Opera Synopsis by Michael Pratt
In November, 1893 Pyotr Il'yich Tschaikovsky drank a glass of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic in St. Petersburg, Russia and died at the early age of fifty-three at the height of his creative power, a mere nine days after conducting the premier of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique. So has gone the standard biographical line for a hundred years. The cholera story, first told by the composer's brother Modest in the biography he wrote of his brother just a few years after his death, and restated by countless biographers ever since, has been closely protected by Russian authorities who did not want the real story to emerge. In reality Tschaikovsky was ordered to commit suicide because his homosexuality was an embarrassment.
That he committed suicide cannot be doubted, but what precipitated this suicide has not been conclusively established. In 1978 the Soviet scholar, Alexandra Orlova, revealed a narrative dictated to her in 1966 by the aged Alexander Voitov of the Russian Museum in Leningrad. According to this, a member of the Russian aristocracy had written a letter accusing the composer of a liaison with his nephew, and had entrusted it to Nikolay Jacobi, a high-ranking civil servant for transmission to the Tsar. Jacobi, like Tschaikovsky, a former pupil of the School of Jurisprudence, feared the dishonor with which this disclosure would tarnish the "school uniform" and hastily instituted a court of honor (which included six of Tschaikovsky's contemporaries from the school) to decide how the scandal might be averted. Tschaikovsky was summoned to appear before this court on October 31 which, after more than five hours of deliberations, decreed that the composer should kill himself. Two days later the composer was mortally ill, almost certainly from arsenic poisoning. The story that he died of cholera from drinking unboiled water is pure fabrication.
Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, volume 18, page 626, copyright 1980.
More details of the tragedy have emerged since, including the fact that the member of the Russian aristocracy who wrote the letter was Count Alexey Alexandrovich Stenbok-Fermor and his brother's son was Alexandr Vladimirovich Stenbok-Fermor. While still being hotly debated, with those who stick with the cholera story mainly being Russian and those who subscribe to the suicide story mainly being Western, the fact is Pyotr Il'yich Tschaikovsky died at the uncommonly early age of fifty-three at the zenith of his creative powers. Would he have written another six symphonies, more ballets like Nutcracker or Swan Lake, more operas like Eugene Onegin or The Queen of Spades? If the facts of this increasingly likely story are true, it is one of the more unforgivable crimes against humanity.
Monday, October 30, 1893 [Gregorian], late afternoon. St. Petersburg. The interior of a grand mansion. A dinner party is being given in honor of Adele aus der Ohe, the German virtuoso who performed Tschaikovsky's First Piano Concerto the previous Saturday evening on the same concert that premiered Tschaikovsky's Sixth Symphony with Tschaikovsky conducting. After the dinner party everyone is attending a performance of Tschaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin at the Mariinsky Theater.
The party goers are anxiously awaiting the arrival of all the dignitaries and discussing the artistry of Adele aus der Ohe and Pyotr Il'yich Tschaikovsky. There is keen anticipation for the evening's opera performance. The dignitaries arrive and are warmly greeted as they are announced. The Count Alexey Alexandrovich Stenbok-Fermor, his wife Margarita Sergeyevna and nephew Alexandr Vladimirovich Stenbok-Fermor. The Count is a member of the Russian aristocracy, privy councilor and Equerry to Tsar Alexandr III. His nephew is attached to His Highness's Life Guard Hussars. Privy councilor and assistant senior public prosecutor Nikolay Borisovich Jacobi arrives next. Tschaikovsky and Jacobi were fellow classmates and graduates of the School of Jurisprudence. The next arrival is Modest Tschaikovsky, the famous composer's brother and librettist for The Queen of Spades and Tschaikovsky's last opera Iolanta. Modest has been trying to convince Pyotr Il'yich to remain in St. Petersburg a bit longer than intended because in a week's time his comedy Prejudices will be premiered in St. Petersburg and he would like his brother to attend. Finally the guest of honor Adele aus der Ohe and Tschaikovsky arrive.
Jacobi and Tschaikovsky, along with several other men who were also fellow classmates at the School of Jurisprudence, relive memories of schoolboy days. Tschaikovsky comments that hindsight tends to paint a rosier picture of those days. In particular he recalls the many courts of honor that were held by fellow students and the harsh punishments that were handed out to preserve the "honor of the uniform".
