On the eve of an ambitious BBC retrospective, Adam Sweeting reports on the controversies that still surround the composer's death
In summer 2005, the BBC launched a blitz of round-the-clock Beethoven on TV and radio in what was supposedly the biggest retrospective of the works of a single composer in the corporation's history. Now they're about to do it again with Tchaikovsky, unveiling a swathe of films and drama-documentaries, followed by a week-long broadcast of the complete works of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky on Radio 3 in February.
Conductor Charles Hazlewood features prominently in four of the TV programmes, and is delighted to have had the chance to rectify what he sees as a historical distortion of Tchaikovsky's music. He deplores the way many post-Second World War conductors converted his work into a glutinous syrup – "especially Herbert von Karajan, who should have been shot for the disservice he performed" – and wants instead to "show that this is music of enormous visceral power and at times coarse brutality, as well as of almost unbearable sweetness".
Tragic: Tchaikovsky (played by Ed Stoppard) with his brother Modest (William Mannering) in the forthcoming BBC docu-drama
Perhaps Hazlewood has been reading the former New York Times critic Harold C Schonberg, who wrote that "for a long time Tchaikovsky, so loved by the public, was discounted by many connoisseurs and musicians as nothing but a weeping machine". Misunderstood or not, Tchaikovsky's music remains some of the best-loved and most-performed in the symphonic, ballet and operatic repertoires.
Hazlewood's drama-documentary re-creates some of the most important episodes in the life of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, but it sidesteps the controversy that still surrounds the composer's death. Despite decades of debate, no scholar has delivered the final word on whether Tchaikovsky's death was misfortune or suicide. Hazlewood says: "We've deliberately left it quite open-ended. My personal view is that he wasn't trying to commit suicide. I think he probably snogged the wrong bloke and got cholera – simple as that."
Death from cholera was the official version endorsed by doctors in St Petersburg after the composer's demise on November 6, 1893, and repeated by early biographers. Supposedly, Tchaikovsky had drunk a glass of unboiled tap water, which seems a reckless thing to do during an epidemic of a fatal water-borne disease. None the less, his death was imputed to carelessness rather than deliberate self-destruction.
But almost immediately, alternative versions of the story began to circulate, most of them predicated on the idea that the composer had died not from disease, but from arsenic poisoning. Some surmised that he had killed himself in despair at his homosexuality, or fear of its disclosure.
The composer's drinking and gambling binges suggested another possible motive for self-extinction. While another variant had Tchaikovsky contracting cholera from a male prostitute, many dismissed the cholera story precisely because it was considered a disease of poverty, much too squalid a fate for the famous and solidly bourgeois Tchaikovsky.
Fellow-composer Rimsky-Korsakov was dubious about the cholera diagnosis because quarantine regulations weren't followed. Tchaikovsky received a steady stream of visitors during his final days, and his body was not sealed in a zinc coffin as was the normal practice.
Tchaikovsky's sister-in-law, Olga Tchaikovskaya, claimed that he was poisoned by one of his doctors, Vassily Bertenson, at Tsar Alexander III's behest. Elsewhere, it was rumoured that the Tsar drove the composer to suicide by commanding that "Tchaikovsky must disappear at once," after the caretaker at Tchaikovsky's apartment building reported that the composer had seduced his son.
The most durable of the suicide theories is the one advanced in 1980 by Alexandra Orlova, a Soviet musicologist who had emigrated to the USA. In a story supposedly told to her by an elderly historian, Alexander Voitov, Tchaikovsky had committed a sexual indiscretion too far, becoming involved with the nephew of a certain Duke Stenbock-Fermor. Homosexuality was illegal in Russia, with offenders liable to penalties including deportation to Siberia and being whipped with birch rods.
The apoplectic Duke wrote a letter of complaint to Tsar Alexander III, passing the letter via Nikolai Jakobi, chief prosecutor of the Russian senate. Jakobi had been a classmate of Tchaikovsky's at the St Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, and conceived the notion of convening a "court of honour" of fellow alumni, who would pass judgment on the tormented symphonist. It was they, according to Mme Orlova, who decreed that Russia's greatest living composer should commit suicide to avoid besmirching the reputation of the School of Jurisprudence.
