In 1893 the composer Tchaikovsky breathed his last. He had become a celebrity in his native Russia and been showered with honours. But Tchaikovsky had a secret. He was gay. And in Russia at the time that was illegal. Attempts by authorities and historians to cover this up have meant that Tchaikovsky’s life and death became shrouded with mystery. In this episode, we try to get to the bottom of exactly what happened to one of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen. This episode tackles subjects that some listeners might find upsetting.
Original music was written by Thomas Hewitt Jones (@thewittjones).
Tim Lihoreau can be found on Twitter (@TimLihoreau) and the Classic FM team can be found @ClassicFM. You can get in touch about the show at classicfm.com and find out more about this episode at classicfm.com/casenotes
The recordings featured in this episode are:
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from ‘The Nutcracker’
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Neeme Järvi
Swan Lake
James Ehnes (violin), Bergen Philharmonic, Neeme Järvi
‘Eugene Onegin’
Yuri Mazurok (Eugene Onegin), Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Tatyana), Nicolai Gedda (Lensky), Rossitsa Troeva-Mircheva (Olga); Sofia National Opera Chorus, Sofia Festival Orchestra, Emil Tchakarov
Symphony No.6
Musicaeterna, Teodor Currentzis
United States


00:00:00A spot of housekeeping before today's episode thank you to everyone who has downloaded and listened to case notes so far hope you're enjoying discovering these stories as much as i'm enjoying sharing them with you and if you haven't done so already do Subscribe and maybe leave is a
00:00:19review so even more people could discover these fascinating stories Now on to today's episode you only need to hear a few notes to recognize one of tchaikovsky's world famous pieces His nutcracker suite is the centerpiece of every school christmas concert the beautiful melodies of swan lake and be
00:00:59heard in millions of music boxes around the world And this year the eighteen twelve overture has been voted the u k's favorite piece of music in classic fm's hall of fame you could say he's the most recognizable composer in the history of classical music but what do we
00:01:20really know about tchaikovsky It turns out he's someone whose life and death were full of secrets and shrouded in mystery St petersburg russia eighteen ninety three it's early november and there are snow flurries in the air streets a cold grey andan welcoming a priest rushes to a small
00:01:57apartment in the center of town not far from the river he arrives and is ushered upstairs To the bedside of peter ilyich tchaikovsky tchaikovsky is barely conscious when the priest arrives he's mumbling incoherently before sunrise the great composer is dead on this is where the mystery begins the
00:02:28cause of death cholera officially but it doesn't take long before there's a rumor on the streets the great composer hadn't died of cholera at all he'd taken his own life no he'd been murdered this is what happens in a culture where things cannot be researched un debated openly
00:02:48everything turns into rumor there's a theory that city was summoned to a tribunal and ordered to commit suicide for that russian roulette was an act of suicide well they're just going to them way never will know check cost he left it to the world is an enigma he
00:03:05said he's not going to tell the world the world can guess so what really happened what was the true cause of death of one of the world's greatest composers and why has no one ever been able to find out thiss is case notes a podcast investigating music's darkest
00:03:25mysteries from classic effort i'm tim leora in this episode the mystery of tchaikovsky's death in the nineteenth century the russian empire was the third largest in the world stretching across three continents the empire was ruled over by a powerful czar on society was strictly divided by class s
00:04:01with serfs or peasants at the bottom of the ladder working for the country's rich nobility but the russian revolution wasn't far away and society was already showing signs of the huge changes that were to come literature theatre a music we're no longer just for the nobility they could
00:04:22be enjoyed by everyone Enter peter elliot tchaikovsky a composer the russian people could call their own everybody can hum or whistle a tchaikovsky tune whether it's the dance of the sugar plum fairy or the eighteen twelve overture he just wrote melody couldn't stop the melodies coming out John
00:04:48sushi is a classic fm presenter and is writing a book about tchaikovsky He was a really nice man everybody doored him they would say from the moment you meet tchaikovsky you'll love him he laughs a lot He smiles a lot he'll be nice to you he'll be kind
00:05:06to you I don't think there was a there was a vicious bone in tchaikovsky's body Tchaikovsky was born in eighteen forty in rural russia His father was an engineer and wanted his son to become a civil servant but tchaikovsky like all teenagers i didn't want to listen to
00:05:24his dad He rebelled and became a composer He was the first successful professional composer in russia Pauline faircloth is a lecturer in music at the university of bristol He was the first composer to acquire great wealth as a result of his professional activity on i would say that
