In bed with Tchaikovsky

Once more, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s sexuality has come up for debate, and once more, the discussion has nothing to do with the composer’s time or place but everything to do with ours. Tchaikovsky has no say in the matter, so we feel free to interpret his music, even when fixed to words or grounded in dancers’ feet, however we like. Doing so keeps the music relevant. Apparently relevance means dragging Tchaikovsky into the political and cultural conflict between Russia, as the born-again defender of traditional conservative values, and the decadent, declining, same-sex- marriage-sanctioning West.

 “Who Made the Genius Gay?” asks an article published last November in the semiofficial arts and politics newspaper Kul’tura. Homosexuality is presumed to be something extrinsic, something that has been done to Tchaikovsky. The perpetrators need to be named and shamed, which then allows for the redemption, through purification, of the composer’s reputation.

The historiographic purge is carried out in Kul’tura by Svetlana Belicheva, who dabbles in music criticism but identifies herself as a “doctor of psychology, professor, and honoured scientist of the Russian Federation”. She deems it “absurd” to assess Tchaikovsky’s genius “based solely on his sexual orientation” but then does just that, and quite shockingly. “Such music – harmonic, radiant, healing – could not have been written by an unbalanced person”, she asserts. “Homosexuality is not a defect but it is also not normal. This is a sexual pathology which, like any illness, leaves an imprint on the creative act – and so some sort of rupture must be felt.” Such views would not be worth airing were there not a broader campaign, in the long run-up to the 175th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth, to establish once and for all that the composer was neither homosexual nor heterosexual but asexual. “Sex as such was of little interest to him”, a like-minded Russian psychiatrist, Mikhail Buyanov, assures us, because “he had greater concerns”. The quote comes from an article published in 2010 on under the title “Russian Psychiatrists Prove Tchaikovsky Wasn’t Gay”. The Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, endorsed the general sentiment in an interview given to the Interfax news agency last September.

According to Belicheva, recent Tchaikovsky scholarship rests on a “false dichotomy” that posits everything Soviet as a lie and everything Western as the truth. Yet as rhetorical practices of this sort demand, the division is here reinforced – albeit in a different context and with impeccable illogic. Belicheva chides the “Yale University employee and emigrant” Alexander Poznansky for succumbing to “ideas about same-sex marriages, numbered parenting, and propaganda about homosexual relationships”. Had Poznansky not moved from Russia to the liberal state of Connecticut and steeped himself in various Circuit Court decisions concerning divorced parent visitation schedules, Belicheva assures us, he would not have unearthed all those titillating documents in the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in Klin, near Moscow.

Poznansky is among the world’s leading Tchaikovsky experts, having published, both in English and in Russian, a collection of reminiscences of the composer, a documents-based assessment of the circumstances surrounding his death, numerous articles and reviews, and two thick biographies, the thicker published in St Petersburg in 2009. He co-authored the massive two-volume The Tchaikovsky Handbook: A guide to the man and his music (2002), which includes a thematic catalogue of works, photographs and letters; a new translation of Tchaikovsky’s autobiography; plus a genealogy and a bibliography. Poznansky also masterminded an indispensable online research guide. Contra Belicheva, he has provided a much-needed corrective, less to Soviet accounts of Tchaikovsky’s life than to those published outside Russia by the late British musicologist David Brown. Unlike Poznansky, whose biographies rest on the sources that document Tchaikovsky’s life, Brown imagined that life from having listened to the music. The scores are his sources. Tchaikovsky’s life – his humanity – is reduced to the notes he wrote and the fantasies they engendered in the mind of the listener.

Poznansky consulted thousands of documents, including Tchaikovsky’s occasionally self-effacing letters and journal entries. His brother’s memoirs fill in the picture along with a selection of reviews and critical pieces; the letters of his publisher, relatives, and Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich; and the recollections of the people with whom Tchaikovsky attended the School of Jurisprudence and lectured at the Moscow Conservatoire. Men tended to write effusive letters to each other during the period, and neither the verbal conventions nor the rhetorical style had a sexual orientation. The unexpurgated letters nonetheless make plain that Tchaikovsky loved men more than women. He wrote the following, for example, about his relationship with Iosif Kotek, the celebrated violinist who helped him compose his D-Major Violin Concerto: “When he caresses me with his hand, when he lies with his head inclined on my breast, and I run my hand through his hair and secretly kiss it, when for hours on end I hold his hand in mine and grow faint in my battle with the impulse to fall at his feet and to kiss them – these little feet – passion rages within me with such unimaginable strength, my voice trembles like that of a youth, and I talk nonsense”.

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