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Essay: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – homosexuality

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  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - homosexuality
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“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Chapter 18 verse 22) “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (Chapter 20 verse 13) These 2 quotes and many others like them have cause so much discrimination towards Gays and Lesbians all over the world. Even today, LGBT people are still persecuted around the world, even in the most liberal nations. It’s a common joke between LGBT that “Having depression and being gay come hand in hand”. This comes to be true for Russian Composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky. Russia has an intolerance for homosexuality that exists even today. In 2013, there was a law passed that prevents information about same sex relations to be provided to anyone under the age of 18, and Gay Pride events have been banned for 100 years by the court. Hate crimes aren’t uncommon, and even though homosexuality isn’t officially illegal, it highly looked down upon. These situations today are almost the same as they were in Tchaikovsky’s life, which led to his anxiety about being found out. He shared love with many people, had numerous affairs, and each of them affected his music. You might only know Tchaikovsky from his famous ballet suite, “The Nutcracker”, but many of his best works, such as his last symphony, or The Romeo and Juliet Fantasia-Overture, and even the Children’s Album are dedicated to past lovers. Tchaikovsky’s Compositions were influenced by both his depression and his internalized homophobia.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7th, 1840, in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka, Russia. Not much is known of his parents, except that his dad worked for a mine, and his mother was an orphan. Tchaikovsky’s love for music was first discovered when he was four years old, and his dad brought home an orchestrion, a piano like instrument designed to imitate instruments such as Flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, or bassoon. When he turned 10, he was enrolled in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, because his parents wanted him to work in civil service as an adult. He took some music lessons there, but not very many. At 19, he worked as a bureau clerk in the ministry of justice for 4 years. When he turned 21, he decided to take music lessons, firstly with the Russian Musical Society, and later the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition. In 1863, he moved to Moscow to become a harmony professor at the Moscow Conservatory.

Although publicly denied by the Russian Government, Tchaikovsky was a homosexual. He took several lovers, such as Alexey Apukhtin and Vladimir Shilovsky, whom he met at the Moscow Conservatory, Alexei Sofronov, his valet, or personal assistant, his student Eduard Zak, Joseph Kotek, Vassily Sapelnikov, and most famously, Vladimir Davidov, his nephew. Some of these lovers actually inspired Tchaikovsky to compose pieces dedicated to them. The Romeo and Juliet Fantasia-Overture was composed for his Eduard Zak, who committed suicide in 1873. Zak’s death strikes some similarities with the Shakespeare Play that shares its name with the fantasia-overture. The strife between the Capulets and the Montagues can be read as a metaphor for Russian Societal Views on homosexuality and homosexuals themselves. Tchaikovsky, who was very uncomfortable with his homosexuality, might’ve found himself between the two groups like Romeo and Juliet. When Zak finally killed himself, Like Romeo did, Tchaikovsky must’ve used this story to cope, and dedicated the fantasia-overture to him.
Tchaikovsky’s internalized homophobia caused him to be very uncomfortable with himself. In a letter to his brother Modest, who was by contrast openly gay, he said

“I am now going through a very critical period of my life. I will go into more detail later, but for now I will simply tell you, I have decided to get married. It is unavoidable. I must do it, not just for myself but for you, Modeste, and all those I love. I think that for both of us our dispositions are the greatest and most insuperable obstacle to happiness, and we must fight our natures to the best of our ability. So far as I am concerned, I will do my utmost to get married this year, and if I lack the necessary courage, I will at any rate abandon my habits forever. Surely you realize how painful it is for me to know that people pity and forgive me when in truth I am not guilty of anything. How appalling to think that those who love me are sometimes ashamed of me. In short, I seek marriage or some sort of public involvement with a woman so as to shut the mouths of assorted contemptible creatures whose opinions mean nothing to me, but who are in a position to cause distress to those near to me.”

Shortly after, in 1877, he married Antonina Milyukova, but the marriage was a sham, and Tchaikovsky himself even told her that he didn’t love her, but they could be friends. Author Richard Norton, who publishes essays on gay historical figures, speculates Tchaikovsky could have been reject by one of his former lovers, causing him to rebound to Miyukova. Interestingly enough, he was writing his opera Eugene Onegin. The Opera is about Tatiana Larin, who meets and falls in love with Eugene Onegin in the beginning First Act but is rejected at the end of the first act. It is assumed that Tchaikovsky identified with Tatianna. In a letter to his brother Modest, Tchaikovsky admits that he forgot about Milyukova while writing his opera, showing how little, he was invested in their relationship. After three months Tchaikovsky tried to kill himself by throwing himself in a river in Moscow. After Failing, he set to write his Violin Concerto in d minor, argueably the best violin concerto ever written. The Concerto is in a Major Key which interesting, since you’d expect the post suicidal work to be depressing, but it seems Tchaikovsky held a sense of appreciation after surviving. The Main melody of the concerto gives the listener a sense of prolonging and hope.

