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Mental State

Is it not about time there was some serious discussion on this forum about Tchaikovsky's mental state? Would that not help to further illuminate his personality?

So far I have heard him described, mentally, and in various places, as — feeble-minded, overly-sensitive, by-polar. Well I am far from being a psychiatrist, but it strikes me that Pyotr possessed what they call Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD. I would love to her a psychiatrists diagnosis based on what we know of Tchaikovsky.

Would no one else agree?

If it is BPD, as I suspect as an amateur psychiatrist— this would account for his attempted suicide(s) and his self-esteem and sexual identity issues.

George Boyd

One of the objectives behind the Tchaikovsky Research web-site is to dispel the numerous myths that have grown up around the composer in the years since his death. The notion that he suffered from some sort of psychiatric disorder is one such myth, which sadly still endures today. It can be traced back to western music critics in the 20th century, who promptly reversed their earlier accolades when they learned that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual — particularly after the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde's trial in 1895. The critic Richard Taruskin examined such views in his article 'Pathetic Symphonist' (The New Republic, 6 February 1995):

The homosexual was now defined not by his acts but by his character, a character that was certified to be diseased, hence necessarily alien to that of healthy, "normal" people ... The process can be vividly illustrated through the writings of the American critic James Gibbon Huneker. Bowled over by Tchaikovsky's music on first acquaintance... Huneker had written that Tchaikovsky was one of the elect who "said great things in a great manner". Yet the critic explicitly withdrew his former encomium in a collection of essays called Mezzotints in Modern Music, published in 1899. He now alluded darkly to Tchaikovsky's "psychopathic temperament," adding in affected commiseration that the composer's "entire existence was clouded by some secret sorrow, the origin of which we can dimly surmise, but need not investigate." Sympathy gives way to revulsion by the time Huneker sums up his new assessment of the formerly great musician. "There is no need of further delving into the pathology of this case, but it is well to keep the fact in view, because of its important bearing on his music, some of which is truly pathological." The art, as well as the man, had been sexually essentialized and sexually pathologized, and so they have remained in much American and most English criticism.

Taruskin also cites the notorious Tchaikovsky: A Symposium (1945), a collection of articles by various authors, mostly English, who seem to have been attempting to out-do each other in their expressions of aversion to their subject. "Tchaikovsky's mind, seen for a moment from a scientific viewpoint, constitutes a textbook illustration of the borderland between genius and insanity"- "It was no accident that such music was conceived by a warped neurotic, shy and tortured" — (and on the Pathètique symphony): "This man is ill, we feel: must we be shown all his sores without exception? Will he insist on not merely witnessing, but sharing, one of his nervous attacks?".

It is often forgotten that Tchaikovsky is one of the most well-documented composers in history. His archive includes no fewer than 5,260 letters, 22 diaries, 65 review articles and 7 newspaper interviews, not to mention the copious testimonies of his contemporaries both before and after his death in 1893. These texts are now available to researchers, complete and unabridged, although sadly very few have yet been translated into English. So is there evidence in any of these documents to support the notion that Tchaikovsky had a "psychopathic temperament", or any other form of psychiatric disorder? Quite frankly — no. They show a surprisingly well-rounded individual, experiencing life's triumphs and disappointments, a wariness of strangers but also great affection for his family and friends, a humorous and playful nature, to whom people frequently turned to for advice on musical and personal matters. From time to time he would reproach himself for his "misanthropy" but, particularly in his later years, he had a punishing list of business and conducting engagements that he could not possibly have dealt with if he had been suffering from a serious mental disorder. Even after learning of the death of his beloved sister Alexandra while he was en route to America in 1891, he still chose to go ahead with the gruelling journey, with only strangers for company, complaining only that for a few days he did not feel up to working on his ballet The Nutcracker. The tour turned out to be hugely successful and enjoyable, and those who met him in New York commented on his "statesmanlike" appearance and his skill as a conductor. If Tchaikovsky had been suffering from depression, then surely it would have manifested itself inder such extreme conditions.

