TCHAIKOVSKY Writer: Sexual conflict fills composer's works

The Russian was the first prominent composer known to be gay.
It's hard to talk about Tchaikovsky these days without getting into, well, sex.
That probably says less about the Russian composer, who lived from 1840 to 1893, than it does about us.
Little discussed in Tchaikovsky's day -- however much it may have been practiced -- sex now figures almost as prominently in musicological research and theory as it does in fragrance ads.
Long before gender and sexuality issues became academically fashionable, though, Tchaikovsky was the first major composer outed as a homosexual.
And homophobia has figured in some of the attacks on him over the years -- criticisms that his music is overly emotional and sentimental.
But few composers have as immediate an impact on listeners, or as broad and passionate a following. Even Stravinsky, the high priest of "objective" music, was a fan.
A symphony orchestra season without a Tchaikovsky symphony is almost unimaginable. His violin and piano concertos are among the most popular in the repertory.
Tunes from "The Nutcracker" can be hummed by people who couldn't name the composer, let alone spell his name. His "Eugene Onegin" is the most widely performed opera to come out of Russia.
His early life
Freud's theories on the origins of homosexuality are now widely discredited, but Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky's upbringing in czarist Russia fit the Freudian mold to a T: hovering, emotionally high-strung mother, distant father.
Tchaikovsky's younger brother Modest turned out gay, too. Only 14 when his mother died, Pyotr was devastated by the loss.
After that, his closest female connection was with a rich widow he never met. For 14 years, he carried on a devoted and remarkably intimate correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck, who supported him financially but insisted on no personal contact.
Early on, an apparently serious proposal to an opera singer was called off, and a midlife marriage to a love-struck student was brief and disastrous.
But two of Tchaikovsky's greatest works, the Fourth Symphony and "Eugene Onegin," were completed in the shadow of that spectacularly ill-starred marriage. It's hard not to read autobiography into the opera, with its worldly wise young nobleman spurning a lovesick girl.
But musicologist Susan McClary has gone so far as to read sexual conflict into the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.
In a letter to Mme. von Meck, Tchaikovsky said the opening brassy fanfare represented fate -- "the decisive force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, which watches jealously to see that our bliss and peace are not complete and unclouded, and which, like the sword of Damocles, is suspended over our heads and perpetually poisons our souls."
McClary, in her controversial book "Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality," digs beneath the "fate" notion. "Bristling with military connotations," she writes, the recurrent fanfares represent an "oppressively patriarchal backdrop."
The ensuing main theme, which in a sonata-form movement would typically have a strong, "masculine" cut, here is surprisingly uncertain, hesitant. "This appoggiatura-laden, limping theme is hypersensitive, vulnerable, indecisive."
The next theme McClary likens to music associated with the femme fatale of Bizet's "Carmen," which Tchaikovsky had recently seen and admired.
"This is no simple 'feminine' theme," writes McClary, a musicology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It is sultry, seductive and slinky."
So there you have it: the brassy heterosexual male, the "weak" homosexual, the Garden of Eden seductress. Many an eye has rolled at McClary's theories, and even she acknowledges that this is only one possible interpretation.
But she also points out that Tchaikovsky lived in an age when such characterizations were so widely accepted that they hardly needed discussing.

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