Tchaikovsky: A Life
by Alexander Poznansky (continued)
The composer was fêted in Odessa for almost two weeks. He conducted concerts of his own works, supervised a production of The Queen of Spades, and attended several banquets in his honour. Returning to Klin in early/mid February with renewed confidence and inspiration, Tchaikovsky started work on his Symphony No. 6 in B minor. He worked so vigorously, that in the week after his arrival, the first movement of the symphony was already complete, and the rest was clearly outlined in his head.
On 11/23 March Tchaikovsky arrived in Kharkov for a scheduled concert appearance. A great crowd gathered at the train station to greet the famous composer. The response to the concert itself three days later, at which Tchaikovsky conducted his Second Symphony, The Tempest, and the overture 1812, surpassed all expectations: the hurrahs and bravos seemed to continue on without end, and as soon as the famous man appeared in the doorway he was lifted up and carried to his coach.
Tchaikovsky returned from Kharkov on 18/30 March and resumed the work on his new symphony. He finished the finale first and only then took up the second movement. Within five days he completed the sketches of the entire work. After finishing the full score by mid/late August, he wrote to his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson, "On my word of honour, I have never been so satisfied with myself, so proud, so happy to know that I have done something so good!"
In April Tchaikovsky began to compose the Eighteen Pieces (Op. 72) for piano, commissioned by Jurgenson, and Six Romances (Op. 73), to the text of the poet Danyl Ratgauz. In May he travelled to Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, where he visited his brother Anatoly, now the deputy governor of that city. During his visits to the capital, Tchaikovsky's meetings with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and with a younger generation of composers, such as Aleksandr Glazunov and Anatoly Lyadov, grew more frequent and productive.
On 13/25 May the composer set off for England to formally receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa from Cambridge University, which had been conferred upon him earlier. The London Philharmonic Society intended to give two concerts at which all the foreign composers receiving their honorary degrees at Cambridge would conduct their own compositions. At the first of these concerts, on 20 May/1 June Tchaikovsky was represented by his Fourth Symphony, which appears to have been an enormous success. The festivities at Cambridge, to mark the Jubilee of the University Musical Society, began on 31 May/12 June with a concert whose program included one work by each of the five doctors of music: Boito, Saint-Saens, Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Grieg (who was not present at the ceremony for reasons of ill health). Tchaikovsky directed the first English performance of Francesca da Rimini and then attended a "gala dinner and still more gala receptions". The next day saw the ceremony awarding him the honorary doctorate. The composer left London on 2/14 June for Paris, where he could finally relax from three weeks of tension and exhaustion. A few days later he travelled to the Tyrol to spend a week with Sophie Menter and the prominent Russian pianist Vasily Sapel’nikov. By 18/30 June 1893 the composer was back in Russia.
While Tchaikovsky was abroad he had received a continuing flood of bad news from Moscow and Saint Petersburg: his old Conservatory and society friends Karl Albrecht and Konstantin Shilovsky had both passed away, in late June Vladimir Shilovsky also died, and he was led to expect similar news concerning Aleksey Apukhtin and professor Nikolay Zverev.
In late August/early September, Tchaikovsky briefly visited Hamburg to attend a production of Iolanta conducted by Gustav Mahler. Upon his return he visited his brother Anatoly and family in Nizhny Novgorod.
Toward the end of August/start of September, Tchaikovsky finally came up with the title of his new symphony, as is evident from an unpublished letter to the composer from his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson of 20 September/2 October. The composer had decided to call it "Pateticheskaya simfoniya" (Патетическая симфония), which in Russian is roughly equivalent to the title that Beethoven gave to his Sonata in F minor, Op. 57—"Apassionata". The passionate overtones of the Russian title are not adequately conveyed in its better-known French equivalent—"Symphonie pathétique", with its connotations of suffering and sorrow.
In September he worked on his Third Piano Concerto, and started to consider the possibility of writing a new opera. A few ideas had already occurred to him: one was Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, another—Nal and Damaianti (adapted from Vasily Zhukovsky’s Mahabharata), but he was especially enthralled by the plot of George Elliot's tale Mr Gilfils Love Story.
