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By Christopher Treacy
Not only was revered Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky gay, he also wasn’t ashamed. At least, not nearly as much as historians and biographers had always led us to believe.
That Tchaikovsky struggled with depression is well documented, but up until the last 20 years, his sadness was attributed to the mere fact of his homosexuality. As we honor his legacy with the DSO’s Tchaikovsky Festival, running for three weeks through March 1 and featuring his six symphonies, concerti and various other orchestral works, there seems no better time to clarify what’s come to light via newfound access to his familial correspondence.
As it turns out, Tchaikovsky was reasonably comfortable with his homosexuality – as comfortable as someone could be, living as a famous figure in 19th-century Russia.
“Tchaikovsky is really unique, in that he’s one of the only gay composers to have become quite this famous,” says Dr. Jon Anderson, a musicologist and Wayne State University professor who earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Composition from North Texas University. “We now have so many documented letters that his younger brother, Modest – who was also gay – saved, but the family didn’t release for quite some time after his death. They offer a clear, evidential track of his homosexuality. It’s probably the most fascinating exchange in the history of composer correspondence.”
What little gray area may have existed about his sexual orientation has been eclipsed by the letters, which reveal the high-highs and low-lows of a troubled creative soul… but it’s not the fact of his sexuality that seems the cause of his ennui. More so, it’s the near-universal artist’s struggle with self-doubt coupled with longing brought on by unrequited love – also a common human experience – at the core of Tchaikovsky’s suffering.
“There were actually quite a few gay people in the Russian government at that time,” Anderson asserts. “Tchaikovsky wasn’t as persecuted about his sexuality as was originally assumed. It wasn’t so much about his being gay, but more about him not getting to experience fulfillment in his love affairs.”
To further cement this idea, it’s now clear that, according to Anderson, Tchaikovsky had a close circle of gay friends and actually referred to his homosexuality in personal correspondence as “the most natural thing ever.”
It would be misleading, however, to characterize him as a consistently out and proud homosexual. While the new evidence suggests a much more contented person in some respects, it’s also clear that he vacillated about his situation. A turning point manifests in his rather impulsive decision, at the age of 37, to marry Antonina Milyukova. The outcome is telling: realizing the marriage was a farce, he came to greater degrees of self-acceptance in the wake of its dissolution.
“Most of the time that we see his pain and suffering so clearly is when we see him having to get married… to a woman who pestered him for years,” Anderson notes. “He eventually said, ‘OK, we can be married, but we can’t consummate – my parents will be thrilled.’ Unfortunately, she turned out to be a loose cannon and held his sexuality against him, perhaps even threatening to out him to the world at large after it ended, which likely added a lot of stress to his life.”
Can we hear the queer?
In Tchaikovsky’s case, gay men have long upheld the idea that the angst, despair and suffering deemed so apparent in his music’s “melodic lyricism” can be directly traced to the struggle of a closeted gay man living in torture with his secret. Those claims seem mislaid now, but there’s no denying that the music depicts conflict. The question is, what was at its source – can we really hear Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his sexuality?
The jury is still out on the issue of “queer sound” – that is, the debate as to whether sexuality is implied in a composer’s musical choices. The evidence becomes difficult to sift through regarding modern songwriters in the pop arena because composition is inherently linked with performance and, often, a ready knowledge of an artist’s sexuality.
“It’s been talked about a lot in gender studies, this question about whether there’s a ‘gay music,'” Anderson says. “But it’s difficult to come to any kind of consensus on the credibility of sexuality as a musical idea, especially if there’s no text to go with it. There’s definitely been work done around the concept of music being masculine and feminine and the differing qualities of how we label our chords – almost a patriarchal ranking.”
Meanwhile, letters to his nephew (nicknamed “Bob”) during the later portion of his life indicate that a romantic relationship existed between the two despite a marked difference in age, and Tchaikovsky is clearly suffering from separation anxiety in a series of notes sent during a lengthy business trip to the United States. In one particular exchange, he tells Bob that he’s come up with an incredible idea for his final symphony, but that, “…I’ll take it to the grave with me” (i.e. he will not provide a text for explanation as to the piece’s meaning).
This further ties in to the matter of Tchaikovsky’s death at only 53 years old. Folks seem content to believe he drank unboiled water known to contain cholera, but debate ensues as to whether he did it knowingly – implying suicide – or whether the water was planted, indicating murder. Another explanation runs along the lines that he’d begun wooing the son of a Russian Count, who’d asked the Tsar to intervene, and that Tchaikovsky was ordered to die by his own hand in the resulting dust-up.
All of these elements have led to a great deal of mythology surrounding his swan song, Sixth Symphony, Pathetique, which often gets characterized as either a suicide note, a portrait of homosexual martyrdom, or some other form of gay tragedy. The fact that he dedicated it to Bob and conducted it in front of an audience for the first time just nine days before his death only thickens the plot.
“As the festival draws near, it’s a perfect time to take a closer look at the man behind the music,” Anderson concludes. “Tchaikovsky was really able to give us his experiences musically, in a way that we can feel them through his work so viscerally. Some people don’t want that raw emotion, but for him to let us in on that is a really beautiful way of communing with his audience.”