The Death of Tchaikovsky

The Death of Tchaikovsky
Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov : Tchaikovsky in 1893 (cropped), Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Aside from the mysterious death of Jesus Christ, or Rasputin perhaps, it's hard to think of another figure whose death has been so controversial or so colorful. Whether it was an accidental death from cholera, or suicide via arsenic, theories abound. Tchaikovsky's homosexuality and his supposed insecurity about it are usually given as an explanation for the suicide theory. The most colorful of these claims he was given an ultimatum to kill himself or risk public ridicule.

The photo below - moody, wistful, taken not long before his death in 1893 in Saint Petersburg - catches him better than the official photos and portraits. He was only 53 when he died.


But I have my doubts about the suicide theory, not least because he seems to have feared death. Even his earlier suicide attempt seems more like a cry to be rescued. Not that the cholera story is much better. So I'm willing to accept that he died from a severe infection, possibly cholera, and that this was caused by what these days we euphemistically call "unsafe sex," since there is no doubt he was sexually active. This then was covered up by the cholera-in-the-glass-of-water story. Sometimes the simplest explanations are the truest.


Tchaikovsky traveled restlessly for much of his life, keeping in touch with his network of friends and family via letter-writing. In the year before his death, he settled down in this house in the town of Klin, NW of Moscow. It is now a Tchaikovsky museum (its website here).

For his ballets, here