During his too short life, Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky was received as a global figure, not only a national composer, but a significant universal persona. After his tour of America, an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, being declared by the Carnegie Hall as one of the greatest living musicians (alongside Brahms and Saint Sans), and critics’ celebration as “the master of Modern music”, he had become a national and international treasure. His music was admired by all classes. He enjoyed the patronage of the court of the Russian Czar, where he had some influential defenders, as well as the personal patronage of the Russian Czar Alexander the Third, who granted him with a handsome state pension.
Regardless of his homosexual orientation, which was largely known, Tchaikovsky’s personal life couldn’t be described as abundant with frustrations, au contraire. His main emotional involvement at this period, with his beloved nephew Vladimir Davidov, had become a source of emotional joy and stability. But, towards the end of the 19th century, rumors of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality spread outside of the borders of Russia, and that caused his work to be received differently in Western musical circles. New critiques emerged of his work as sentimental, over-the-top and romantic, flawed and even pathologic. Ironically, it was Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895 and his huge resonance in the English-speaking world that shifted the artistic judgment of Tchaikovsky’s work.
portrait by Nikolai Kuznetsov
The Wilde trial had become a watershed moment in the knowledge and pathologizing of homosexuality. The homosexual was defined not by his actions but by his figure, a figure who was assigned illness, thus is necessarily foreign to the image of healthy, “normal” people.
From that moment on the curse started chasing Tchaikovsky, “the swan”. Almost everything that was written on his work in America and in the English language generally, was essentially influenced by his personal life. Often the biographers, critics and musicologists chose to refer to this “abnormal” sexuality with regards to morality and sexual health, in order to paint their interpretation and critique of his music. Thus, an imaginary doppelganger for Tchaikovsky was born—a character which embodies some kind of romantic sorrow and muddy eroticism, which was supposed, according to many, to commit suicide as a result of his sexual life, a caricature that cannot even resemble a real man with real worries. This could not be further from the truth.
“Truly, one could go crazy without music"
It was not unusual in the middle of the 19th century to hear sounds and voices coming from the sitting rooms of middle-class families. The invention of the gramophone brought music to homes that otherwise would not echo it, but through the fingers of children practicing their music. In most families, orchestration was a source of pleasure, but in one Russian home it had sufficed. It had given one small child by the name of Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky his first glimpses into the world and language, which would become his lifeline. One night his French governess, Fanny Durbach, walked into the children’s room and found that small child sitting in his bed and sobbing. “What is it? She asked, and his response surprised her. “This music”, he wailed, “this music!”. She listened by the house was quiet. “No. It’s here, it’s here!” cried the child and pointed to his head. “It’s here, and I can’t make it go away. It won’t leave me”. Of course, the music never left him.
His sensitivity was boundless, thus required much care and sensitivity while dealing with it. He was a child who was as fragile as crystal. Despite displaying a happy appearance, serenity was rarely experienced by Tchaikovsky, from his childhood till his last day. When he was a child he would often wake up in the middle of the night with hysterical fits. Later that agitation found its iteration in insomnia and waking up in the middle of the night as a result of being shaken with a feeling of irreversible terror. These small attacks, which sometimes would occur every night, brough him to hate the bedroom, sometimes for months on end. During this time, he would fall asleep only in his gown, in his chair, or on his sofa. The disruption to his brain was vast.
When he was eight Tchaikovsky was sent to a fashionable and prestigious school in St. Petersburg. The fact that he ever had forgiven his parents for this Dickensian act was a testimony to his angelic character. This was a school that made everything Charles Dickens had described look like a joyful tea party. Among the rules of discipline were public spanking—65 spanks—by the cruel student supervisor. After two years at the school, Tchaikovsky signed up for the pre-law class in St. Petersburg, where he would qualify as a lawyer and be groomed to work as a civil servant. Before she went home, his mother took him to the opera to watch a performance of “a life for the Czar” by the famous Russian composer Glinka. His first visit to the Opera with his beloved mother was a joyful and deeply scarring event: when the moment came to say goodbye, Tchaikovsky lost his self-control. He threw himself at his mother and could not break away. No amount of caresses or promises for a swift return could help. Force was necessary, he had held on to everything he could, unable to let her go. Finally, they could be parted. She sat with her female friends in a carriage, the horses started galloping, and then, when he gathered the rest of his strength, the child broke free and ran after the carriage while calling desperately after it. The same desperation and madness he felt while seeing the galloping horses, taking away everything he had cared about, never left him, when his favorite nanny disappeared as well, and with his mother out of reach apart from by letters, Tchaikovsky felt lost at sea. He felt more and more wild mood swings, and usual events brought him to tears. He found some catharsis, and some stability, in music and of course piano music: bravely, and with a spark, despite the fact that his playing was a bit rough—devoid of warmth and depth of feeling—he avoided sentimentality like the plague, and as a result did not like the music of the piano which sets too much emotion. The musical feeling in him was governed by a kind of humility, and a fear of vulgarity drove him to the opposite extreme. The biggest crisis in those years came from the death of his mother from Cholera in 1854, when he was only 14 years old. After her death he found his only comfort in music, and maybe, unsurprisingly, this was the period in which he started properly composing.