00:05:45he was the first composer to become a riel household name in his native land he waas in effect russia's national composer in eighteen eighty four he was even given the title of the order of vladimir on a private audience with sorrow alexander the third good eyes also one
00:06:08of the first people to have their voice recorded and he did what people have always done when faced with a microphone hey made a death recording with his friends here he's telling his friend yell it savior cat that assumes not bad but she's not as impressive as the
00:06:30inventor of the photograph thomas edison despite his playfulness tchaikovsky was a conflicted and unhappy man because he was living with a secret he was gay and in russia in the eighteen hundreds that was illegal and in fact under the soviet union they would not admit it But we
00:06:51know he waas and he was tortured by it and in fact never really came to terms with it Being found guilty of sodomy in court at the time would have had disastrous consequences It was absolutely a severe punishment you could be sent into exile in siberia for the
00:07:09potheads ringtone is a lecturer in modern eurasian history at university college london depending on the precise nature of the sentence that you received he possibly could never return to your family or to the city that you came from so this was a relatively harsh punishment if someone was
00:07:26found guilty of sodomy this is seen as something that was you know not just a crime against the state but really a crime against god in the criminal code it was categorized under so called crimes against nature so it was meant to be a crime against your very
00:07:42being as a human the result of these severe punishments was that gay culture in russia was forced deep underground brian bear is professor of russian and translation studies but kent state university they were restaurants where gay identified people would go and of course restaurants so that time often
00:08:03had private rooms so they could have private parties there there were public cruising grounds they were of course the two russian tradition of bath houses et cetera so they were places where gay people could and did in fact meet and these were also places where often people from
00:08:22the upper class and the lower classes could mingle and meet a swell but it was still taboo ondas tchaikovsky became more successful he began to fear the rumors around his love life he hated gossip he was allergic to the idea that people might have gossiped about him he
00:08:40had this awful encounter once when he was on a train incognito the other people in his carriage didn't know who he waas on they just started frankly gossiping about him and his love life on poor tchaikovsky sitting there listening to all this is absolutely mortified to stop the
00:08:56rumors tchaikovsky decides to take drastic action he believed it was something he could cure On one day when he was quite a young man he wrote to his brother younger brother to say i've decided i can deal with this i can cure it i'm going to get married
00:09:13on by total coincidence shortly after he wrote that he received a letter from a student at the conservatory where he was professor declaring undine love for him begging him to meet her and he did because he thought well i can i can kill two birds with one stone
00:09:31here i don't have to go out looking for a wife this one might do The student was a woman called antonina millio cover she was nine years tchaikovsky's jr and the two had next to nothing in common here's where tchaikovsky's life starts to imitate his art tchaikovsky at
00:09:49the time is writing his opera eugene on you hagen thie story follows the hero eugene o'neill reagan on a young woman called tatyana who fall suddenly and completely in love with him Tatyana writes a letter declaring her feelings for on yangon but he rejects her and she's brokenhearted
00:10:47and then at the end of the opera on jorgen gets his comeuppance because he falls in love with tatyana on and and she has to turn him away because she's married so tchaikovsky's really hard on on his hero onigen on dh when he received these love letters from
00:11:07antonina milieu cover his instinct he was so immersed in the composition of this opera he instantly felt himself to be a non yangon's position on therefore he didn't want to behave as onigen it behaved he went to see her hey wanted to treat her as kindly as possible
00:11:24so as not to be anything like onigen then in a completely crazy moment he agreed to marry her no hesitating no pre nup nothing which i think we can all agree was rash but he probably he probably saw mill you cover as a way off establishing a kind
00:11:45of a respectable social identity for himself you know here i am at last with a wife now all these rumors about me will have to stop needless to say the marriage was an absolute disaster i think that the probably was quite a cynical motive in his marriage to
00:12:01maluku over on dh it unraveled so quickly and he treated a very brutally he knew and he told us that the you know their marriage could never be a normal marriage they would only be kind of married friends and he held out quite a bit of hope that
