Music04 Oct 2008 10:30 am
Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died suddenly on November 6, 1893, a mere nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. The cause of his mysterious demise has never been conclusively solved, and has remained a source of intense speculation since his death. Most scholars believe that Tchaikovsky died of cholera, probably contracted from drinking contaminated water. They point out that Russian medical records from that time indicate that a cholera epidemic swept through Russia in May 1892, infecting some 504,924 people before finally dying out in February 1986, claiming the lives of 44.9% of the infected.
However, a growing number of scholars have disputed this hypothesis, advancing the theory that Tchaikovsky committed suicide by poisoning himself with arsenic. Some biographers have opined that he was driven to suicide because he was being blackmailed by someone threatening to publicly out him as a homosexual. Another intriguing (albeit incredible) theory alleges that his alma mater, the School of Jurisprudence, put him on trial for his “sexual deviancy” before a court of honor, and ordered to commit suicide.
It is also widely believed that the composer’s profoundly pessimistic and unorthodox final symphony, considered one of his darker and quieter works, was the musical equivalent of a suicide note. The first movement contains a dramatic musical non sequitur, where the theme and tone abruptly changes from a rapidly progressing evolution of the strings to a mysterious and mournful harmonized chorale of trombones. This trombone theme has been an enduring source of curiosity to musicologists because of its unusual placement and seeming irrelevance to the themes of anything proceeding or following it in the piece. In fact, it was taken from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the dead, and is sung to the chilling words, “And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints.”
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