Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Death of Tchaikovsky

Born in May 1840*, the musically precocious child who would become Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky began piano lessons at the age of five, and within three years had surpassed his teacher; despite this epic talent, he was trained as a civil servant at the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIt was his mother's death from cholera when he was 14 that caused him to turn to music for solace; whether he found it there is a matter of debate, but a month after she died he'd composed a waltz in her honour, and from that point he never stopped composing.

By 1862 he had convinced his father to support him, quit his civil service job, and joined the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied under his cousin Nikolai Zaremba and Anton Rubinstein.

In July 1877, Tchaikovsky married Antonina Miliukova, despite a frank assertion that he did not love her and never would; the composer's homosexuality has been much debated, mainly by those whose agenda cannot allow its admission. Nevertheless, five days after his marriage, he attempted suicide - a sure sign that not all was well on the honeymoon; six weeks after marrying they separated for good. She died in 1917, having spent the last twenty years of her life in an insane asylum.

For a time the suffering caused by coming to terms with his sexuality seems to have given Tchaikovsky's work the poignant melancholy for which it is renowned; as successful as his career would become, though, it was a palace built of clouds, and could not last.

That year, Tchaikovsky acquired a patroness, named Nadezhda von Meck, whose beneficence allowed him to quit the Conservatory and focus on composing; over the next 13 years they would exchange more than 1200 letters but, despite a couple of chance encounters, never spoke. Instead they treated the 1884 marriage of Tchaikovsky's niece Anna Lvovna Davydova to von Meck's son Nikolay as a symbolic substitute for a marital union of their own. Von Meck withdrew her patronage and friendship suddenly in 1890, citing bankruptcy.

Tchaikovsky died nine days after the debut of his Sixth Symphony - the Pathétique - under mysterious (or at least peculiar) circumstances. Although his death has been attributed to cholera, it may have been that he drank cholera-tainted water on purpose, so as to end his life. One theory, which is gaining much popular traction, is that he had been condemned by a 'court of honour' of his old classmates at the School of Jurisprudence; either he could suffer the public revelation of his homosexuality, the ruin of his reputation, and exile to Siberia, or kill himself. In the end it may have been arsenic poisoning - whose symptoms resemble cholera - that did the deed.

Stricken ill, Tchaikovsky repeatedly refused to see a doctor; in his final delirium, he called out only for his old friend von Meck. He died in his brother's apartment at about 3 am on this day in 1893. He was 53.

Tchaikovsky's funeral was arranged and paid for by the Tsar, Alexander III, which shows the high regard in which he was held (but which may support another theory, that it was the Tsar and not the court of honour who had ordered his suicide). 8,000 people attended his memorial service at Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, chosen from a list of 60,000 who expressed a desire to attend. He was buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

20 years later, Russians were still commemorating the day Tchaikovsky died - albeit in a less frank way than we do here at the Pop Culture Institute...

*Or April, depending on whether you prefer the Julian or Gregorian calendars...  For the record, here we use the Gregorian calendar, which is used pretty much everywhere in the world today.
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