00:12:17he really would be able to conduct his marriage on this basis but then when he did find himself married to her he just had he had a breakdown he just found it so distressing to be with this woman who seemed delighted that he had married her on dh
00:12:30just a matter of weeks after his marriage he abandoned her completely fled to his sister's estate and she refused to divorce him so we remain married to her for the rest of his life but the tragic thing is tchaikovsky wass in love just not with his wife he
00:12:52was in love with his nephew vladimir davidoff affectionately known as bob was the son of his sister Some of tchaikovsky's happiest times were spent with his sister and his nephew and at some point that turned into a romantic infatuation bob himself of course he had known his uncle
00:13:20pata since his own childhood and it had grown up knowing this uncle andan loving him very dearly but tchaikovsky's feelings for his nephew took a more passionate turn really when bob was only a teenager on when their relationship was at its emotional height and he was writing bob
00:13:39intense loving letters bob was just you know in his early twenties is really aa lot for a man of that age to take on board tchaikovsky's marriage was a disaster and he was infatuated with his nephew who did not love him in return his mental health began to
00:14:05suffer under the strain he suffered a great deal would we diagnosis today is some kind of bipolar behavior Who knows her She felt there is an actor who has played tchaikovsky it seems like he fluctuates a lot and in his writing you can see him having the good
00:14:25days and bad days but what it ends up being is there's a lot of sadness he's just constantly very very sad in his writing and you also hear it in his music It was a certain kind of tinge of sadness that goes through everything One chilly autumn night
00:14:48it all became too much to bear He made his way to the moscow river and waded in up to his waist for a cz long as he could stand as it turned out he couldn't stand it for very long so he abandoned his plan He suffers from understanding
00:15:11that he simply will never be able to be a guy who will be married and have a normal life So you know understanding this in context is is so important you know Of course he didn't go and sit in the river because he thought it be a funny
00:15:27story to tell later he really didn't want to die only a few years after tchaikovsky had tried to end his life he would be dead but not in the freezing water of the moscow river Instead death would come in the form of a simple glass of drinking water
00:16:07Sim petersburg was built on a swamp And the fact that it's built on a swamp means that there's terrible problems with mosquitoes There's terrible problems with water born diseases It's still considered highly unhealthy to drink that water in some petersburg And certainly in the eighteen eighties and the
00:16:26eighteen nineties it would be considered incredibly unsafe to consume any water on boiled The wealthy enjoyed an opulent lifestyle but they were only ever a stone's throw from the squalor that the city's poorest residents had to live in Cholera could absolutely affect anybody It was certainly more likely
00:16:46to affect the working classes living in slums Because of the you know particularly unhealthy conditions of their living quarters working class people It might have been much heart of them Tow access safe water for example They might not have had the facilities Access safe water also lived in
00:17:02very close living conditions You could have eighteen male workers bunking down in a single room in the slums of saint petersburg Cholera was a fact of life in nineteenth century russia the aristocracy had access to the kinds of facilities that should have enabled them tio boil their water
00:17:23and sanitize their living conditions However at the same time because of the difficulty of finding safe food and water and sewer petersburg a number of people in the aristocracy and the upper classes absolutely did die of diseases like cholera At this time as well Tchaikovsky was surrounded by
00:17:41death at a time when his mental health was also under siege He struggled with depression throughout his life and he started to take evermore reckless risks Pauline faircloth takes up the story tchaikovsky drank a glass of on board water at home because he was in a hurry and
00:18:02didn't want to wait for it to be boiled According to another source he drank on boiled water at a restaurant According to somebody else He just ordered mineral water or boiled water but restaurants in st petersburg at that time were mixing tap water with boiled water We don't
00:18:19even know what was the fateful a glass of water It seems that tchaikovsky knowing the dangers involved i was extremely careless when drinking water or could it have bean mohr than carelessness Did he knowingly drink contaminated water in another attempt to kill himself His brother thought so was
