Vasily Bertenson

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Russian physician (b. 1853 in Odessa; d. 1933), born Vasily Bernardovich Bertenson (Василий Бернардович Бертенсон).

Vasily was the younger brother of Lev Bertenson (1850–1929), the famous court physician who took charge of the treatment of Tchaikovsky in his last days.

Vasily studied at the Medico-Surgical Academy in Saint Petersburg from 1874 to 1879, but took part in the Serbo-Turkish War of 1876 as a volunteer. After completing his studies Bertenson set up his own practice in Saint Petersburg, where he was also an assiduous theatre-goer and a member of a literary society. He became good friends with both Tchaikovsky and the composer's brother Modest. Bertenson treated the composer for his chronic catarrh of the stomach and drew up a programme of self-medication (soda and water) which Tchaikovsky was able to apply successfully whenever he was beset by acute attacks of gastritis.

On 21 October/2 November 1893, Vasily Bertenson received a note from Modest asking him to come urgently to his flat, where the composer had been taken ill and was not responding to the usual self-medication. In a memoir he wrote in 1912 Bertenson emphasized the generosity of Tchaikovsky's character, which manifested itself even in these difficult Last Days. until he lost consciousness the composer had repeatedly lamented that he was causing so much trouble to those who were attending him on his sick-bed. This is Bertenson's description of the scene he encountered when he arrived at Modest's flat towards the evening of 21 October/2 November:

Pyotr Ilyich, in spite of the fact that the spasms caused by his terrible illness were by then troubling him all the time, greeted me with some words which are characteristic of his sincere kindness and delicacy of feeling.
'Poor Vasily Bernardovich,' he said to me; 'you are so fond of music, and I am sure you were planning to go to the opera. Tonight, incidentally, they are putting on Tannhäuser [at the Mariinsky Theatre]. But instead of that you've had to come to me — to the boring and repulsive Tchaikovsky, who, moreover, is ill with such an uninteresting illness...' [1].

The doctor realised, however, that what Tchaikovsky was suffering from was not his usual gastritis, but something much more dangerous, and, with the help of Modest and Vladimir Davydov, he managed to persuade the composer to allow him to summon Lev Bertenson, his more experienced elder brother. The latter duly arrived soon afterwards and assumed responsibility for the treatment of Tchaikovsky. Vasily Bertenson remained by Tchaikovsky's sick-bed during the night of 21–22 October [O.S.], but left Saint Petersburg the following morning to attend to another patient in the Smolensk region.

In 1913, Vasily Bertenson paid a visit to the Tchaikovsky commemorative museum in Klin and spoke to the composer's brother Modest. He described the house's various rooms and exhibits in an interesting article entitled The P. I. Tchaikovsky House Museum in Klin [2].

Correspondence with Tchaikovsky

One letter from Tchaikovsky to Vasily Bertenson has survived, dating from 1892, which is available in an English translation on this website:

Notes and References

  1. Vasily Bertenson, extract from his 1912 memoirs, included as «Листки из воспоминаний» in: Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 342; also included in Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky's last days. A documentary study (1996), p. 84–85.
  2. Vasily Bertenson, Дом-музей П. И. Чайковского в Клину (1913). A German version of this article is also included in Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 284–292.