Two weeks after the wedding- a suicide attempt
The musical gift bestowed upon Tchaikovsky became clearer with every year that had passed, but before the possibility for a career in music was revealed to him, Tchaikovsky spent nine years in law school, following the path his parents created for him. He started to work as a civil servant, but at the age of 21 enrolled at the St. Petersburg conservatoire and resigned. After that, he was appointed to be a teacher in the Moscow conservatoire and stayed there for 12 years. The speed in which he composed was dazzling, and his hand and ear had the command of many musical styles: the symphony, the poem and the opera. His masterpieces include the ballets Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, the Nutcracker; the opera Eugene Onegin, as well as six symphonies and four concertos. Despite being a Russian composer, his style was also influenced by French, Italian and German music. He was able to connect the Russian- national to the universal through a subjective and emotive musical style. His works had been performed often in operas and concert houses around the world. The emotional weight of his music is vast, as it is in his personality.
In 1887 he married a female student, probably as a cover for his homosexuality. Two weeks after the wedding Tchaikovsky tried to commit suicide, jump into the frozen waters of the longest river in Europe, the Volga in Moscow. Tchaikovsky survived, but separated from his wife.
In the following years Tchaikovsky went on many tours in Europe, performing as conductor in his own works. Of his many writings the music of soft and passionate words arises, which describe in raw detail the strong feelings felt by one of the most beloved composers in the world. In some letters his sexual wishes are revealed, and the subjects of these sexual wishes were other men. These letters were erased and censored by the Russians and are still debated in an ugly and stormy public debate in Putin’s Russia. The main taboo in Tchaikovsky’s life was his homosexuality—a topic that was forbidden for public discourse for almost a hundred years. In the eyes of the Russian authorities, it was inconceivable that the national treasure was gay.
“With him I’m more in love than ever”, “My god, what an angelic creature and how I long to be his slave, his toy, his property!” “youth of stunning beauty” “after the walk I offered him some money, and he declined. He does it for the love of art and admires bearded men”. Tchaikovsky left a legacy of more than 5000 letters. His writings offer the reader a personal tour in his private quarters, to his most informal and intimate areas. Considering the unfortunate condition of cultural politics in Russia and is anti-gay propaganda, there is no assurance that the door that offers a glimpse into the writings of Tchaikovsky will remain open for much longer.
Cause of death: a mystery
It was a cold, damp night. November in St. Petersburg. At 15:15 the message came through: the composer Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky had died. The doctor said that the cause of death was cholera, an epidemic that was pervasive in Europe during the 19th century. The Czar Alexander the Third was among the first to offer their condolences, and Tchaikovsky was honored with a state funeral shortly after. At the same time, rumors said, and speculations soared concerning the cause of death of the composer, who didn’t make it to his 54th birthday. Some said that he fears the public revelation of his homosexuality, thus chose to take his own life against the backdrop of a social scandal. Others said that he took an order from the Czar and drank from a cholera infused cup, as punishment for homoerotic relations with a member of the family of the Czar. Further rumors about poisoning spread throughout the Czarist town and the whole of Europe. The rumors float still: lengthy speculations about murder and suicide, or physical weakness caused by numerous musical performances the composer participated in.
The director of the Tchaikovsky museum in Klin, Polida Weidman, said: “these days, when I read and hear Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was fiction invented by unpatriotic researchers, I can do nothing but laugh. Denying his homosexuality is absurd”. One should just read the writing of the composer or his diary, where he openly reported his intimate life, his passions and disappointment. In his later years Tchaikovsky was open about his homosexuality. Researchers rule out persecution due his sexuality as the high ranks in Russian society were quite tolerant of gay men. Evidently, there was more acceptance then than now in Russia. The overall conservative society as well as the state show reservation and fear concerning the homosexuality of the most famous composer in their country.
Even president Vladimir Putin brought this matter up in a television interview: “people say that Tchaikovsky was gay, but we do not like him for that”. Then, a journalistic campaign to defend the composer’s reputation was launched. Concerned mothers asked at ticket offices if Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” was suitable for children. State funding for a film about Tchaikovsky was denied too, despite the fact that the film director and the Russian theater director (and cult member of the LGBTI community) Kiril Serebrennikov claimed over and over again that his film about the composer “will not be told from the bedroom’s angle”.
Looking into the personality of any great artist is necessary, if we wish to deepen our appraisal and understanding of their accomplishments. This research allows to respond in a stronger and more complex manner to the emotional and psychological matters related to their creative process and artistic resolution. Tchaikovsky, his inner longing, that we cannot comprehend in full without investigating the reality of his life, influenced the amazing and strange emotional power of his music. At the end of the day, pure curiosity allows us to re-examine the entire set of cliches about Tchaikovsky, and maybe even his position in the cultural pantheon, as well as the relevance of his work to the cultural, societal and spiritual questions of our time.