Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840 -):
“Truly there would be reason to go mad were it not for music.”
Tchaikovsky was the original nutcracker and the leading composer of 19th century Russia. He is beloved all the way into the 21st century for his ballet scores, symphonies, operas, songs, piano music, and chamber works. He became one of the most popular composers in the world, inspiring a cult of queer admirers finding in his works themes of forbidden same-sex desire.
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 gave up and 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 Tchaikovsky threw himself in the Moskva River. His doctor insisted that the best thing for him would be to leave his bride, and so he split to St. Petersburg and never saw his wife again, although he continued to support her. She had several children by different men, giving each infant to an orphanage and spent the rest of her life in and out of 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. Their correspondence offers an unambiguous look at the Tchaikovsky take on being a gay man in Imperial Russia.
It seems that it was not just his gayness that was the cause of the 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 quite a few gay people in high levels of Russian society during his era. Tchaikovsky wasn’t as persecuted for his queerness as you might think. 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 same-sex attractions in letters, telling those in his confidence that being gay was ”the most natural thing ever”.
In one letter to his brother, the composer wrote of encountering a “youth of stunning beauty”, continuing:
“After our walk, I offered him some money, which was refused. He does it for the love of art and adores men with beards.“
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. Yet, 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 has 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, and that Tchaikovsky was ordered to kill himself 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 musical 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 gay man 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 his 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 affection for symphonic music, despite having played in an orchestra in my youth. But, Tchaikovsky’s life had an influence on my early life in another way, seeing 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 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, yet 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 gayness. But I find that Russell was not just portraying the composer’s sexual orientation, but all of 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 and I gained the momentum to sit down and listen to his music.
Chamberlain gives his best performance in The Music Lovers and the great Glenda Jackson (it’s her birthday today also) who worked with Russell on Women In Love (1969), was insanely original in her choices for her role as the wife. It’s sort of groovy that the two of them are still with us.
Tchaikovsky was a rock star in his lifetime. He was the conductor at the opening night of Carnegie Hall, 128 years ago this week. He took his final bow at just 53 years old. His mysterious death caused the kind of grief and speculation that we experienced with losing Prince. 60,000 Russian fans showed up for Tchaikovsky’s funeral.
Modest T. dedicated his entire life to literature and music. He wrote plays, translated sonnets by William Shakespeare into Russian and wrote librettos for operas by his brother, as well as for other composers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff. Being the best friend of his brother, he was his first biographer, and also the founder of the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin.
Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Eugene Onegin, that theme from Romeo And Juliet, the 1812 Overture, Symphonies Four, Five, and Six — what would the world have listened to without Tchaikovsky?