Tchaikovsky

Article by Brian Sewell, 1997

In a letter of January 1875, complaining of extreme loneliness, shyness and melancholy, Tchaikovsky observed at the age of thirty-four, that he was cut off from most people by his damned bugromaniia.  The hybrid word needs no explanation. There have been biographers resolute in their refusal to acknowledge Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, and who blindly held to the notion that his marriage in 1877 to Antonia Milyukova was a romantic and gentlemanly response to her infatuation – though he hardly knew her and was under no obligation to save her reputation – but for the past thirty years no writer of scruple, scholarship or common sense sought to evade the evidence that he was in constant and promiscuous sexual pursuit of boys or other men.  All the indications testify to early emotional instability his tantrums as a child ungovernable, his mother idealised, her death when he was fourteen a numbing blow; he formed yearning and wistful attachments to his adolescent peers, turned to foppish affectation in young manhood, and then began the long, slow, inexorable descent into the confusions of love and lust and dependency that are the fate of the romantic homophile, pursuing the ideal mirror image of himself in some middle-class or aristocratic stripling whom he perhaps then found he hardly dared to touch, turning from him to the working-class boy or prostitute whom he might, playing Pygmalion, rescue and educate, and always finding solace in the downright, emotionally unencumbered physical business of brief contact in dark street or sordid tavern with what he described as ‘passing trash.’  In the months before his marriage he declared himself in love with a friend’s handsome coachman and ‘surrendered most irrevocably’ to Losif Kotek, one of his students at the Moscow Conservatoire.  His most constant bed-mate was his servant Alexey Sofranov who, though he married, stayed with Tchaikovsky until the composer’s death.

The pointless, foolish and disastrous marriage has been explained as the conventional camouflage for homosexuality in the 19th century, and it may indeed have had a small element of such deception in it, though it was scarcely necessary in Russia, where powerful court circles riddled with homosexuality closed ranks at the slightest hint of scandal.  Tchaikovsky may, generously, have sought to set an example to Modest Tchaikovsky, his younger brother and confidant, who was openly homosexual and at that time deeply involved with a student, urging him to turn his tastes in a different direction, and even to exploit his religious practices in support of such a turn.   The simplest and, at the same time, most complex explanation for the marriage is to be found in another letter to Modest, in which he writes of his distress at the thought that his family, though knowing of his sexual tendency, loving, pitying and forgiving him, should ever be ashamed of him because of gossip – ‘I should like 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.’

The marriage made matters worse.  Within two days of the wedding Tchaikovsky told Modest that he felt no love for Antonia, to whom he referred, not by name, but coldly as his wife, not yet deflowered ‘but I asserted myself in such a manner that there is no need to worry.’  Defloration failed the following day too, ‘the attack proved weak…very weak.’  Another two days passed and the next letter announced that ‘the attack’ had not been resumed and was, for the present, useless, for ‘my wife has become totally repugnant to me in the physical sense.’  Within three weeks of the wedding day, Tchaikovsky left Antonia in Moscow, and in ‘unbearable torment,’ fled to his sister’s estate in the Ukraine, there to fall hopelessly in love with her manservant, writing of sexual arousal at the slightest thought of him, of cleaning his boots, kissing his feet, and emptying his chamber pot; to Antonia he referred as ’the reptile’, describing her as hateful to the point of insanity,’ though she, poor thing, remained convinced that she could remedy his mood.

After some months of emotional turmoil and possibly an attempt to drawn himself (there is only one source for this, not wholly reliable), he seems at last to have recognised that homosexuality lay at the core of his emotional being, and was able to tell his elder brother Anatoly ‘I have finally begun to understand that nothing is more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature’.  Alas, having in his mind established his sexual preferences without guilt, it is evident that he was nevertheless as incapable of forming a stable sexual relationship with another man as with a woman, and his correspondence with Modest was henceforth littered with candid accounts of his erotic business with male prostitutes, particularly when travelling abroad.  Platonic relationships were perhaps easier for him: he was clearly deeply in love with his nephew Vladimir (Bob) Davydov, a lasting affair of unrequited longing and with the poet Alexey Apukhtin, another promiscuous homosexual, a fellow schoolboy whom he had loved and with whom he shared his Moscow apartment as might two affectionate and confiding sisters.