His engagement calendar for the forthcoming concert season was extremely full. On 16/28 October, at a concert in Saint Petersburg, he planned to conduct his new symphony for the first time. On 27 November/9 December Tchaikovsky expected to return to the capital for another concert, and on 4/16 December he was due in Moscow. Two more engagements in Saint Petersburg were scheduled for 15/27 January and 29 January/10 February 1894; then in March he was to go on tour to Amsterdam, in April—to Helsinki, and in May—to London. In addition he was considering invitations from Odessa, Kharkov, Warsaw, Frankfurt am Main, and elsewhere.
In early/mid October 1893 the composer finished scoring the first movement of his piano concerto, and enjoyed a visit to Klin by two young cellists: his old friend and former pupil Anatoly Brandukov, and a new, promising young musician—Yulian Poplavsky. On 8/20 October he went with his guests to Moscow, and from there he proceeded to Saint Petersburg on 9/21 October.
Tchaikovsky arrived in the capital on 10/22 October . He planned to leave in a few days, in order to be present at a concert at the Russian Music Society in Moscow, and he was temporarily billeted in the apartment of his brother Modest, who shared it with their nephew Bob Davydov. This apartment, located on the corner of Malaia Morskaya and Gorokhovaia Streets, had been rented just a few weeks before Tchaikovsky's arrival.
The entire first week of Tchaikovsky’s stay in the capital was occupied by orchestral rehearsals, and his free time was taken up in helping his brother and nephew to settle into their new apartment. The days following the premiere were spent visiting relatives and friends, conducting business negotiations and correspondence, and attending theatres and restaurants.
On the night of 20 October/1 November, after returning from a late dinner at Leiner’s restaurant—the one most frequented by the composer and his brother—Tchaikovsky experienced an upset stomach. By morning it had worsened, but it was taken for the composer’s usual "indisposition", which as a rule passed quickly. But this time his condition continued to worsen and self-medication failed to produce any positive results. Towards evening Modest Tchaikovsky was obliged to summon a doctor, the family friend Vasily Bertenson. Without making a definite diagnosis, but convinced that his patient’s condition was extremely dangerous (with symptoms of constant diarrhoea and vomiting, extreme weakness, chest and abdominal pains), the doctor turned for help to his more experienced elder brother, the renowned Petersburg physician Lev Bertenson .
Upon his arrival Lev Bertenson immediately diagnosed Asiatic cholera, in its severe or algid stage. By this time (about 11 pm) the life of the patient was in immediate danger: he began to experience spasms, his head and extremities turned dark blue, and his temperature fell. Throughout the night the doctor undertook energetic measures, such as the constant massaging of his patient's body by several persons at a time, as well as injections of musk, camphor and other substances recommended by the scientific knowledge of the day. By the morning of 22 October/3 November Tchaikovsky’s condition had greatly improved. It was on this morning that the police were informed of the composer’s illness. An official announcement of Tchaikovsky’s infection with cholera appeared in Saint Petersburg's newspapers the following day.
Vasily Bertenson, who left Saint Petersburg and participated no further in the treatment of Tchaikovsky, was replaced by two other doctors, Aleksandr Zander and Nikolay Mamonov . They took turns at the bed of the patient between visits from the doctor-in-charge, Lev Bertenson. The latter was concerned with the development of the disease as Tchaikovsky’s kidneys had now ceased to function, but hesitated to use the one method considered effective—namely, immersing the patient in a hot bath. The composer and his family shared a superstitious fear of this treatment, stemming from the death of Tchaikovsky’s mother from cholera precisely as she was taking such a bath.
All other treatments failed to achieve results, and although on 22 October/3 November Tchaikovsky considered his life to have been saved, the following morning a crisis in his emotional state became evident, and he stopped believing in the possibility of recovery. The inactivity of his kidneys (uraemia) resulted in the inevitable gradual poisoning of his blood by elements of urine trapped in his organism. Furthermore, his intestines became paralyzed: the continuing diarrhoea became uncontrollable, and the patient felt weaker still. On 24 October/5 November his condition became so critical that the doctors finally resorted to giving Tchaikovsky the hot bath. But even this belated treatment did not have any cardinal effect.