00:18:41it something that tchaikovsky drank carelessly at home as modest says which would have bean a un extraordinarily irresponsible thing to have done on modest says accompanying that he said that tchaikovsky came home upset and fill the glass straight from the tap ignored everybody's attempts to stop him from
00:19:01drinking it and said well why does it matter anyway and just downed it so that's what his own brother said there are no other witnesses to this event but when cekovsky became ill he refused to see a doctor so was this a careless accident or an act of
00:19:20deliberate self destruction John sushi eh he had plans to come to london to conduct his sixth symphony He had plans for more composition suddenly he was dead so the conspiracy theories started immediately he killed himself He was ashamed of his homosexuality The six symphonies resignation to death but
00:19:39as they said to me in russia if you're going to kill yourself would you choose to do it by contracting cholera it's a risky process it might well not work in fact his father did contract cholera survived it and lived into his eighties tragically tchaikovsky was never in
00:19:57very good health He was self destructive He gambled smoked and drank to excess throughout his life So when he first fell ill no one realized how serious it wass when he did contract collar and become ill his brother more distance initially take it as seriously as he might
00:20:19have done because tchaikovsky was quite often a ll in that way he did complain an awful lot about his health and he shares that with the likes of beethoven who's always complaining about his self never mind his deafness mozart was never really well on dh tchaikovsky was not
00:20:34that healthy either and he was a heavy smoker a really heavy smoker and a very big drinker from about his thirties onwards people would comment when he was depressed he would just turn to the bottle on dh that didn't help his health either twenty second of may a
00:20:56worker at night with a pain in my throat and nausea twenty fifth of may well they still this strange feeling in my throat twenty sixth of june my teeth ache third of december i do not feel well Four days after tchaikovsky's death mourners flocked to his bedside to
00:21:41pay their respects out on the streets of st petersburg meanwhile rumors were spreading about what had killed him Doctor's report recorded cholera as the cause of death but some began to question whether this could be true if it wass cholera ah highly infectious disease why were tchaikovsky's family
00:22:06allowed to be with his body after the death of fellow composer nikolai rimsky korsakov was puzzled how strange that although death has resulted from cholera still admission to the mass for the dead is free to all i remember how the cellist alexander vessel a bitch totally drunk kept
00:22:26kissing the deceased man's head and face regulations at the time said that coffins of cholera victims should be sealed and certainly did not permit people to touch the bodies but for days after he died tchaikovsky lay in his brother's flat while family and friends paid their respects This
00:22:48looked like at first very odd that he couldn't possibly have died of cholera because there was a regulation that in the case of cholera deaths and there's to be no large funeral the coffin was to have been sealed instantly and there was you know cholera was perceived to
00:23:03have bean highly contagious just from touching but in fact science had moved on and so had the rules around dealing with the bodies of those who died of cholera because the cholera was better understood as a disease and the way that you could contract it was better understood
00:23:19on dh so the requirement to instantly seal the coffin was actually lifted in terms of kissing his face when he was lying in in state as it were that his lips were being constantly wiped over with disinfectant So although people did come and kiss him they obviously felt
00:23:38reasonably confident there was no chance whatsoever of them catching cholera so the evidence is inconclusive there was confusion at the time and people have spread falsehoods and myths ever since on there's still one more theory way need to consider in a grand house in st petersburg the wife
00:24:06of russia's chief prosecutor is eavesdropping in her sitting room next door Her husband and some of his friends are having a meeting Suddenly she hears shouting and angry voices coming from the room as she's making away towards the door bursts open under composer peter ilyich tchaikovsky dashes past
00:24:30her His eyes are wide and frightened he's been crying Later that night her husband tells her that he and his colleagues had met to discuss the famous composer He was becoming a problem for the czar or more specifically his relationships with men were becoming a problem for the
00:24:52czar and so the group had gathered to come up with a plan to pass judgment They summoned tchaikovsky and passed down their verdict He had to die They ordered him to take his own life but to do it in such a way that no one would know it
00:25:13was by his own hand poison would be obtained for him Just a few days later tchaikovsky was dead This extraordinary story first appeared in an article in nineteen seventy nine It was written by russian musicologist alexandra all over who claimed to have heard the story from a friend