Of course it is always possible to single out specific incidents when the composer was at a low ebb — particularly in the immediate aftermath of his unsuccessful marriage in 1877 — but even during this difficult time, when writing in intimate detail to his brothers, you will find no suggestions that Tchaikovsky contemplated ending his own life. Writing twenty years after the event, Tchaikovsky's friend Nikolai Kashkin claimed that the composer had attempted to contract pneumonia by wading into an icy river in Moscow at the dead of night, claiming that he had accidentally slipped during a nocturnal fishing expedition. The idea, according to Kashkin, was that the composer would escape from his wife by illness or death, but his health was so sound that there were no ill effects. Whether or not the river was particularly chilly at the peak of a hot Moscow summer, the accuracy of Kashkin's account must be suspect because he claimed to be telling it in the composer's own words, supposedly recalled verbatim several years after Tchaikovsky's death. If this had happened, then the composer's letters might be expected to mention the cover story of this "accidental" plunge — but they do not. We only have Kashkin's word that these events took place, and at the time (the late 1890s) both he and the composer's brother Modest were keen to provide some explanation for the breakdown of Tchaikovsky's marriage to Antonina Miliukova, without mentioning the real reason (i.e. his homosexuality). Exaggerating the composer's psychological incompatibility would be one way to achieve this, and we know that Modest was prone to such exaggeration.

For instance, Modest claimed that in 1866 Tchaikovsky so intensively on his Symphony No. 1 that he experienced "dreadful hallucinations, which were so frightening that they resulted in a feeling of complete numbness in all his extremities”. The dread of these nervous attacks recurring was such that “all his life he abstained from working at night. After this symphony, not a single note from any of his compositions was written at night”. But at the time Tchaikovsky himself reported that "my health is fine, except that recently I didn't sleep all night because I was so busy". And we also know from his own letters that he did work at night when deadlines were particularly tight, as he did in 1873 on the score of The Snow Maiden. Modest also proves himself an unreliable biographer in other important respects, such his false claim that he (Modest) came up with the title Pathètique for the Symphony No. 6. While his three-volume biography of his brother is a remarkable achievement, Modest's credentials for objectivity and reliability are not far from impeccable, and his versions of events are not always corroborated by other independent sources.

The caricature of a composer tortured by his sexual proclivities, reculsive and frequently suicidal through depressive neuroses is not based on the facts of Tchaikovsky's life, but it is still lazily trotted out as accepted wisdom in the popular press. Mr Boyd can be forgiven for taking this at face value; however, I would argue that the real question should not be "What sort of mental disorder did Tchaikovsky have?", but "Why did we ever think that Tchaikovsky had a mental disorder?".

Brett Langston

According to most recent studies, there is no hard evidence that Tchaikovsky ever attempted any suicides. His self-esteem was higher than ever during the last fifteen years of his life, especially after several highly successful European tours and a triumphal American visit. He had resolved his identity issues soon after his catastrophic marriage, when he finally understood that there was nothing wrong in being homosexual. He had some psychological issues, mostly related to oversensitivity, which actually helped him to compose his most haunting melodies. For more details, please read my books on this subject.

Alexander Poznansky

My own feelings on this matter suggest that Tchaikovsky was at the very least hyper sensitive. I recall several instances. One when he was in his early thirties. The composer and some friends paid a visit to the Berlin zoo. While there they witnessed a boa constrictor being fed a large rat. At the sight Tchaikovksy screamed and started to shake all over. His companions brought him back to the hotel where Tchaikovsky spent the rest of the day in bed in a fever. Another instance was when Tchaikovsky made an appearance at a salon to accompany a singer. His two brothers Modya and Tolya sat at either side of him in a seeming protective gesture. This i believe occured in his thirties.

But i believe the biggest upset came when Tchaikovsky felt he had committed a gross error in marrying Antonina. His reaction at the time in September of 1877 suggest a man at the end of his tether. He fakes his escape by telling his wife he was needed in Petersburg. His wife who accompanied him to the station says that tchaikovsky stumbled as he went to get a glass of water. When he arrives in Petersburg his brother who met him at the station could hardly identify the composer so over wrought was he. Then he was brought to a hotel where Tchaikovsky went into a coma for 24 Modest tells it. Here a man gives up his job and flees to Switzerland to be away from his wife and whatever scandal this may have precipitated. Would this be considered normal behaviour to take such extreme measures? And what if Madame von Meck was not there to offer financial assistance what would have happened then?

But there is an even more important development caused by his break with Antonina and marriage aftermath. His output was affected. He wrote less...and also the passion that was evidenced in the Fourth Symphony did not resurfice till 1885 with Manfred. And so Tchaikovsky was afraid of plumbing the full depths of his feelings during an eight year period thanks to his ill conceived marriage. And so while Madame von Meck saved the composer during this trying period i also believe that Tchaikovsky missed the stimulus of people and the stresses of his teaching career which forced him to interface with people. And these frustrations and stimulation that people provided and the composer released in his music was missing during this period. A stimulus that i believe Tchaikovsky needed to turn to music and compose and do his best. His teaching duties were not onerous and didnt really interfere with his composing.