Alexandr tries to persuade Adele to play for them. She finally consents but only if she can make a game of it. She will play excerpts from various pieces by Tschaikovsky and everyone must write down the titles as she plays them. The person who has the most correct will be her dinner partner. Everyone is delighted with the game. As the playing begins Tschaikovsky seats himself beside Alexandr and engages him in whispered conversation. It soon becomes clear that Tschaikovsky intends to ignore the musical game while Alexandr, despite Tschaikovsky's best attentions, tries very hard to take part and jot down his titles. Count Alexey comments to Margarita that Tschaikovsky seems to have taken a keen interest in their nephew. Tschaikovsky puts his arm around Alexandr and whispers in his ear. Alexandr turns to Tschaikovsky and whispers something back which Tschaikovsky immediately responds to by removing his arm and paying rapt attention to the musical game. Everyone seems to be fascinated by this conversation. The musical game concludes and Alexandr is delighted to be the winner. He is the only person who knew every piece.
Dinner is announced and the guests go off to the adjoining dining room. Alexandr takes Adele's arm to escort her to dinner, as he is now her dinner partner, but Margarita asks him to remain behind for a moment. All the guests have gone to dinner and Alexandr remains with his aunt and uncle. They want to know what the discussion was all about between Alexandr and Tschaikovsky. Alexandr, in a light-hearted manner, tells them that this is nothing new, that Tschaikovsky has made advances towards him before. Count Alexey and Margarita are outraged and demand to know more. Alexandr, more serious now, says he thought they knew that Tschaikovsky was homosexual. He tries to calm their fears by telling them that they have nothing to be concerned about. He has always resisted these advances and is not concerned, upset or worried about them in the least. In fact he is somewhat flattered by the attention. Count Alexey is livid with rage and tells his nephew that this ungodly behavior must stop and he plans to do something about it. Alexandr responds that he is a grown man now and it is his business to do something about it if he wishes. His uncle should simply mind his own business. Alexandr turns and goes into dinner.
Margarita passionately pleads with her husband to do something before her nephew's life is ruined. Count Alexey swears he will do something before his own life is ruined. That very night he will write a letter to Tsar Alexandr III demanding that action be taken against Tschaikovsky. Jacobi comes back in to see what is detaining Count Alexey and Margarita. He is informed of the situation and of the letter Count Alexey intends to write. A greatly shocked Jacobi volunteers to personally deliver the letter to the Tsar.
Tuesday, October 31, 1893, early afternoon. Jacobi is at home in his library. Count Alexey and Margarita are expected momentarily to give him the letter he has promised to deliver to the Tsar denouncing Tschaikovsky as a homosexual. Jacobi knows this is a crime punishable by banishment to Siberia but his concern is not with Tschaikovsky or even with Count Alexey and his family. Rather his concern is about how this shocking business will reflect on him and his fellow classmates and graduates of the School of Jurisprudence. Above all else "the uniform is sacred". That is what he has believed all of his life and it is more important than life itself. It does not matter if the life is someone as greatly beloved as Pyotr Il'yich Tschaikovsky. Above all else "the uniform is sacred". If the letter is actually delivered to the Tsar and the scandal becomes known, the disgrace will tarnish all graduates of the School of Jurisprudence. Everyone will say that this is where it all started and they all must be the same. This must not be allowed to happen.
Count Alexey and Margarita arrive to deliver the letter to Jacobi. They are very anxious that the letter be delivered as soon as possible. Tschaikovsky poses a great threat to them. Count Alexey's position would be ruined forever if word of this affair between his nephew, who is, after all, attached to the Tsar's personal military regiment, and Tschaikovsky were made public. People like Tschaikovsky must be kept away from decent people at all cost. Jacobi assures them both that he feels the same as they do and that he knows exactly how to handle the situation. They can trust him, Tschaikovsky will be dealt with to their satisfaction.
After the Count and Margarita leave Jacobi rearranges the room with a long table and chairs on one side and a single chair on the other side, much like a court room. A number of distinguished gentlemen arrive. All of them, along with Jacobi, were classmates and fellow graduates of Tschaikovsky from the School of Jurisprudence. They are all aware of why they are here, for they have all been participants before in courts of honor for fellow classmates. Little do they realize what Jacobi is about to demand of them all. Jacobi lays out the situation.
Their fellow classmate Tschaikovsky, a known homosexual, has been making advances toward the nephew (unnamed) of a member of the aristocracy (unnamed) who has given him a letter to deliver to the Tsar demanding action against Tschaikovsky. This letter cannot be delivered because of the subsequent stain it would leave on every one of them as fellow graduates of the School of Jurisprudence. The only way he would not have to deliver the letter would be if the point were to become moot, if Tschaikovsky were dead. The members of the court of honor are outraged at the suggestion that they murder Tschaikovsky. Jacobi replies that this is not what he had in mind but that Tschaikovsky should kill himself.
