One of the realities of my line of work is spending a lot of time thinking about dead people. I don’t mind. I find it quite interesting to try to piece together a picture of the personalities of these misty characters. The longer they have been gone, the trickier this becomes. We do have a tendency to favour the improvement of historical truth.
We seem to be equally fascinated by a scandalous death as a life lived. One that’s of particular relevance to a conductor is the untimely death one of the very first conductors, Jean-Baptiste de Lully. Before conductors collectively took up the baton, the preferred method of leading a band was to bang a long stick on the floor. Poor Lully miscalculated, bashed his foot, got gangrene and perished. Or so the story goes. Then there is the somewhat less well-known story of one Hans Steininger, the Bavarian magistrate who tripped over his own 4.5 foot-long beard, fell and broke his neck. Or so the story goes.
That brings us to Tchaikovsky, with more possible causes of death than any other. The first version is that he died from complications related to cholera. Version 2 is a little darker: it has Tchaikovsky intentionally drinking a glass of unboiled water during a cholera outbreak in St. Petersburg. In ascending order of sensationalism, the third version states that Tchaikovsky’s former classmates held a secret Court of Honour that decided the composer should commit suicide rather than allow his homosexual relationship with a member of the Imperial family to become public. The last version has Tchaikovsky’s doctor, on secret orders from the Tsar, murdering him by poison.
We’ll never know the real story. What is not in dispute is that at the age of 53, one of the greatest symphonic composers died at the height of his artistic powers. After Beethoven and Mozart, Tchaikovsky’s music appears most often on symphonic programs all over the world. He had an unparalleled gift for writing a memorable tune and a visionary understanding of the visceral powers of an orchestra.
In spite of the success he enjoyed even during his lifetime, his personal life was marked by his struggle with depression. He was a gay man living in Imperial Russia, one of history’s most openly hostile regimes toward homosexuality. His remarkable Fourth Symphony was written during and after his catastrophic marriage that lasted only a few months. Tchaikovsky considered the symphony a depiction of Fate, and he wrote of it, “all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness.” Yet against the gloom of the opening of this great work, the finale can be described as nothing other than a blaze of glory.
The mystery surrounding Tchaikovsky’s life and death certainly adds to the intrigue. I can’t give you any conclusive answers about what actually happened. All I can tell you is to keep your beard trimmed.