Perhaps the most interesting, and most controversial lover he took was Vladimir “Bob” Davidov, who was Tchaikovsky’s nephew. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, Pathetique, is dedicated to his nephew. The symphony tells of a tragic love story, which one can view almost as a tragic opera. The first movement, switches off between clashing melodies, one depressing and one sweet. This symbolizes the love the Tchaikovsky felt for Bob, mixed with the societal taboos that came with the love. The second movement is a waltz in 5/4 time. Usually a waltz is written in a triple meter, such as ¾, 3/8, or 6/8. This movement is a sweet, beautiful melody obviously symbolizing love, and is written in D major, the relative major of b minor, which is a happier key, allowing Tchaikovsky to use this movement to express the happiness, the content he found in his relationship with Bob. The third movement is roller coaster of emotions. The tempo, Allegro molto vivace, which literally translated means, Cheerful, very lively, is very swift, and it’s real meaning, which isn’t very cheerful, is to symbolize the anxiety Tchaikovsky felt over the relationship, and the fear that he would be discovered as a homosexual. The final movement is even more heartbreaking. The Adagio Lamentoso returns to the original b minor key, and literally translates to Slowly Plaintive, which means sounding sad and mournful. This movement was an obvious cry for help. The motif of suspensions found in the melodies and harmonies literally allows you to feel Tchaikovsky’s longing.

The way Tchaikovsky ordered the movements in this symphony is unusual, and essentially transforms a triumphant symphony into a tragic one. The Usual Structure of a Symphony is that the first movement is Allegro-Sonata form, the second movement is usually a Slow Andante, the third movement is usually a Scherzo or something in a triple meter, and the Last movement, is a brilliant finale, usually faster than the first movement. Instead, Tchaikovsky decides to change the order of the symphony, place the slow movement as the finale, the Valse (which is usually in three) as the second movement, and the Faster finale-like movement as the third movement. In fact, the symphony is so uniquely structured, that sometimes clap after the third movement ends, not realizing that the piece isn’t over. Tchaikovsky Structured the symphony this way on purpose. He wanted the las thing you heard to be sad, he wanted you to feel his pain in the end.

The Symphony Premiered 9 days before his death, and some scholars even refer to the piece as a musical suicide note. Although the officially stated cause of Tchaikovsky’s death, this is widely disputed, and most people believe he committed suicide. A common theory is the he drank water mixed with Arsenic, to mimic the symptoms of cholera. It is believed that Tchaikovsky had an affair with a young nobleman, who was the nephew of a colleague of Tsar Alexander III. One of Tchaikovsky’s former classmates somehow found the letter and met with Tchaikovsky for several hours discussing what to do. In the end, it was decided that Tchaikovsky should take his own life, rather than people find out he was a homosexual, and shame The School of Jurisprudence, which he attended in his youth. This truth was covered up until the late twentieth century.

Tchaikovsky’s mental state was often in one of depression, which often contributed to his composition. All of his symphonies begin with ominous themes, that easily represent him. Romantic composers stepped away from the concept of “absolute music”, or music written without a specific reason, like Bach or Mozart. Tchaikovsky’s music was written with purpose. For example, His violin concerto was written after a suicide attempt do to his forced marriage with Antonina Milyukova. His fourth symphony was even criticized by a colleague “for carrying meaning beyond the sound itself”. In the quote: “I am sitting at the open window (at four a.m.) and breathing the lovely air of a spring morning… Life is still good, [and] it is worth living on a May morning… I assert that life is beautiful in spite of everything! This “everything” includes the following items: 1. Illness; I am getting much too stout, and my nerves are all to pieces. 2. The Conservatoire oppresses me to extinction; I am more and more convinced that I am absolutely unfitted to teach the theory of music. 3. My pecuniary situation is very bad. 4. I am very doubtful if Undine will be performed. I have heard that they are likely to throw me over.”, Tchaikovsky makes reference to his anxiety, which he had since he was a child. In fact, his anxiety has translated into his music with works such as the last 2 movements of his 4th symphony, which are extremely fast and repetitive, like someone having the same anxious thoughts over and over. Tchaikovsky struggled with sonata form, which is unusual for such an accomplished composer. By the time he got to his fourth symphony, he only used the form as an outline, filling his works with sequences.

We’ve all heard the stereotype of the tortured artist, but this title fits Tchaikovsky extremely well. His sexual feelings had to be repressed and hidden because if societal views towards homosexuals, he had tremendous anxiety, and would fall in and out of depression. The one constant he had in his life was music. He composed magnificent concert pieces and massively successful orchestral works using his on emotion as fuel for the compositions. He persevered through many hardships, like his mother dying at 14, his sham marriage, his inability to accept himself. Once, Tchaikovsky said “In a word, there are many thorns, but the roses are there too.” He used music to express his emotions, and brought beauty, serenity, and melancholy to millions of people around the world.

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