Tchaikovsky’s Death: Cholera, Suicide or Murder?


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to become known throughout the world. He conducted major classical orchestras in Europe and the United States, and was elevated from commoner to nobility by Czar Alexander III.

How He Became One of the Greatest Composers
He was born in 1840 to a successful engineer father and a musically-inclined mother. He and his brothers and sisters were educated by a French governess. At age four, he composed a song for his mother and at age five, he started taking piano lessons. At age ten, he attended the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, a boarding school in St. Petersburg. His mother died of cholera in 1854, when he was 14 years old. In 1859, at age 19, he was graduated from the law school and then worked as a clerk with the Ministry of Justice. He took lessons at the Russian Musical Society and then at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. At age 23, he moved to Moscow, where he became a professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. He taught there until he was 38, when he resigned to spend his full time composing and conducting. He wrote 169 musical compositions, including Sleeping Beauty at age 50 and The Nutcracker at age 52. He died in 1893 at the very young age of 53.

His Strange Death
His death came just nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. The world was told that he died from cholera, an intestinal infection with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. Symptoms of cholera include watery diarrhea, vomiting, muscle cramps, severe dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and rarely in only the most severe cases, shock and death. The infection usually comes from contaminated drinking water. It usually affects poor people and is uncommon in people of means because it usually infects those who lack sanitation, clean drinking water, and a healthful diet, and it is not very contagious.

How could he have died from cholera when:
• The medical reports from the two physicians who treated Tchaikovsky did not describe the severe dehydration consistent with death from cholera. These physicians were reported never to have seen a case of cholera.
• The dead body was not isolated as was usually done for victims of an infectious disease. The custom at that time was that the body of a person who has died of an infectious disease be removed immediately in a closed coffin. Tchaikovsky’s body was kept in his brother’s home and many visitors paid their last respects there, at his mass, and at his funeral.

A close friend, composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, wrote in his autobiography years later that he did not believe that Tchaikovsky had died of cholera. He said, “Alexander Verzhbilovich (a cellist and professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory), was drunk and kept kissing the dead man’s head and face.”

Murder or Suicide?
Unsupported rumors have claimed that Tsar Alexander III had him killed for his homosexuality and hid this by offering to pay the costs of Tchaikovsky’s funeral, by having the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres organize the event, and by allowing the memorial service to be held at Kazan Cathedral. More than 60,000 people applied for tickets to come to the funeral, and only 8000 people eventually were squeezed into an auditorium that had room for only 6000.

In 1884, Tzar Alexander III had given him a personal audience to raise him to nobility with the Order of St. Vladimir. This would have meant that the Tsar supported Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality which would have been intolerable to the members of the hypocritical nobility.

A diagnosis of suicide would have damaged the reputations of Tchaikovsky, his countrymen, and even the Czar. He was the best-known cultural ambassador Russia had ever had.

Theories About His Demise
In 1979, Russian musicologist Alexandra Orlova reported that in 1893, Count Stenbok-Fermor wrote a letter addressed to Tsar Alexander III complaining of the attentions the composer was paying to his young nephew. He gave the letter to one of Tchaikovsky’s fellow former students at the School of Jurisprudence. He, in turn, invited eight of Tchaikovsky’s former schoolmates to discuss the charges. They were reported to be afraid that public knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality would have disgraced them and set them up for a public trial and possible exile to Siberia. They told Tchaikovsky that he could save them further trouble by killing himself. The meeting lasted five hours until Tchaikovsky, looking frightened, ran out of the room. Afterwards, the man who convened the meeting told his wife that they had decided that Tchaikovsky should kill himself. Disclosure of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality would have embarrassed the Tsar who had conferred nobility to Tchaikovsky 10 years beforehand. Reports claim that Tsar Alexander III was shown the letter from Stenbok-Fermor after Tchaikovsky’s death.

His Hidden Homosexuality
Tchaikovsky spent his entire adult life overwhelmed by homosexual desires and fear of being caught. His lovers included poets, musicians and servants, and he preferred younger men. Tchaikovsky’s brother was also homosexual and his nephew was his long-time lover, even though he was 31-years younger than Tchaikovsky. The nephew committed suicide thirteen years after his uncle’s death.

To hide his homosexuality, he married one of his students, but they had no children and lived in separate homes. Two weeks after his wedding, he tried to kill himself by jumping into the Moscow River. He failed and returned home but never lived with his wife again. She was so distraught that after he left her, she had children fathered by several other men, gave them all up to orphanages and spent the last 21 years of her life in an insane asylum.

Death By Arsenic Poisoning?
In 1993, a BBC documentary explained that diarrhea, dehydration and kidney failure are symptoms of both cholera and arsenic poisoning. The experts on that show felt that Tchaikovsky died of arsenic poisoning. This could be confirmed by testing Tchaikovsky’s corpse for arsenic, but as far as I know the tests have not been done. Arsenic can remain in the human body even after 100 years. The body of Napoleon Bonaparte was tested for arsenic poisoning by Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics in 2008, 117 years after his death. They tested hair from Napoleon from four points in his life (boyhood, exile, day of death, and the day after), from his wife, Empress Josephine, and from his son, Napoleon II. All of the samples had more than 100 times the arsenic levels found in normal healthy people today. However, even though Napoleon was poisoned by arsenic, we still do not know if that was the cause of his death because at that time, European doctors prescribed arsenic routinely for every illness. An article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (2004) concluded that Napoleon’s death was caused by his doctors. “If the arsenic poisoning was intentional, it would still be homicide.”

We may never know what killed Tchaikovsky. He was such a heavy smoker and drinker that he may well have died of a heart attack and all these stories are just conjecture.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(25 April/7 May 1840 – 25 October/6 November 1893)