Throughout the day Tchaikovsky repeatedly lost consciousness and succumbed to delirium; towards the evening his pulse began to weaken and his breathing became inhibited. After ten o’clock in the evening the patient’s state was declared hopeless. Almost without attaining consciousness, as a result of oedema of the lungs and a weakening of cardiac activity, the composer passed away at fifteen minutes after three o’clock on the morning on 25 October (6 November according to the Western calendar). Present during his final moments were his brothers Modest and Nikolay Tchaikovsky, his nephew Vladimir Davydov and the doctor Nikolay Mamonov.
On the morning of 25 October/6 November, several newspapers printed a short announcement of Tchaikovsky’s death. At the apartment where he died, with measures having been taken for disinfection, the body of the deceased lay in state and was made available for homage. "A transparent shroud covered the body up to the neck and only the presence near the head of someone continually touching the lips and the nostrils of the deceased with a bit of light-collared material soaked in carbolic solution reminds one of the terrible illness that struck down the deceased", wrote the Petersburg Gazette. (Ten years later Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, who had attended this service, would entirely forget about all the extra precautions at Modest’s apartment and about the constant disinfection of the composer’s face, and recalled in his confused memoirs that he found it odd that the cellist Verzbilovich and others were allowed to kiss Tchaikovsky's body.)
Throughout the day the flow of visitors gradually increased, and two memorial services were held at the apartment. After nine o’clock, at the insistence of health officials, the coffin was closed and was not opened for the following two days. During this time hundreds of people came to bid farewell to the composer, dozens of wreaths were laid, and several more memorial services were given.
The papers published reports on Tchaikovsky’s illness, interviews with doctors, relatives and friends of the deceased, and the texts of numerous commiserating telegrams. On 25 October/6 November Alexander III had already indicated that the funeral was to take place in Saint Petersburg, with all the expenses attendant on the burial being covered by the Emperor’s personal treasury. On 28 October/9 November, after a funeral service at the Kazan Cathedral and a grand public procession down Nevsky Prospect, with the participation of dozens of delegations from various cities, organizations and institutions, the composer’s body was interred at the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Saint Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery.
The acute public reaction to Tchaikovsky’s death found its primary expression in accusations levelled against the doctors who had treated him. The very fact that he had been taken ill with cholera (although quite a rare condition for members of the privileged class), in a city that at the time was at the centre of a cholera epidemic, did not elicit surprise. Moreover, the papers reported that the composer was generally susceptible to abdominal illnesses, that he had survived a case of cholerine (a mild form of cholera) that very summer, that he had often drunk unboiled water in Saint Petersburg (the usual source of infection), and that on the morning of 21 October/2 November, as a form of self-treatment, he had mistakenly taken a glass of Hunyadi alkaline water, which had only aided the development of disease-bearing vibrios.
The only question was where Tchaikovsky could have become infected—at Leiner’s restaurant or at home—since according to various testimonies he had drunk unboiled water at both places. But this question turned out to be of secondary importance, even considering the growing criticism of restaurant procedures which permitted the use of unboiled water. The composer’s own fateful recklessness was self-evident, and he was not alone in ignoring elementary hygienic measures.
The treatment of the patient was another matter entirely. Here all responsibility was to be shouldered by specific doctors, and they would inevitably become the targets of waves of outraged attacks over the sudden demise of the world-famous composer. Lev Bertenson and his assistants were accused of incompetence (specifically a lack of practical experience in treating cholera, the belated use of the bath, ignorance of modern treatments, etc.) and of criminal arrogance (i.e. their reluctance to call a consultation with colleagues with more experience in treating cholera patients, their failure to move Tchaikovsky to a special cholera ward, etc.).
Modest Tchaikovsky came to the doctors’ defence, publishing two explanations . In the first he described in great detail the progression of the illness; in the second he declared that everything possible had been done to save his brother and the family of the deceased had no grievance whatsoever against the doctors who treated him. Moreover, Modest expressed profound gratitude for their “sincere and irreproachably thorough treatment” of the composer’s illness.
This page was last updated on 16 February 2013