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Tchaikovsky in Love: The Battle over the Composer’s Romantic Life

Originally submitted 8th February 2022

“I should like by my marriage to shut the mouths of various contemptible creatures whose opinion I do not value in the least but who can cause pain to people close to me”.

Tchaikovsky

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it seems apposite to talk about one of the most famous composers of romantic music to have ever lived. With a repertoire including Swan LakeThe NutcrackerSleeping Beauty, six symphonies and the opera Eugene Onegin, even those not familiar with classical music can hum half a dozen of his tunes, a claim which few musicians of any genre can make.

Like many artists, Tchaikovsky has had his personal life meticulously dissected by posterity, though discussion tends to be dominated by his homosexuality, an issue which has remained a sore point in his native Russia. A biopic slated for release several years ago was axed over rows about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. The Russian government, which had offered funding for the film, pulled the plug over reservations that the film’s depiction of the composer’s romantic life would contravene laws banning what is vaguely termed “gay propaganda”. The issue had created a rift within the production team as well, with the screenwriter Yuri Abarov insisting in an interview “It is absolutely not a fact that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual” and “only philistines think so”. Efforts to expunge Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality from the historical records were commonplace in the Soviet era, with references to his sexuality meticulously removed from his published letters. The idea that Russia’s national treasure could be gay has not sat well with many of the country’s elite since.

The fact of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality is not debated in serious discussion, though a caricature continues to persist of the composer as an hysterical, tortured soul racked by depression and self- loathing brought about by his sexuality. This perception is fuelled by rumours about the composer’s life. His mysterious death from cholera is often treated as a suicide, either the result of Tchaikovsky’s sexual guilt or a threat to expose him to the public. Twentieth century psychologists had a field day with Tchaikovsky, reading into his music a man broken and deeply ashamed of himself. His dramatic music, particularly the lachrymose Pathétique Symphony, was seen as a manifestation of his torment.

This view, though popular, distorts the reality of Tchaikovsky’s love life. He moved in the upper echelons of Russian society which were relatively accommodating to homosexuality. Anti-sodomy laws were laxly enforced, partly because several members of the royal family were gay. Thus Tchaikovsky was able to associate openly with Russian society’s ‘known homosexuals’ with little repercussion, save the whispering of gossips. His letters to his brother Modest, who was also gay, tell excitedly of dalliances with servants, students, friends and anonymous escorts which had begun in boarding school. In one letter he describes one of his flings: “My rendezvous had been arranged for this evening. A truly bitter-sweet dilemma! Finally I decided to go. I spent two absolutely wonderful hours in the most romantic circumstances; I was scared, I was thrilled, I was afraid of the slightest sound. Embraces, kisses, an out-of-the-way apartment… tender talk, what delight!”.

This is not to say that Tchaikovsky had an easy ride. As Russia’s pre-eminent composer and one of its greatest cultural exports, he was subjected to enormous societal pressure to marry so as to quash damaging rumours about his sexuality. Resolving to marry to sate these demands, the composer writes in a letter to his brother “I should like by my marriage to shut the mouths of various contemptible creatures whose opinion I do not value in the least but who can cause pain to people close to me”. His efforts ended in an abortive marriage to Antonina Milyukova, a former student who had been writing him a string of increasingly obsessive love letters. After a miserable honeymoon, the mismatched couple lived apart for the rest of their lives.

Rumours surrounding the composer’s death in 1893 have stuck fast, and have formed a central part of the ‘depressive homosexual’ thesis. Killed in a cholera epidemic which had seized St Petersburg, news of Tchaikovsky’s death was met almost immediately with whispers that he had committed suicide after a fling with a Romanov prince had threatened to disgrace him. There is no actual evidence for this fantastical story, though it has been pushed over the years as a far more fitting end to the homosexual tragedy biographers had made of the composer’s life.

Tchaikovsky’s was certainly a life punctuated by episodes of profound tragedy, and it would be a mistake to imagine that his emotional turmoil did not made its way into his music. However, the pervasive theory that he was a manic depressive character tortured by the shame of his sexuality simply does not hold weight. Tchaikovsky’s sexuality was the subject of societal gossip in his own time, and subsequent generations of Russian authorities have treated it as an object of shame, though this is no reason to project such shame onto the man himself.

Image courtesy of Charles Reutlinger via http://www.radio.cz/cz/html/hudba_romantismus.html (expired copyright)