Until recently, Russian musicologists have long denied that composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(1840-1893) was a gay man. He had a string of relationships with men,
back from his student days up until his death. Tchaikovsky had a
distinct taste for men much younger than he, and his lovers included poets,
musicians, servants and other members of the lower classes. Several
sources report that, when traveling abroad, he used male
prostitutes for sexual gratification.
Tchaikovsky was tormented by his suppressed homosexuality and the
constant fear of exposure. Although he married one of his students, his
attempt at straight family life was disastrous. Even though they
remained married, he and his wife had no children and did not live
together. Within two weeks of his wedding Tchaikovsky tried to kill
himself, hoping to catch pneumonia by plunging himself into the Moscow
River. At the urging of his doctor, he fled to St. Petersburg and never
saw his wife again, although he continued to support her. She had
several children by other men, giving each infant to an orphanage; she
spent her final twenty-one years in a home for the certifiably insane.
All of Tchaikovsky’s successes were musical. He enjoyed world-wide fame,
and the czar bestowed honors upon him and even granted him a life-long
pension. The most significant of these awards was when Czar Alexander
III conferred upon him the Order of St. Vladimir, which conveyed
hereditary nobility. Tchaikovsky went on to achieve the greatest degree
of popularity ever accorded a Russian composer. In 1891 he even
conducted the inaugural concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Modest, his brother, was also gay. In an exchange of letters between the
brothers, Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality is confirmed and openly
acknowledged. Tchaikovsky had a nephew nicknamed “Bob” – Vladimir
Lvovich Davïdov (1871-1906) – to whom he dedicated the Symphonie
Pathétique (1893). The photo at left shows Tchaikovsky seated next to his nephew.
Bob, who was thirty-one years his junior, became Tchaikovsky’s lover
from the late 1880s. Tchaikovsky was usually homesick during his musical
tours abroad, hating the loneliness of large cities; he always longed
to get back home to be with his beloved nephew, whom he called “my
Tchaikovsky made Bob his heir, and his letter to Bob from a hotel
room in London in May 1893 shows the nature of their relationship: “I
am writing to you with a voluptuous pleasure. The thought that this
paper is soon going to be in your hands fills me with joy and brings
tears to my eyes.” In another letter Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew,
“If only I could give way to my secret desire, I would leave everything
and go home to you.”
In late 1893 Count Stenbok-Fermor wrote a letter addressed to Tsar
Alexander III complaining of the attentions the composer was paying the
Duke's young nephew. Exposure would have meant public disgrace, loss of
civil rights, exile to Siberia for Tchaikovsky and humiliation for his fellow
former students of the School of Jurisprudence. According to some
reports, the letter was intercepted, and a court of honor of the “old
boys” of the school required Tchaikovsky to kill himself; Tchaikovsky
promised to comply with their demand. A day or two later his “illness”
was reported, and
official accounts reported a death from cholera. In actuality Tchaikovsky poisoned himself in an act of suicide, and his relatives
later confirmed it, also relating that Tsar
Alexander III was shown the incriminating letter from Stenbok-Fermor
after Tchaikovsky’s death. When he died at age fifty-three, sixty thousand
people applied for tickets to his funeral, which was paid for by the
Tsar; for only the third time in Russian history, a Tsar ordered a state
funeral for a commoner.
There are many theories about the actual cause of Tchaikovsky's death –
both natural cholera and by suicide. Conflicting reports
arose within days of his death. Suicide would have been a crushing
blemish on the reputations of both Tchaikovsky and his countrymen.
Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky was adored in his native Russia, and he was
perhaps the best cultural ambassador Russia had ever had.
Thirteen years after Tchaikovsky’s demise, his nephew “Bob” tragically took his own life, as well.
Tchaikovsky's musical legacy goes beyond the Nutcracker Suite, Serenade for Strings, the first Piano Concerto, Swan Lake ballet and the 1812 Overture. I encourage you to seek out recordings of his symphonies, the most famous of which is the sixth. You'll likely recognize the soaring melody of the first movement, but have a listen to the second movement in particular (19:19 timing mark). With five beats to the measure, its lilting melody seems completely "natural" to the 5/4 meter:
The first of Tchaikovsky's piano pieces I studied was "June," from a series of piano miniatures commissioned by a magazine. A masterpiece, it is here performed by the incomparable gay Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. I remember compaining to my piano teacher that it was "boring." I was all about flash and dash at that time. Shows what I knew back then. I was 10.