 5th, his condition was so critical they resorted to giving him the hot bath treatment, but by then it did not have any effect. Throughout the day he lost consciousness and succumbed to delirium. His pulse began to weaken and his breathing became inhibited. After 10pm, the patient’s state was declared hopeless. As a result of the edema of his lungs and the weakening of cardiac activity, Tchaikovsky passed away around 3am in the morning.

Tchaikovsky’s Tombstone
Tchaikovsky’s Tombstone

Tsar Alexander III volunteered to pay the costs of the composer’s funeral himself and gave special permission for the memorial service to be held at Kazan Cathedral. Tchaikovsky was interred at the Tkihvin Cemetary at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

The doctors involved in the care of Tchaikovsky in those final few days were heavily scrutinized. Some scholars argue that since Cholera was rarely encountered in the upper echelons in which they practice, his doctors may never have treated or seen a case of Cholera before Tchaikovsky’s, and were unprepared to deal with it.

The reasons for Tchaikovsky’s death and the means by which he became ill are still disputed and remain controversial today.

Reprinted with permission by San Diego Repertory Theatre Literary Assistant Rachel Mink; edited by Literary Manager Danielle Ward.