This story proved seductive to several eminent scholars, finding its way into biographical entries on Tchaikovsky in The New Oxford Companion to Music and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (though the latter amended its findings to "not proven" in its second edition). However, marauding posses of rival specialists were soon picking holes in the Orlova thesis, and many considered that Alexander Poznansky last year delivered the coup de grâce with his exhaustively researched volume, Tchaikovsky's Last Days: A Documentary Study.
Among other apparently lethal blows to the Orlova version, Poznansky revealed that there was no Duke Stenbock-Fermor, but there was a Count of that name. However, he was an equerry to Tsar Alexander, and would not have needed an intermediary to deliver a letter to his own boss.
As for the supposed threat to the reputation of the St Petersburg School of Jurisprudence represented by Tchaikovsky's gay rampages, Poznansky depicted the school as a hotbed of all-male debauchery which even had its own song hymning the delights of homosexuality. In addition, the author characterised Russian court and artistic life as rife with homosexual affairs, to the extent that Tchaikovsky's behavior would barely have raised an eyebrow among the champagne-imperialists of fashionable St Petersburg.
As the Russian music specialist Prof Richard Taruskin commented, "Homosexuality was regarded, and indulged, as a form of libertinage. Russia was a feudal society until 1861, and 'gentlemanly games' were a traditional droit du seigneur."
This doesn't entirely account for the neurosis and self-loathing revealed in many of Tchaikovsky's letters, which suggest the composer felt greater concern about his sexuality than academics writing a century later would have us believe. His marriage to besotted music student Antonina Milyukova in an attempt to eradicate his "pernicious passions" and put on a show of conventional respectability was an act of feverish desperation, ending catastrophically for both partners.
But perhaps the greatest disservice to Tchaikovsky's work (other than spinning it in a blender of queasy Germanic sugariness) would be to represent it as solely the expression of homosexual angst. The 19th-century critic James Huneker thought he could hear a homosexual "pathology", while latterday "queer theorists" like to analyse his work through a politicised prism of gender and sexuality. Tchaikovsky would probably have preferred his listeners to appreciate him as a master melodist, inspired orchestrator and peerless musical craftsman.
• In Music on Thursday this week, Charles Hazlewood chooses his Tchaikovsky Perfect Playlist.
The Tchaikovsky experience
• Sunday, Jan 21
BBC1, 3.15pm: The Magic of Swan Lake; 3.45pm Swan Lake. BBC4, 11.50pm: Tchaikovsky Masterclasses with the Royal Ballet (Swan Lake)
• Friday Jan 26
BBC4, 8.30pm: Tchaikovsky Masterclasses with the Royal Ballet (Swan Lake, repeat)
• Saturday, Jan 27
BBC2, 4.30pm: The Sleeping Beauty. BBC4, 7pm: Tchaikovsky Masterclasses with the Royal Ballet (Sleeping Beauty). BBC2, 9pm: Tchaikovsky: The Creation of Genius (part 1 of Charles Hazlewood's drama-documentary). BBC4, 10pm: Discovering Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet (Charles Hazlewood examines the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture)
• Friday, Feb 2
BBC4, 8.30pm: Tchaikovsky Masterclasses with the Royal Ballet (Sleeping Beauty, repeat)
• Saturday, Feb 3
BBC2, 9pm: Tchaikovsky: Fortune and Tragedy (part 2 of Charles Hazlewood's drama-documentary). BBC4, 10pm: Discovering Tchaikovsky: Pathétique (Charles Hazlewood examines the Sixth Symphony)
• Friday, Feb 9
BBC4, 7pm: Tchaikovsky Masterclasses with the Royal Ballet (The Nutcracker)
• Saturday, Feb 10
BBC4, 7pm: The Queen of Spades (opera). BBC Radio 3, until Feb 16: complete works of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky