This is the chapter entitled "How Homosexual Was Tchaikovsky?" from Musical Musings, by Petr Beckmann, 1989. ISBN 0-911762-40-X. Golem Press, Box 1342 Boulder, Colorado 80306.
I can't say that I care very much whether Tchaikovsky was homosexual or not; but I do care whether I am being used and made a fool of. As in any other case where the truth is not directly available, a theory must be checked against the known facts; if it fits the facts it must be checked whether it is the only theory that fits; if it isn't the most plausible theory must be compared against its rivals; and if there is no overwhelming winner, we must withhold judgment, doing no more than giving reasons why some theories are viable, and why others are untenable.
But has that not been done a thousand times by people who are incomparably better qualified than I am?
Yes, it has; but not without bias, for too often it was done by tone setters who had a stake in the outcome.
I realized this as I was listening to a broadcast lecture on Tchaikovsky's life. The speaker was devoting a lot of time to the composer's alleged homosexuality, and suddenly I realized that the lecturer, who may well have been homosexual himself, was not really talking about Tchaikovsky: he was expounding and endorsing "this kind of love."
And yet this was but a small example of what is happening in America's musical establishment. It is well known that homosexuals are present in a higher proportion in the arts, including music, than in other professions or the general population. It is also persistently reported that they form a fraternity that is not formally organized, but highly influential in determining who shall make a career as a performing artist, what music shall he played and so forth.
This tendency, even if I have not characterized it accurately, has clearly increased since homosexuality graduated from a sickness that deserved sympathy and understanding, to a "life style" that now often involves special privileges.
The stake this fraternity has in presenting Tchaikovsky as a homosexual is to develop yet another respectable peg on which to hang the hat of their aberration.
I am not a musicologist, and I have not read all of Tchaikovsky's correspondence (though I have read most of his diaries), and I do not presume to arrive at judgement that has any weight. But I can recognize a biased judgement when I see one, and the following is meant to be no more than an exhortation to put things right - an exhortation to those who are better qualified than I am.
Let's start with the available facts.
Musicologist E. Yoffe assures us - and does not seem to be contradicted on this point - that there is nothing in Tchaikovsky's voluminous correspondence (5,000 letters) or in his eleven diaries (1873, 1884, 1886-1891) that refers directly to his alleged homosexuality. The nearest case, and the one that the accusation is usually based on, is a letter to his younger brother Modest on 10 October 1876. Here Tchaikovsky initially tells (again) of his intention "to marry, or by some well known liaison with a woman shut the mouths of all despicable gossips."
The following portion of the letter is not usually given or commented on:
"Is it not a bitter thing to be pitied and forgiven when, truly, I am in no way guilty? So it has been a hundred times and will be a hundred times more."
Instead, the accusation is based on this allegedly damning portion:
"I am so confirmed in my habits and tastes that to throw them away as one would an old glove is impossible. And then I have far from an iron will. Since my recent letter to you, I have already succumbed to my natural inclinations three times."
But there are two things wrong with interpreting these inclinations as homosexuality. First, we have just heard that Tchaikovsky suffered from the accusations of homosexuality (what else could it be in the first portion?), wanted to put a stop to them, and assured his brother that he was not guilty of these suspicions. Even if this had not been a letter to Modest, from whom he had no secrets (and whom the allegers have alleged to be a homosexual himself), what earthly reason could there be for Tchaikovsky to contradict himself, within the same paragraph of the same letter, by suddenly saying that he succumbed to inclinations of which he just said he was not guilty? Since the first portion and his intended marriage refers to unfounded suspicions of homosexuality, clearly the second must refer to something else.
Second, it is incongruous that Tchaikovsky, a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church, which regarded homosexuality as a despicable sin, would refer to this aberration as a natural inclination; he would more likely have said "my unnatural inclinations." This seems all the more plausible in connection with his tendency for constant self-effacement and self-doubts apparent from his diaries. To call homosexuality a natural inclination would imply a degree of self-assurance that this ever tormented self-doubter did not have.
There are other points. Would he refer to homosexuality as ingrained "habits and tastes"? Would he, in a span of three weeks ("since my last letter") have found three partners in Tsarist Russia where homosexuality was a grave criminal offense? And if he had a constant lover, would he have succumbed only three times? Would such a lover have remained secret?
To what inclinations, then, did he succumb?
Drink, quite possibly. He would work and attend social functions during the day, then brood and drink at home in the evening. His diaries which often contain brief, even one-word statements ("A walk. Newspapers. Whist. Supper at home.") very frequently contain statements like "I drank a good deal." "Drunkenness." "Felt bad from drunkenness." "Drunkenness at the [railroad] station" Drunkenness during intermission [at the opera]."
One of the more revealing entries on that subject is that of 11 July 1886: "It is said that to abuse oneself with alcoholic drink is harmful. I readily agree with that. But nevertheless, I, a sick person, full of neuroses [Tchaikovsky's emphasis], absolutely cannot do without the poison against which Mr. Miklukho-Maklai protests. A person with such a strange name is extremely happy that he does not know the delights of vodka and other alcoholic drinks. But how unjust it is to judge others by yourself and to prohibit to others that which you yourself do nor like. Now I, for example. am drunk every night, and cannot do without it. What should I do then..."
