The Russian translation of the words “versatile composer” could well be Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The Russian musician who walked the earth for only 53 years (1840-1893) had a big impact on Russian art. He wrote ballets, operas, symphonies and various kinds of other classical music. His work conquored the world and with that he was a pioneer who single-handedly opened doors for the next generation of Russian artists. Like a true musician Tchaikovsky was far from a teetotaler. Even for a Russian he drunk so much that many people label him an alcoholic. His early death however had nothing to do with alcohol, ironically it was water that killed the famous composer.
Tchaikovsky came from a respected family with a long military tradition. His great-grandfather Fyodor Chaika fought with great courage under the legendary tsar Peter the Great, who loved a good drink himself. But the young Tchaikovsky wouldn’t spend much time with his family. At age 10 his parents sent their son Pyotr from their small village Votkinsk in the Ural mountains to the big city Saint Petersburg. This early separation of especially his mother and her death from cholera 4 years later are said to have traumatized Tchaikovsky for life. And of course that trauma was explained as an explanation for his heavy drinking.
The meetings Tchaikovsky had with his German colleague Johannes Brahms are legendary. The dynamic duo met only 2 times in their life and both times they got pretty hammered. After several bottles of wine they discussed each other’s music in all honesty and became friends for life. But Tchaikovsky was not always a social drinker, he often used alcohol as a medicine during his depressive moods. In his diary he is very frank about this fact: “It is said that to abuse oneself with alcoholic drink is harmful. I readily agree with that. But nevertheless, I, a sick person, full of neuroses, absolutely cannot do without the poison.” Seems like this first step of the AA program was also the last one Tchaikovsky was willing to take. And why would he go any further? In 19th century Russia is was completely acceptable to get smashed on a daily basis and we can’t say he wasn’t productive with world famous pieces like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker Ballet and Suite.
Given the whole discussion about his heavy drinking it’s quite ironic that Tchaikovsky died because he wanted to drink water. During a major outbreak of cholera – indeed the disease that killed his mother – in Saint Petersburg the musician went out to eat with some friends and ordered a glass of water. Health regulations at the time (because of the outbreak) required that all water served in restaurants had to be boiled first. When the waiter told him that boiled water was unavailable, Tchaikovsky ordered cold and unboiled water. He then ignored all his friends who warned him not to drink it, saying he didn’t fear cholera. The next morning however the musician suffered from an upset stomach and diarrhea. For days he refused to see a doctor until it was too late. The moral of this story? Never order water when there’s beer on the menu. Cheers.