Tchaikovsky's Last Days: A Documentary Study

Tchaikovsky's Last Days: A Documentary Study

Tchaikovsky's Last Days: A Documentary Study

Tchaikovsky's Last Days: A Documentary Study

Synopsis

Tchaikovsky's death in October 1893 in St. Petersburg, shortly after the first performance of his masterpiece, the Pathetique symphony, is one of the most thoroughly documented deaths of a prominent cultural figure in modern times. He was treated by no fewer than four physicians and surrounded by a group of relatives and friends. The official account of his death was that he died from cholera. But almost since the day of his passing there have been rumors that it was not accidental. It is alleged that Tchaikovsky was forced to commit suicide in order to avoid the scandal and disgrace of being unmasked as a homosexual. Alexander Poznansky is the first Western scholar to have access to the Tchaikovsky archives in Klin, Russia. In this fascinating new book, the product of five years' research, he provides a definitive account of the circumstances preceding the composer's death. On the basis of much previously unknown material, including diaries, letters, memoirs, and newspaper reports, he traces in minute detail the composer's activities during the last weeks of his life and finds no evidence to support the notion that Tchaikovsky's death was brought about by nything other than cholera.

Excerpt

The little that at first sight seems plausible about the suicide theory derives from two premisses, which need to be examined and refuted: first, that late nineteenth-century Russia was a sexually repressive society in which sexual conduct that did not conform to the established standards was sternly penalized; and second, that Tchaikovsky all his life, and more than anything else, feared the exposure of what he allegedly saw as his abnormal, as well as immoral, inclinations. As a result, it is argued, under the threat of punishment and disgrace, the highly neurotic composer would have been compelled to take his life.

One must turn, however, to a study of Russia's social history in order to determine the interplay of the apparent and the real regarding sexuality and sexual mores in the period of Tchaikovsky's lifetime. Nineteenth-century Russia happened to have been a society considerably more permissive than, say, Victorian England. Russia did not have a ban on homosexuality until Peter the Great, that is, in the early eighteenth century. Even then homosexual activity was banned solely in the army. It was only in 1832, under Nicholas I, that Russian criminal legislation, as in all other European countries not affected by the Napoleonic Code, declared homosexuality, along with other 'sexual' or 'carnal' offences, to be a criminally punishable act. The relevant article of the Penal Code in effect in the early 1890s stated that 'a man convicted of the unnatural vice of muzhelozhstvo [buggery] shall for this be subject to deprivation of all rights of status and exile to Siberia. Furthermore, if a Christian, he shall submit to Church penance at the direction of his spiritual . . .

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