Music-minded psychiatrist reveals Tchaikovsky's mental anguish at UCSD special event

Do creative people — artists, musicians and writers — suffer from psychological disturbances more often than “regular” people? And if they do, are their creative productions an expression of their inner conflicts or are they an escape, a transcendence accomplished in spite of their difficulties?

To shed some light on the mental issues creatives sometimes deal with hidden from public view, the UC San Diego Department of Psychiatry, in cooperation with the John A. Majda, M.D. Memorial Foundation and the UCSD Retirement Association, hosted a free, informative and highly entertaining lecture May 22, in the Conrad Prebys Concert Hall on campus. It centered on the music of the great Russian composer Peter Illich Tchaikovsky, who suffered from depression and ended up taking his own life.

The speaker/performer for the evening was Dr. Richard Kogan, a Julliard graduate in piano studies, who is also a psychiatrist and co-leader of the Cornell University Music & Medicine Initiative.

Dr. Harry C. Powell, a UCSD medical school professor emeritus of pathology and member of the UCSD Retirement Association executive committee, introduced the evening’s program. Powell along with Dr. Sidney Zisook of the Healing Education Assessment & Research (HEAR) program, which is aimed at suicide prevention in health care providers, were jointly responsible for enticing Kogan to campus.

Powell began by sharing the tragic story of former UCSD physician John A. Majda, a 1987 graduate of UCSD Medical School. Majda, who was a well-liked, successful and caring doctor, suffered from depression. He ended up taking his own life in 2007. As a result, the John A. Majda Foundation was formed by his wife and fellow doctors with the joint aim of recognizing outstanding research in the area of depression and suicide, and assisting professionals in the healing arts who might be prone to suicide.

Dr. Igor Grant, Chairman of the UCSD Psychiatry Department, added to the introductions, “The idea for tonight’s event is to try and raise awareness of depression and bring it out into the open so people can better understand and talk about it.”

Kogan was in town to attend the American Psychiatric Association (APA) meetings being held at the San Diego Convention Center. Dr. Michael Brophy, a psychiatrist from Dallas, Texas, who was also in San Diego to attend the APA meetings, said he came to the lecture because, “I was utterly fascinated by an earlier lecture Dr. Kogan gave at the APA meetings where he discussed the life and career of composer Robert Schumann, who suffered from bipolar disorder or manic depression. Schumann unsuccessfully attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine River, and ended up dying in an insane asylum.”

Tchaikovsky, who composed timeless musical masterpieces such as the “1812 Overture,” and ballet scores for “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty,” suffered from lifelong depression. Evidence suggests that he took his own life, at age 53, by willfully drinking water contaminated with cholera. Although Tchaikovsky is discussed in length on Wikepedia, his depression and homosexuality, which for a long time were covered up by the Soviet government, are only lightly touched upon.

Kogan took great pains to illuminate these issues which he has extensively researched through the reading of Tchaikovsky’s diaries and letters, as well as through interviews with the composer’s descendents. He said Tchaikovsky was hypersensitive and a loner who had great difficulties with relationships.

Tchaikovsky was, however, according to Kogan, able to rise above his condition to express and release his great sorrow, hopelessness and frustration through composing music. As Tchaikovsky poignantly expressed in one of his letters, “I hate myself, only work saves me.”

The genesis of Tchaikovsky’s problems, Kogan said, seems to have been his unfulfilled relationship with his emotionally distant mother, who sent him away to boarding school at an early age and who died while he was still quite young. Although Tchaikovsky was most likely homosexual in orientation, he did have one brief love affair with a female student whose name was Desiree Artot. In his letters he wrote, “She is the only woman I have ever loved.”

And Tchaikovsky was briefly married to a woman named Antonina Miliukova. That relationship ended in disaster. Tchaikovsky wrote, “I hate the sight of her naked body.”

Tchaikovsky was able to manage a long-term friendship with Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a wealthy railroad baron. Because von Meck adored his music, she supported him financially and encouraged him for more than 13 years.

Kogan ended his presentation with the thought that even though Tchaikovsky suffered great mental anguish, he was such a gifted and creative artist that he was able to rise above and transcend his infirmities to create monumental music that is loved around the world to this day.

“You can think of Tchaikovsky as a ballerina standing on her tip toes, defying gravity,” Kogan concluded.

— For more information on the John A. Majda M.D. Memorial Foundation, which supports research on depression and suicide prevention, call (858) 246-2137 or e-mail mmacewan@ucsd.edu

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