But there is also the possibility of drugs. Morphine and opium (toward the end of the century also cocaine) were used in the Russia of Tchaikovsky's day by many well-to-do people in spite of the heavy penalties enforced by the Tsarist government. On 23 April 1884 his entry includes "Supper. Vyera Vasilevna and the Stals. The Butakov oppression during whist. Whist twice. There was much Z. Oh, what a monster of a person I am!"
Since z- and za- are prefixes that can be used with any amount of Russian verbs (and the nouns derived from them), there is no point in guessing what it stands for here; but it is unlikely to mean homosexuality (as W. Lakond, the translator of the diaries claims), since at least two women were present. Drugs, however, are a possibility.
My case for drugs and alcohol is not a strong one; but surely it is not weaker than the one for homosexuatity.
What else is there?
Tchaikovsky's marriage that ended in his nervous breakdown after a few weeks. But his wife was emotionally unbalanced and eventually ended in a mental home; no homosexuality was needed to break up her marriage to a high-strung and emotionally maladjusted man like Tchaikovsky.
Is there any more?
Plenty. Once you have made up your mind (or simply accepted the conventional wisdom) that he was a homosexual, there is any amount of little things that will "confirm" it: search and ye shall find. The copy of his diaries from the University of Colorado Libraries that I borrowed is frequently underlined in pencil, presumably by a student who had to write a term paper on the subject. In New York, Tchaikovsky met a Russian couple who had emigrated to America 30 years earlier. And the student underlined a really damning confession: "The husband is more to my liking than the wife." In the meeting with Carnegie in New York (10 May 1891) at a dinner party, Tchaikovsky's entry is underlined like this:
"He grasped my hands, declaring that I am the uncrowned but true king of music; embraced me (without kissing - here men never kiss)..."
But this naive student is not alone. The translator (W. Lakond) has added annotations, such as claiming that "Z." (explained above) was the secret symbol employed by Tchaikovsky for homosexuality, or claiming that "There is reason to believe that in his later years the attachment [to his nephew Vladimir Davidov] was more than platonic."
He uses the "There is reason to believe" approach again for other males without the slightest hint what this reason might he.
To this one should add that Tchaikovsky was a man who was extremely highstrung, wore his heart on his sleeve, yearned for solitude only to weep over his loneliness, was overflowing with enthusiasm for one thing and strongly irritated by another in short time spans, wept openly and frequently on what others would consider unimportant occasions, and moved constantly between bliss and despondency. His diary therefore, is a treasury for anybody who, by selective searching, wishes to confirm any preconceived notion of almost any kind.
Sketch accompanying an article "Tchaikovsky is Here" in the New York Herald, 27 April 1891.To convey the flavor of both the diary and Tchaikovsky's emotional maladjustment, let me quote but a single case, of which there is one every few pages. On May 8, 1891, his thirteenth day in America, and already racked with homesickness, he was visited by two Russian ladies, one of them a correspondent of Russian-American journals. But "[j]ust when I had my first occasion to have a heart-to-heart talk with a Russian woman - a painful thing happened. Suddenly tears came, my voice began to tremble, and I could not restrain my sobs. I ran out into the other room [of the hotel suite] and for a long time didn't come out, Am burning with shame at this unexpected thing."
Such an emotionally high-strung man does, of course, show his emotions in an exaggerated way - for example, adding "(the darling!!)" after "Bob," the nickname of his sister's son. He never had any children of his own and was extremely fond of his nephew, as uncles, childless or not, often are. Tchaikovsky was afraid of heights (among many other things), but writes that he overcame this fear when Bob climbed on the roof of his house and wanted to play. On another occasion, he writes "Bob has arrived!!" with two exclamation marks.
It all seems perfectly natural to me, especially when Tchaikovsky's ever turbulent emotions are taken into account. But that is not the conclusion of the alleging allegers. They use these little pieces to shout "Homosexuality! Incest!" in the best traditions of the ghouls wading through Hollywood's sewers.
My own conclusion, and I realize it cannot carry much weight, is this: I know only of two places in Tchaikovsky's diaries and correspondence where be expresses disgust at himself for some behavior or habit whose nature he does not indicate. Homosexuality is a distinct possibility, though I have given reasons why that appears unlikely, or at least no more likely than his (documented) addiction to alcohol or an (entirely speculative) addiction to drugs. Should homosexuality prove nevertheless correct, it would be but an additional symptom in a high-strung over-sensitive man who was emotionally severely maladjusted, or even disturbed.
It is time for unbiased researchers more qualified than I am to investigate and give their verdict.
But until then, it is also time for the influential parts of the musical establishment to stop pretending that Tchaikovsky's alleged homosexuality is established, accepted and uncontroversial, to realize that the burden of proof is on those who claim the unusual, and to desist from their self-serving smears of a great musician.
1. At the time of writing these special privileges include 1) partial protection from losing their jobs, since given the choice, employers will often prefer to fire the employee who cannot fight back with a suit charging discrimination; 2) the enormous sums spent on AIDS, which presents a much larger risk to the small community of homosexuals, at the expense of research in heart disease, cancer and other ailments that threaten everybody.
2. Once again I am reminded of the Viennese gadfly Karl Kraus mentioned an p. 56. To characterize Viennese gossip, he wrote "If I cross the street with a woman, I am an adulterer; if I cross it with a man, I am a homosexual; if I cross it by myself am addicted to masturbation."