The enigma of Tchaikovsky’s illness and death: An epistemological and historical perspective
Keywords:Tchaikovsky, cholera, arsenic poisoning, Pathétique symphony
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), a celebrated Russian composer of ballet music, operas and symphonies died soon after conducting the premiere of his Pathétique symphony in St. Petersburg. According to some reports, he swallowed a glass of unboiled water at the time when a cholera epidemic was rife in the city. His death was attributed to ‘cholera infection’, but the contradictory and incomplete reports of his illness render such a diagnosis uncertain. A possibility of arsenic poisoning by his own hand is also explored. As suicide would have been a stigma for his family, would Tchaikovsky have chosen to cloak it in symptoms of a natural illness, as he once tried to do? There is no evidence, however, that the Pathétique was intended as his ‘suicide note’, as it has been sometimes implied. Epistemologically, the posthumous proof for arsenic poisoning is undeliverable, and the same applies to a cholera infection. Ultimately, the composer’s illness and death remain an enigma; it is for his music, not his illness, he is remembered and cherished.