May 7, 1840– Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky was the original nutcracker and the leading composer of late 19th century Russia. He is beloved into the 21st century for his ballet scores, symphonic poems, symphonies, operas, songs, piano music, and chamber works. He became one of the most popular composers in the world, inspiring a cult of gay admirers who detected in his work themes of forbidden love.
When Tchaikovsky was 37 years old, realizing his forbidden attraction to men, he married Antonina Miliukova, one of his biggest fans. Miliukova had stalked Tchaikovsky for years. He eventually said: “Fine, we can be married, but we can’t consummate. My parents will be thrilled.” Unfortunately, she was cray-cray and held his being gay against him, threatening to out him to the world, which probably added a lot of stress in his life.
After just two weeks of married life he threw himself in the Moskva River. His doctor insisted that he leave his bride and he split St. Petersburg and never saw his wife again, although he continued to support her. She had several children by different men, gave each infant to an orphanage and spent the rest of her life in various asylums.
Tchaikovsky’s brother, playwright Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was also gay. He also married for convention, and he too was trapped in unhappiness. There are many documented letters between the two brothers, but the Tchaikovsky family didn’t release them for quite some time after his death. The correspondence offers an unambiguous look at their take on being gay in Imperial Russia.
It seems that it was not just his gayness that was the cause of crisis of confidence causing his ennui. It was longing brought on by unrequited love that was at the core of Tchaikovsky’s suffering.
There were actually quite a few gay people in high levels of Russian society during his era. Tchaikovsky wasn’t as persecuted about his sexuality as you might have assumed. It wasn’t so much about his being gay, but more about his not getting to experience fulfillment in his love affairs. Tchaikovsky had a close circle of gay friends and he wrote about his homosexuality in letters, telling those in his confidence that being gay was “the most natural thing ever”.
Gay Classical Music fans have long held the idea that Tchaikovsky’s angst, despair and suffering are apparent in his music’s melodic lyricism and can be directly traced to his struggle as a closeted gay man living in a kind of torture with his secret. But, that may not be true.
Letters to his nephew, Vladimir Davydov, indicate that they had a romantic relationship despite a difference in their ages and their family association. According to their notes to each other, Tchaikovsky seems to have suffered separation anxiety during his lengthy trips to the USA. In one exchange, he tells the nephew that he an amazing idea for his final symphony, but that: “I’ll take it to the grave with me”.
This makes me consider Tchaikovsky’s death at a young age. There have always been reports that he drank un-boiled water known to be tainted with cholera, implying suicide, or possibly when a certain Russian Count discovered that Tchaikovsky was having an affair with his son and asked the Tsar to intervene, that Tchaikovsky was ordered to die by his own hand or was maybe murdered.
All of these theories have led to a speculation surrounding his swan song, the Sixth Symphony, Pathetique, which is often characterized as a suicide note, a portrait of gay martyrdom, or some other form of homosexual tragedy. The fact that he dedicated it to the nephew and conducted it in front of an audience for the first time just before his death only thickens the plot.
Knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s life as a homosexual was far less accessible than his music. Nobody mentioned it to me in Music History 101. Although some of his letters and diaries survive, most of his personal papers were suppressed, destroyed, or altered, during the Soviet period of Russian history. Today most musicologists acknowledge the composer’s gayness, but opinion concerning its importance to his musical life varies widely.
I am going to tell you the truth, dear readers, not that the truth really matters, but I am going to tell you anyway. It has been interesting for me to spend time researching Tchaikovsky because I have very little passion for Symphonic Music, despite having played in orchestra in my youth. But, Tchaikovsky’s life had an influence on my early life because of the Ken Russell film The Music Lovers (1970). This was the first film I had ever seen that depicted a gay man and it blew my little 16 year old mind to smithereens. I saw it with my best friend, Richard, from high school. We had just started to share our feelings about being gay and what it would bring to our lives. Then I saw this outrageous film and I was conflicted, but thrilled.
The Music Lovers was like nothing I had ever seen before. It is troubled, anxious, raw and unashamedly personal. The crazy camera movements, the over the top acting, the use of music both as part of the plot and as a background, plus an emphasis on the gay aspect of the great composer’s life, was a bit of shock to me. Russell’s film was able to show a gay man in the 19th century, with his failings, successes and the indulgences that were behind his creative genius, and show the agony, despair and joy behind his music. Plus, the famed Russian composer was played by dreamy Richard Chamberlain, then in the prime of his beauty and talent.
Critics panned the film for its bombastic emphasis on Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. But, Russell was not just portraying the composer’s sexual orientation, but the all the demons that haunted him, the confusions and anxiousness that followed him throughout his life: his love affairs and friendships from which so many of his masterpieces came to life. I loved how cleverly Russell used the music to enhance the drama and the mood of the film.
Chamberlain gave his best performance in it and Glenda Jackson who worked with Russell on Women In Love (1969), was insanely original in her role as the wife.
Tchaikovsky was a rock star in his lifetime. He was the conductor at the opening night of Carnegie Hall, 126 years ago this weekend. He took his final bow at just 53 years old. His mysterious death caused the kind of grief and speculation that we are just experiencing with losing Prince. 60,000 Russians showed up for Tchaikovsky’s funeral.