Monday, October 1, 2012

Tchaikovsky's Passionate Life and Tragic Death

Tchaikovsky was born May 7th, 1840 in the small town of Votkinsk, Russia. His father (an engineer) had a long military career and served as the lieutenant colonel in the Department of Mines, so young Pyotr didn't exactly grow up in a creative environment. There was very little opportunity to study music or have a career in composing, so the young Tchaikovsky was educated as civil servant. He eventually was able to pursue his passion for music when he entered The Saint Petersburg Conservatory.The rest is music history, so let's get to the gay stuff!

 Tchaikovsky as boy

Up until fairly recently, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was kept a secret by Russian musicologists. Many of his personal letters and diaries that are held in Russian archives have not been translated into English or published, so there is probably a lot of juicy material yet to be discovered (if it hasn't been destroyed.) Tchaikovsky had a series of male lovers beginning in his student days at the conservatory and continuing through the rest of his life. 

 Tchaikovsky in 1860.

He was a bit of a chicken-hawk and usually dated younger men:  poets, musicians and rough trade from the lower classes. Homosexuality was a crime and was unacceptable in the upper levels of Russian society; you had to play by the rules and be discreet, or face a few years in 
Siberia and lose your civil rights.

The poet Aleksei Apukhtin, was one of Tchaikovsky's early loves.

Tchaikovsky was uncomfortable with his homosexuality unlike his gay brother, Modest, who lived a fairly open life with his lover Nikolai.

 Modest Tchaikovsky

A new biography by Roland John Wiley includes a quote from a never before publish letter from Tchaikovsky to his brother:

"Cursed buggermania forms an impassable gulf between me and most people, It imparts to my character an estrangement, fear of people, shyness, immoderate bashfulness, mistrust, in a word, a thousand traits from which I am getting ever more unsociable. Imagine that often, and for hours at a time, I think about a monastery or something of the kind."

In this other letter to Modest, he discusses his unhappiness and reveals his plans for a marriage of convenience:
"...I have decided to get married. It is unavoidable. I must do it, not just for myself but for you, Modest, 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.”

Terrified that he would be exposed as gay, Tchaikovsky married a
former student, Antonina Milyikova, in 1877. He warned her that they would only be best friends and that he did not love her, but apparently she knew nothing about his sexuality until after the wedding.  

 Tchaikovsky's wedding portrait

It's no big surprise that the marriage didn’t go well; poor Tchaikovsky was in such despair that he almost had a nervous breakdown. He was haunted by fear of death and by hallucinations that his head would fall off while he was con­ducting! He and Antonina only lived together for two months, but they remained married and he supported her or the rest of his life. The failure of his marriage eventually seems to have helped Tchaikovsky come to terms with his sexuality. He admitted to his brother Anatoly that there was "nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature."
Tchaikovsky’s nephew, Vladimir Davidov, was his long time companion, heir and also his lover!

Tchaikovsky wrote Vladimir, who was 31 years his junior, long love letters when he was touring:
“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.”   

 Tchaikovsky's servant and traveling companion, Akeksey Sofronov, also became on his lovers. Affectionately know as "Aloysha", Akeksey worked as Tchaikovsky's servant until his master's death.

Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893 was reportedly caused by drinking a glass of unboiled water on November 2nd from which he contracted cholera and passed away on November 6th. The story has several versions, all of them portraying a despondent Tchaikovsky intentionally drinking the
unboiled water.  In truth, cholera can’t possibly kill someone so soon after being infected. There were rumors of suicide which weren’t confirmed until 1920 when the doctor admitted that Tchaikovsky had used poison to kill himself.

It seems that Tchaikovsky was having an affair with the nephew of Duke Stenbok-Fermor. When the Duke found out, he wrote a letter to Tsar Alexander III, complaining of Tchaikovsky’s relationship with his nephew.  The Duke’s letter was intercepted and a “Court of Honor” made up of Tchaikovsky’s former students was quickly arranged, instead of a public trial. If Tchaikovsky had been tried publicly the exposure of his homosexuality  would have brought disgrace on him and anyone associated with him, so this was a private way to settle the matter. Tchaikovsky’s former students, who once admired and respected him, now turned on him and
demanded that he protect their honor by committing suicide.  

 The house were Tchaikovsky died.

Tchaikovsky’s death was thus actually more of a murder than a suicide; he was bullied into killing himself. Tchaikovsky would have been exiled to Siberia for a maximum of 5 years if he had been found guilty in a civil court, and exiled from Russian society, which would have put an end to his career.

What a great loss to the world; imagine what he might have composed if only he had lived out his life in peace? Over 60,000 Russians applied for tickets to Tchaikovsky’s funeral (which was paid for by the Tsar.) His nephew, Vladimir, inherited all the royalties from the composer's works, which he used to help establish the Tchaikovsky House-Museum at Klin, with assistance from Modest Tchaikovsky.

Here are some YouTube links so you can listen to some of his work:
Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker 
Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture
Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet


  1. Love, love, love your blog. Please keep it up, for I'm looking forward to more!

  2. Fascinating bit of history on Tchaikovsky along with the photos! Hungry for more!