Tchaikovsky’s Cure for All That Ails (the Stomach)



Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov, Pjotr I. Tschaikowski (detail), 1893, oil on canvas.


Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky died on November 6, 1893, at age fifty-three, after having been discovered by his younger brother, Modest, in bed and suffering from diarrhea and abdominal pains. He had taken cod liver oil in an attempt to ease his stomach. In this letter, recently translated into English for The Tchaikovsky Papers: Unlocking the Family Archive, Tchaikovsky offers Modest his rules for healthy living.



[After 1877]

[missing text] Remarkably enough, the symptoms you have described to me are the very ones I’ve been experiencing myself recently. Irregular heartbeats, attacks of nerves, depression, heaviness in the chest area, shortness of breath, the urge to cough up whatever it is that’s causing this pressure on my chest. I’ve been experiencing all these symptoms for some time now. The only difference is that you have been seeing doctors, but as for me I simply can’t stand them and all that [missing text]

I should tell you that the real culprit in all this is the intolerable stomach which, in the case of some nervous systems like ours is incredibly erratic and capricious in doing its job. If you would like to be rid of your ailment once and for all without any help from doctors, then take the following measures. 

1) Eat as little as possible; 2) eat only light food: broth, beef, boiled vegetables (except onions and cabbage); 3) don’t eat just before bed time; 4) don’t drink vodka at all, but if you can’t refrain, never more than one glass; 5) don’t smoke (smoking a lot has a terrible effect on the kind of stomach that you and I both have); but since you are hardly likely to give up smoking altogether, try at least to smoke as little as possible—and that will help.

I’m firmly convinced that following these healthy rules will unquestionably prove to be effective treatment. The trouble is that it is extremely difficult to comply with them scrupulously and to the letter—and I’m not asking you to do that. It will be enough if you follow just 50% of this advice—and everything will turn out fine. Don’t forget that we are no longer young, and the longer we go on like this, the worse shape our organs will be in, and the less effectively will they function. Moderation in all things, but especially in food, will allow our organs to function without stress, calmly and smoothly, and as a result they will be able to function properly regardless of our years. It’s only when we’re young that we can afford to put them under excessive strain. And it really is our stomachs of which we demand too little. Everything that appeals to our noses and our eyes we stuff into our bellies, while forgetting that it is after all the poor belly that has to do the delicate and complex work of processing all this stuff into blood, tissue, fat, bone [missing text].


Adapted from The Tchaikovsky Papers: Unlocking the Family Archive, edited by Marina Kostalevsky and translated by Stephen Pearl. Copyright © 2018 Yale University. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press.