There are times when the circumstances of a given work’s creation almost inexorably lead to conclusions about its nature that probably aren’t quite true. Such is the case with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, which concluded his symphonic output. Tchaikovsky’s life was not easy — neither his creative life nor his personal life. He struggled with his works, occasionally destroying them and many times revising them years later. He also struggled with his sexuality in a time when to be a gay man was perhaps the worst thing you could be. Tchaikovsky was famously prone to bouts of depression and mental despair, and his works are so often riddled with emotion, never moreso than in the heartbreaking Symphony No. 6.
And then there is the fact that Tchaikovsky led the Symphony’s premiere just nine days before he died, reportedly from cholera that he contracted after he drank a glass of unboiled water during an epidemic of that disease. One wonders how Tchaikovsky made such a mistake:
The timeline between Tchaikovsky’s drinking unboiled water and the emergence of symptoms was brought into question. So was the possibility of the composer’s procuring unboiled water, in a reputable restaurant (according to one account), in the midst of a cholera epidemic with strict health regulations in effect. Also, while cholera actually attacked all levels of Russian society, it was considered a disease of the lower classes. The resulting stigma from such a demise for as famous a personage as Tchaikovsky was considerable, to the point where its possibility was inconceivable for many people. The accuracy of the medical reports from the two physicians who had treated Tchaikovsky was questioned. The handling of Tchaikovsky’s corpse was also scrutinized as it was reportedly not in accordance with official regulations for victims of cholera. This was remarked upon by, among others, composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in his autobiography, though some editions censored this section.
Theories that Tchaikovsky’s death was a suicide soon began to surface. Postulations ranged from reckless action on the composer’s part to orders from Tsar Alexander III of Russia, with the reporters ranging from Tchaikovsky’s family members to composer Alexander Glazunov. Since 1979, one variation of the theory has gained some ground—a sentence of suicide imposed in a “court of honor” by Tchaikovsky’s fellow alumni of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, as a censure of the composer’s homosexuality. Nonetheless, the cause of Tchaikovsky’s death remains highly contested, though it may never actually be solved.
In the light of such thinking, many consider the Sixth Symphony to be Tchaikovsky’s musical “suicide note” in which he meditates on the nature of his own impending demise. I’m honestly not sure about this. It really does make for an interesting story — there could even be a novel here — but as others note, it seems a bit too easy a conclusion to draw.
To which the only possible rejoinder is: I’m afraid that’s nonsense. To take some examples from elsewhere in musical history: many of Rachmaninov’s pieces are haunted by the Dies Irae plainchant, that symbolic intonation of impending fate, and yet even after writing a piece called The Isle of the Dead, he kept on living; Berlioz’s music too is full of intimations of mortality, but he kept going for decades after dreaming of his own execution in his Fantastic Symphony; Beethoven didn’t expire after just after he faced the limits of human mortality in the Missa Solemnis; and even Mahler remained alive just after he had just crossed the border into silence at the end of his Ninth Symphony. In fact, if every composer, author, painter, or poet had died after making their greatest works about death, none of them would have been around for very long. It is pure, tragic coincidence that Tchaikovsky should die of cholera a few days after conducting the Sixth Symphony at the age of just 53 – a piece, to reiterate, that he actually composed in good mental and physical health – but that’s all it is. We do this symphony a terrible injustice if we only see and hear it through the murky prism of myth, story, and half-truth that now swirls around accounts of what happened in the composer’s final days.
Most commentators do at least agree that in the Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky really is exploring and examining issues of fate and death. The symphony is full of wild contrasts. Stormy passages in the first movement are juxtaposed with lyrical passages that feature one of Tchaikovsky’s most yearning melodies. The second movement gives us a waltz that feels “wrong” somehow, because it’s in 5/4 time. The third movement brings a vigorous march that feels like it’s progressing toward a triumph, but then the final movement begins. It’s in that final movement that Death takes hold, because here Tchaikovsky writes a slow movement that opens with drama and descends to meditative brooding and sorrowful lamentation before finally fading away in the end.
And with that, we leave Tchaikovsky behind.