In the stunned silence Tschaikovsky arrives. Jacobi seats him in the lone chair across from the table. Once again the details of the situation are outlined. Tschaikovsky is stunned. After a while he replies that he sees what he has to do. He will return to Paris where he lived in self-imposed exile for ten years and stay there for the rest of his life. They will never see him again. Jacobi tells Tschaikovsky that this is not good enough, it will not preserve the honor of the school. He tells Tschaikovsky the only way he could get out of having to deliver the letter is if Tschaikovsky were dead. Not only that, it must not look like suicide, the death must look like a tragic accident. Only then can everyone's honor be maintained, including Tschaikovsky's.
How can this be done, Tschaikovsky wants to know. Jacobi sets a bottle on the table and tells Tschaikovsky it contains arsenic poison. He will take a small quantity now, which will make him sick. He will take a larger quantity every day. Soon he will be dead and the death will exactly resemble death by cholera. With the current cholera epidemic in the city the public will be told that Tschaikovsky had drunk a glass of unboiled water and subsequently contracted cholera which eventually killed him. This is what the public will be told. This is what history will be told. No one will ever hear of the nasty business. He can destroy the letter. Everyone's reputation will be saved.
Jacobi pours a glass of vodka, puts some of the arsenic in it and hands the glass to Tschaikovsky. After a long while, Tschaikovsky stands up, sets the glass on the table and solemnly goes down the table shaking hands with each man. Lastly, Jacobi extends his hand to Tschaikovsky who ignores it and downs the arsenic-laced vodka. Setting the glass down he glares at Jacobi, picks up the bottle of arsenic and leaves.
Act 3: Scene 1
Sunday, November 5, 1893, late evening. The living room of Modest's apartment. In the center is the door to the apartment. [The apartment is a reversible set. In the second scene the set is revolved to be the exterior of the apartment.]
Tschaikovsky is lying on a sofa off to one side. He dreams of the days he will never see, the compositions he will never write, the loves he will never encounter. Modest comes in to see if he needs anything. Tschaikovsky makes him swear that he will never reveal the truth about the poison. "You will write my biography and the ending will be that I died of cholera".Modest swears never to reveal the truth.
Alexandr arrives and is overcome at Tschaikovsky's condition. He discloses that he knows the truth, he knows about the court of honor and the poison. He tells them he also knows something they do not know, he knows who wrote the letter. Tschaikovsky makes him swear, like Modest, that he will never reveal the truth. Alexandr agrees and leaves. [He turns away from the audience to leave, the set revolves as he goes through the doorway and he exits through the doorway towards the audience from the exterior of the apartment as scene two begins.]
Act 3: Scene 2
Monday, November 6, 1893 at 3 a.m. in the morning. The exterior of Modest's apartment. A crowd slowly gathers, aware that inside Tschaikovsky lies gravely ill. Modest comes to the door and informs them that there is no hope, the end will be soon. As the crowd sings a threnody a priest enters and knocks on the door. Modest returns and tells them that he is dead. After the priest leads them in a requiem the crowd slowly disperses.
Alexandr, who was hidden in the crowd, is alone and sings of his love for Pyotr Il'yich (although not the same kind of love Pyotr Il'yich bore for him) and his rage at the events which forced him to suicide. Count Alexey and Margarita enter looking for Alexandr. As they try to persuade him to return home with them Alexandr tells them he will never see them again as long as he lives because of their part in forcing Tschaikovsky to commit suicide.
After Count Alexey and Margarita leave, Jacobi enters and begins to knock on the door. Alexandr informs him of Tschaikovsky's death and threatens to kill Jacobi for calling the court of honor which demanded his death. Jacobi blandly informs him that he could never prove that such an event ever took place. Alexandr, enraged, leaves and Jacobi knocks on the door.
Modest answers and Jacobi harshly tells him that he had better stick to the story that Tschaikovsky died of cholera or not only will Tschaikovsky's place in history be lost forever but he will reveal that Modest is also a homosexual and ruin his life as well. Modest, thoroughly cowed, agrees and closes the door.
As Jacobi turns to go, Alexandr runs back in and shoots Jacobi. Modest comes out and Alexandr threatens to kill him as well. As Alexandr collapses sobbing to the ground Modest takes the gun from his hand. Alexandr rails against man's inhumanity towards man and hopes that in a hundred years a less bigoted society will prevail.
Note: While the author has taken the liberty of dramatizing the events from his own imagination, the characters, dates, places and events are factual and accurate with a single exception. The ending did not happen. Alexandr did not shoot Jacobi. But, as well as making a dramatic ending to the opera, it also serves as a psychological catharsis. If historians are right about Jacobi, then this is the ending he deserved.