Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of Russia’s most iconic cultural figures.
125 years after his mysterious death, his magnificent symphonies, operas, and ballets – including all-time classics Swan Lake and The Nutcracker – are performed by orchestras and still enjoyed by people around the world.
But behind Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous melodies and explosive orchestral climaxes lies the complicated story of a gay man. His sexuality brought him both joy and despair. But his country denies he was gay, and any evidence that suggests so.
In 2013, the Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medina said in an interview with a Russian newspaper that Tchaikovsky ‘is not gay.’
Currently in Russia, laws prevent the promotion of homosexuality. Despite being set to hold FIFA’s World Cup in May 2018 and hosting the Winter Olympics, their stance on LGBTI rights remains less than favorable.
It’s also now one year on from Russia’s anti-gay purge in Chechnya, a republic in the Northern Caucuses. President of the caucus Ramzan Kadyrov oversaw the torture, imprisonment, and murder of LGBTI people in the region – something he still denies. A year on and after severe global backlash, activist groups claim the practice is still happening.
For Digital Pride, Gay Star News and the Philharmonia Orchestra have joined together to tell the untold gay history of Russia’s most celebrated musical son.
Writing the greatest straight love story ever told
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, written in 1869, is a glorious orchestral re-imagining of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and their forbidden passion.
It may be the greatest straight love story ever told. But Tchaikovsky wrote his version under the spell of Eduard Zak. He was studying music in Moscow at the time. We don’t know much about Zak, but he could well be the love of Tchaikovsky’s life.
Writing in his diary many years later, where much of the information we do know about him exists, the composer says:
‘It seems to me that I have never loved anyone as much as him.’
But tragically Tchaikovsky suffered the same tragedy as Juliet did with Romeo. Zak took his life only a few years after Tchaikovsky wrote the piece.
‘It’s heart-breaking to think that the inspiration behind this piece may have been a prophetic warning of the death of Eduard Zak’, Victoria Irish, Deputy Chair of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London tells Gay Star News.
‘It’s always an exhilarating piece to play. He writes so descriptively – you can hear the star-crossed lovers tip-toeing to meet each other. And his intoxicating love theme from Rome and Juliet is in countless televisions series and movies.’
A sense of otherness in Tchaikovsky’s music
Adam Wynter, a double bassist at the orchestra also picks up on the secret romance. Reflecting on Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony through ‘modern eyes,’ he sees the link you can make to it telling the story of a secret gay identity:
‘The first movement has uncertainty and then passionate depth of feeling. There is a whimsical and unusual sense to the second movement. Followed by a bombastic march, only to end with the final moment’s despair.’
‘If you translate it to a modern reading of a gay life: you come out and accept yourself, in relationships that have lots of drama. Then you settle into things that feel more long-term, stable and happy.
‘But if someone like Tchaikovsky was censored all the time and couldn’t live authentically. This might have left him stuck in that first swirling stage, unable to do anything about his feelings.
‘It’s kind of sad to think the angst of his story, could have inspired his final Symphony.’
Watch Adam talk about being gay in the classical music industry in this Digital Pride video now:
Forbidden love comes up again and again in his music
Unrequited love crops up again throughout his work. Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin is a prime example.
The heroine Tatyana pours her undying love into a letter to the title character Eugene. But Eugene never replies and cruelly rejects her when they finally meet face to face.
When a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky receives a similar love letter from one of his female students, Antonina Miliukova.
At the time Tchaikovsky is consumed by his operatic writing, so just like his character Eugene Onegin, he fails to reply.
But this act of betrayal may have sparked a crisis of guilt and shame. Tchaikovsky ultimately decides to marry Antonina in an ill-conceived attempt to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. Or at least the public image surrounding his sexuality.
‘I will, at any rate, abandon my habits forever,’ Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother, who was also gay. ‘How appalling to think that those who love me are sometimes ashamed of me.’
The marriage was a disaster. The pair separated after just nine weeks, and Tchaikovsky entered the worst creative block of his life.
Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake, one of the most famous ballets
Tchaikovsky’s exquisite music has moved ballet goers for generations. One of the most famous, Swan Lake, is yet another story of forbidden love and betrayal.
Just months before his catastrophic marriage to Antonina, Tchaikovsky’s most enduring orchestral score premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
Swan Lake is the tragedy of Prince Siegfried and Princess Odette.
The transformation of Odette into a swan, by the evil sorcerer Rothbart, is a spell which can only break if Siegfried vows true love. But the sorcerer tricks Siegfried into proposing to his own daughter Odile, the black swan, instead. Siegfried’s mistake of falling for Rothbart’s child means the curse can never be broken. So Siegfried and Odette cast themselves into the lake, to die together.
It is particularly enamored in the LGBTI community after choreographer Matthew Bourne brought to life what may have always been hidden under the surface.
His all-male production examining masculinity, gay love, and mental health is the longest running ballet in the history of Broadway and London’s West End.
‘No performance struck me more profoundly than Matthew Bourne’s version of Swan Lake,’ gay composer and dancer David Hotchkiss tells GSN.
‘It cuts to the core of what binds two people together, whatever their gender. It also shows the depth of the emotional connection that only occurs in true love.’
Was his final symphony a musical suicide note?
Speculation is rife over the cause of Tchaikovsky’s mysterious death from cholera.
He died at the age of 53 just nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony.
Despite a confused start and exhilarating middle that feels emotionally full of hope and discovery, the symphony’s final moments descend into a dark, slow lament.
Given Tchaikovsky’s marital crisis and the fact that he had a history of depression, Timothy L Jackson’s exploration into the 6th symphony suggests, it was a deliberate musical suicide note.
But rumors that numerous biographies allude to say Tchaikovsky was ordered to end his own life by a secretive ‘Court of Justice.’ This would have come after a scandal involving the composer’s alleged relationship with a nobleman’s nephew.
To call his death suicide is a ‘lazy assumption.’
Any truth behind this theory is unclear, but Pauline Fairclough of the University of Bristol rules out suicide.
She says the historical interest in Tchaikovsky’s love life has led to lazy assumptions. And the composer did not feel guilt or shame to the point where he took his own life:
‘Had it not been for two things – Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage and his sudden death – the notion he was ashamed of his sexuality would never have taken root.’
‘While it seems that his marriage was a shield against malicious gossip, after its failure, Tchaikovsky continued to live as before. He spent it enjoying close male friendships and writing frankly about his feelings in letters to his brother Modest.’
‘An unashamedly gay man, whose music is loved all over the world’
Gay composer and dancer, David Hotchkiss finds emotion in Tchaikovsky’s music, directly linked to his identity:
‘As a gay musician, I was always more moved by Tchaikovsky than any other composer. Gay life sadly is often filled with tragedy. And gay love is often filled with loss, fear and separation.’
‘Its why the tragic portions of Tchaikovsky’s music are so dramatic and heartbreaking; they reflect his heartbreak. The climaxes scream “finally!!!”, as though two lovers have been waiting an eternity for this.’
Furthermore, Pauline Fairclough believes it’s time to put any rumors to rest about Tchaikovsky:
‘We can now lay over a century of gossip to rest and celebrate him for who he truly was. One of the greatest composers of the 19th century. He was an unashamedly gay man, whose music is loved all over the world.’
Patrick works for the Philharmonia Orchestra. He is passionate about LGBTI history in classical music – Follow him: @preardonmorgan
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