00:25:38of the chief prosecutor's wife The roots of that story are really extraordinary because she heard it first from a friend of their sons who heard it from one of the doctors who attended tchaikovsky on his death bed so it would seem to be you know a really strong
00:25:55source not one that's easily dismissed Orlova carried the story with her for over a decade before she published her account Her words shocked the musical world but no other evidence and no corroborating witness has ever been found to support it I can say that that theories discredited but
00:26:17it's discredited through lack of evidence this was only ever on here say despite this all over theory is still referenced by musicologist today but why getting information about tchaikovsky and his death became very difficult after eighteen ninety three in soviet russia his life was censored and rewritten his
00:26:40sexuality is depression and any hint that he may have taken his own life were erased In short it was a cover up brian bear The soviets would have liked to forget schakowsky all together and kind of relegated him to the the dust bin of history as a bird
00:27:01juan of course decadent because of some sexually but he was enormously popular at the time In early soviet russia the concealment of some of tchaikovsky's letters and diaries left a gap that was filled with stories about how he might have lived and died This is what happens in
00:27:19a culture where things cannot be researched un debated openly there's everything turns into rumor so so you have an official narrative about tchaikovsky on then you have an unofficial narrative and of course everything unofficial automatically becomes more believable But anything that can't be said is it takes on
00:27:38the aura of of a deeper truth a greater reality on i think that's One of the reasons why these tchaikovsky mitts were so attractive to people in living in in soviet times because they could not be openly talked about so therefore they seemed more likely to be true
00:27:53But there was one thing the soviets overlooked and a rewriting of tchaikovsky's story His music In eighteen ninety three he began work on his sixth symphony He arrived in st petersburg in high spirits ready to conduct the premiere The audience settle into their seats unaware that this is
00:28:20the last time the great composer would ever before here's what they heard symphony It was a triumph but had anyone in the audience heard the message hidden in the music This was tchaikovsky's suicide note He was using the symphony to say goodbye it's known as the data teak
00:30:26which is a french word which means solemn and in motive Rob cowan is a classic fm presenter What's for sure is the deep expression off a genuine artist in the last movement you get this imploring motive which is what it starts with then the second idea which is
00:30:51a beautiful melody which gains in intensity and i think there's only one thing of that theme is about and that's love it spells on and i can never get it out of my thin after that being pouring back celebrates climates reached with grass a muted after they've died
00:31:49down and the whole mood seems to be subsiding a soft stroke on the town and then the bases take us away sailors away on this someone sound into what seems like infinity it's just candid confessional on dh that i think is what a lot of people feel they'd
00:32:31love to do when it comes to awards the end but i really got the courage to do it's like schakowsky suddenly scientist do you know at the end of the day the only thing that i care about is being loved on being able to reciprocate that love Of
00:32:56course frustrating truth is that we'll probably never know what tchaikovsky was thinking when he wrote his final work or what caused his death just a few days later What he has left us with is beautiful music and wonderful stories although perhaps none as intriguing ahs his own many
00:33:38thanks to our guests brian bear hershey felder john sushi eh pauline faircloth philip ahead ringtone rob cowan on vasily petrenko recordings of tchaikovsky's music were used courtesy of chandos sony classical and on x classics thanks also to marina itself our theme music and additional compositions of i thomas
00:34:01hewitt jones case notes Producers are elizabeth davis and rachel humphries Sound design and mixing is by all of the morris and jude hodgson hand Meghan wasp is the executive producer on special thanks go to steve wilson beals sam jackson james subscribe to the case notes siri's Wherever you
00:34:30get your podcasts to hear the next episode as soon as it comes up on we love reading your reviews whether there as long as a tchaikovsky love letter or shorter than one of mozart's rude jokes your review will help more people discover the podcast So please let us
00:34:46know what you think If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this episode the samaritans provide confidential support any time i call him free on one one six one two three

Transcribed by algorithms. Report Errata
Disclaimer: The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from Classic FM, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.


Thank you for helping to keep the podcast database up to date.