At Moscow and the Tsar’s Court in St Petersburg knew of Tchaikovsky’s inclinations and, although homosexuality was against the law, this knowledge had not the least effect on his fame and respect as composer any more than being a known homosexual curtailed the careers of politicians, civil servants or courtiers.  No man of rank was prosecuted for buggery in Russia throughout the 19th century, and the worst that happened was discreet exile, self-imposed, to distant estates for a few months; to be actively homosexual in fashionable society and the court was perfectly safe – Alexander III, the rough-hewn and anti-intellectual Tsar of 1881-1894, invariably addressed his Foreign Minister, Count Lamsdorff, as ‘Madame,’ and accepted without question the homosexuality of his brothers, the Grand Dukes Pavel and Sergey, even when the latter openly abandoned his Duchess for his Adjutant.  That in 1888 the Tsar gave Tchaikovsky a life pension of 3,000 roubles is the clearest indication of royal favour unaffected by the composer’s long-standing reputation as a bugger – the word used bluntly and often by his brother.

Those who find enquiry into the sexual proclivities of any genius irrelevant to appreciation of his art, may protest that they wish to know no more of this aspect of Tchaikovsky’s life, arguing that it cannot have affected his music which, technically, structurally and stylistically is rooted in, and grows from, a wide range of European as well as Russian sources.  If, however we turn to the visual arts and consider Leonardo and Michelangelo, we find one genius deeply flawed by his abandonment to his homosexuality, and the other so firmly in control of it that its very suppression enhanced the power of his work; neither, without his homosexuality, would have been the particular genius he was – and the same is true of Tchaikovsky.  The pathos and confusion of Eugene Onegin, the vacillating, the temporising the longueurs, the sweetness and the guilt were conceived concurrently with and in the aftermath of his disastrous marriage, and are informed and influenced by his experience of emotional turmoil and, no doubt, of writing letters – indeed there is as much of Tatyana as of Onegin in Tchaikovsky’s character.  Furthermore, without understanding that the perennial torment thought to colour the lives of homosexuals not confortably reconciled to their sexual and social predicament, is not necessarily a permanent condition, we are ill-equipped to deal with the mystery, as some will have it, of Tchaikovsky’s death.

His major work in the year of his death, the sixth symphony, the Pathetique,  was begun in Februay 1893, fully sketched by the end of March, the score ready for final polish by late August, and first performed in St Petersburg on 16 October; he died there nine days later.  He first intended to call it A Programme Symphony,  using the term programme in the sense of an underlying, perhaps autobiographical, scheme, but ‘a programme which shall remain a mystery to everyone – let them guess away,’ he wrote to Bob Davydov, ‘ the programme is subjective to the core.’ This was at a time when his relationship with his nephew to whom he dedicated the symphony, was at its easiest, romantic and passionate still, but no longer the cause of anguish for Tchaikovsky’s tactile and physical urges were well satisfied by the other young men and his preferred adolescent boys recruited to the Fourth Suite, as his exclusively male entourage had nicknamed themselves in 1891 – ‘Why write Suite No. 4 when you have us?’  These were they who supplied him with the necessary kisses and caresses of erotic play, his harem, but there can be no doubt that the programme was to be understood by Bob as his uncle’s homage to the supremacy of his position as erotic icon.

Towards the end of 1892, Tchaikovsky had sunk into a deep depression, convinced that inspiration had deserted him (it was the year of The Nutcracker Suite); the obvious revival of his intellectual and spiritual force in the sixth symphony, even if it is permeated with a poignant and pessimistic note (unrequired love and the presentiment of suicide the customary explanations), marked the beginning of an extraordinarily successful year in which he travelled a great deal on concert tours, even to Cambridge to receive an honorary degree, wrote six songs, eighteen pieces for piano, his Third Piano Concerto, considered and rejected ideas for operas based on, among other lots, The Merchant of Venice – ‘I need a subject like Cavalleria Rusticana,’  he wrote to his brother (he had seen the opera in Warsaw early in January 1892), and was enthralled instead by the pathos of George Eliot’s ludicrous tale of Maynard Gilfil, the love-lorn parson of Shepperton and the daughter of an Italian tenor, though if translated in Chekovian terms it might well have made a decent libretto.