In the post marriage years Tchaikovsky lived a hermits at times with his family or staying in hotels during his travels. He lived in the country when he wasnt traveling alone and by himself. And i do believe that in those last six years when he turned to conducting that he once more received the stimulus which an artist needs in order to create. Yes it was stressful to conduct and make public appearances but it was also a creative stimulus. In short i believe Tchaikovsky's output would have been different and more even had he not married. I really dont know how much good it did for von Meck to allow him to withdraw from life with her pension.

Not being a psychiatrist i would not venture to say what the nature of his malady would be. But we know he did not like to meet new people...yes of course he could be ingratiating but this was something he had to force out. This also was part of his psychological makeup.

Al Gasparo

It would be interesting to know the source of the "boa constrictor" story. Perhaps it is true, but usually such stories turn out to be wildly exaggerated, or completely without foundation. For example, there is a common myth that the young Tchaikovsky was terrified that his head would fall off while he was conducting — which actually stems from a critic mocking his habit of keeping his left hand under his chin while on the rostrum. But this story has been twisted over the years in order to make him sound absurd.

As far as his marriage break-up is concerned, we only have Modest's word for Tchaikovsky's distraught state, and for the reasons I outlined above, the accuracy of this account is suspect. Within days of leaving his wife to be greeted by Modest in Saint Petersburg, he had resumed work on the piano score of Evgenii Onegin, and was asking his publisher whether he needed any "romances, piano pieces, arrangements or translations?". This does not sound like a man who was just recovering from a coma or nervous exhaustion.

Tchaikovsky's life after his marriage was far from that of a hermit—in fact he spent very little time alone, as we know from his letters and diaries of the period. After 1885 he rented his own homes in and around the town of Klin—a location chosen for its proximity to the railway line from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. it may be surprising to learn that between May 1892, when he moved into his last home at Klin, and his death eighteen months later, only one in three of Tchaikovsky's nights was spent under his own roof. The rest were taken up by business trips, concert tours, rehearsals, etc., and he had a very active social life within the musical circles of Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Perhaps when his letters are finally made available in English, it will be possible to appreciate a more rounded picture of Tchaikovsky the man, and to dispel most of the myths surrounding him.

Brett Langston

In answer to Brett Langston's reply to my email I will quote from Poznansky's biography "Tchaikovsky, The Quest for the Inner Man", 1991, pages 108–109..."de Lazari notes that he was particularly struck by an incident at the Zoological Garden in Berlin. ....a rabbit was placed in the boa's cage. In a flash the rabbit dissapeared in the serpent's maw. At the same moment Tchaikovsky let out a terrible cry...he burst into sobs and became completely hysterical...and we had to take him back to the hotel at once. It was a long time before we were able to calm him down. Until evening he remained feverish and he could not eat anything"...

Regarding the holding of the chin affair....In March 1868 in his first attempt, Tchaikovsky conducted dances from The Voevoda, "and had felt that his head would fall sideways unless he fought to keep it upright"...(per David Brown, "The Final Years" page 97).. and so he avoided conducting...In October 1886 Tchaikovsky pointed out to his patroness "all my life I have been tormented by awareness of my inability to conduct. It has seemed to me there is something shameful and disreputable in not being able to stop myself trembling with fear and horror at the very thought of going out in front of the public with a baton"....However on Jan 31, 1887 Tchaikovsky in his third attempt overcame his fear and conducted the premier of "The Enchantress".. as a further inducement " he was not unaware that a conductor could enjoy more celebrity in his own time than a composer." And so began the composers career as a conductor.

In regard to the events that followed Tchaikovsky's hurried exodus to Petersburg in September 1877, Poznansky puts it this way "upon his arrival in the capital the composer suffered a complete emotional collapse. A week later apparently on the advice of his doctors he went abroad"....To his colleague Albrecht he wrote on October 25, 1877.."had i stayed one more day in Moscow I should have lost my mind or drowned myself in the foul smelling waves of the ....Moskva river"... im sorry but i have no choice but to quote from the latest biographies of the composer...

After his marriage Tchaikovsky was in a position to live his life as he pleased. Yes he had many friends and relatives that he frequented but never again would he live in a great metropolis like Moscow or Petersburg where he was well known. His contacts were mostly of his own choosing...of course as he became a celebrity he was obliged to attend many luncheons he would have preferred to do without...his life was filled with travel and conducting when living in the neighborhood of Klin from 1887.. But from 1878 to about 1887 he avoided public contact as i remember.

Al Gasparo

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