All the indications are that 1893 was a year of constant intellectual energy, fortified by professional success, nourished by the touching devotion of the Fourth Suite, the busy concert season intended to continue without pause well into 1894 with, as well as the Russian schedule, performances agreed in Amsterdam, Helsinki and London.  Nothing in Tchaikovsky’s life, and certainly not in his letters about the Pathetique, suggests that he was in a mood to contemplate taking his own life and yet the assertion that he killed himself is still current and was made yet again in an authoritative biography published in 1995.   His death was almost public; his illness, cholera, although not, through sheer carelessness and ignorance, diagnosed as swiftly as it should have been, was tended by four physicians, witnessed by a host of friends and relatives reported daily in the press, and followed, quite unremarkably, its normal progress to mortality.  The only mystery is the business of his drinking water from the tap in Modest’s St. Petersburg apartment instead of having it boiled – but looking back over his life we find innumerable examples of this particular carelessness.  There can be no doubt that cholera killed him – but as a means of committing suicide it was hopelessly unreliable, for by the 1890s it was not necessarily deadly and tended to be fatal only to manual labourers, street sweepers and others of the lower working classes.  Here there may be a clue so far overlooked; Aleksander Litke, the son of Tchaikovsky’s first cousin Countess Amalya Litke and one of the youngest members of the Fourth Suite, recalled shortly before his death that a common woman in the street had shouted at the composer for abusing her son; if Tchaikovsky had indeed succumbed to ‘passing trash’ again, then he was at serious risk, for in the autumn of 1893 cholera was of an epidemic scale in St Petersburg, but only among the working classes; infection is passed orally.  The disease may have been lethal in Tchaikovsky’s  case only because all his life he had suffered a chronic stomach disorder, not yet identified that involved painful cramps eased by castor oil, sometimes referred to as cholerine or cholerina, sometimes as stomach catarrh – the latter an old portmanteau diagnosis for anything from dyspepsia to cirrhosis of the liver or renal failure; one curious and uncharacteristic symptom of Tchaikovsky’s cholera was retention of urine, but none of the physicians inserted a catheter when diuretics proved useless, and, according to the Petersburg Gazette, his blood became infected by the retained urine.

The reasons given for Tchaikovsky’s supposed suicide are that he engaged in an affair with the Tsar’s nephew, or with the Tsarevitch, and that Alexander III had given him the choice of suicide or a trial for sodomy (can we imagine the future Tsar, let alone other members of the Royal Family giving evidence at such a trial?); that he was having an affair with the nephew of Count Stenbock-Fermor, an Equerry at Court, and that the Count had threatened to expose him to the Tsar – a manifest absurdity; that a Court of Honour (whatever that might be) was formed by Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries  at school , who demanded that he save the reputation of their Alma Mater by killing himself and thus preventing Stenbock-Fermor from complaining to the Tsar; that, weary of suffering unrequired love; he deliberately drank infected water and refused a doctor until cholera had taken irremediable hold on him; and even that his beloved brother, Modest, gave him infected water as punishment for seducing his young lover. The Tsar was further involved in that he was supposed to have given Tchaikovsky both a revolver and a ring filled with arsenic (no doubt once the property of Lucretia Borgia), and from this nonsense developed the further assertion that cholera played no part in his death – which is why so many people were allowed to witness the course of it, and even kiss the corpse – and that all four physicians colluded in a masquerade while arsenic put an end to him.

The truth of the matter is that in 1893 Tchaikovsky, long reconciled to his homosexuality and quite open in his indulence, had nothing to fear – the notorious cannot be exposed, and had there been a scandal the Imperial Court and even the Tsar himself would have had every reason to protect him; had Count Stenbock-fermor complained to Alexander III, the tsar would, no doubt, have pointed to this and that Grand Duke, to Prince Vladimir Meshchersky, a propaganda minister of sorts and his trusted counsellor, though known as the Prince of Sodom with an eye for pretty boys in military bands, and to his Foreign Minister; and the tale of the ‘Court of Honour’ proves to have been the invention of a boy who certainly went to Tchaikovsky’s school, but not as a contemporary – he graduated in 1914.  If there is a mystery about Tchaikovsky’s death, it lies in none of these rumours and hypotheses nor in the diagnosis of cholera but in his earlier history of illness, or ailments with meaningless names treated with household remedies that may have predisposed him to collapse under cholera’s assault, and the failure to empty his bladder – a mystery to be resolved only by an historian of medicine.

Brian Sewell is a columnist for The Evening Standard