Tchaikovsky: Tragic Gay Composer
Until recently, Russian musicologists have long denied that composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky(1840-1893) was a gay man. He had a string of relationships with men, back from his student days up until his death. Tchaikovsky had a distinct taste for younger men, and his lovers included poets, musicians, servants and other members of the lower classes. Several sources report that when traveling abroad he sometimes used male prostitutes for sexual gratification.
Tchaikovsky was tormented by his suppressed homosexuality and the constant fear of exposure. Although he married one of his students, his attempt at straight family life was disastrous. Even though they remained married, he and his wife had no children and did not live together. Within two weeks of his wedding Tchaikovsky tried to kill himself, hoping to catch pneumonia by plunging himself into the Moscow River. At the urging of his doctor, he fled to St. Petersburg and never saw his wife again, although he continued to support her. She had several children by other men, giving each infant to an orphanage; she spent her final twenty-one years in a home for the certifiably insane.
All of Tchaikovsky’s successes were musical. He enjoyed world-wide fame, and the czar bestowed honors upon him and even granted him a life-long pension. The most significant of these awards was when Czar Alexander III conferred upon him the Order of St. Vladimir, which conveyed hereditary nobility. Tchaikovsky went on to achieve the greatest degree of popularity ever accorded a Russian composer. In 1891 he even conducted the inaugural concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Modest, his brother, was also gay. In an exchange of letters between the brothers, Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality is confirmed and openly acknowledged. Tchaikovsky had a nephew nicknamed “Bob” – Vladimir Lvovich Davïdov (1871-1906) – to whom he dedicated the Symphonie Pathétique (1893). The photo at left shows Tchaikovsky seated next to his nephew.
Bob, who was thirty-one years his junior, became Tchaikovsky’s lover from the late 1880s. Tchaikovsky was usually homesick during his musical tours abroad, hating the loneliness of large cities; he always longed to get back home to be with his beloved nephew, whom he called “my idol.” Tchaikovsky made Bob his heir, and his letter to Bob from a hotel room in London in May 1893 shows the nature of their relationship: “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.” In another letter Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew, “If only I could give way to my secret desire, I would leave everything and go home to you.”
In late 1893 Count Stenbok-Fermor wrote a letter addressed to Tsar Alexander III complaining of the attentions the composer was paying the Duke’s young nephew. Exposure would have meant public disgrace, loss of civil rights and exile to Siberia for Tchaikovsky and for his fellow former students of the School of Jurisprudence. According to some reports, the letter was intercepted, and a court of honor of the “old boys” of the school required Tchaikovsky to kill himself; Tchaikovsky promised to comply with their demand. A day or two later his “illness” was reported (Tchaikovsky poisoned himself in an act of suicide), and official accounts reported a death from cholera (Tchaikovsky’s relatives later confirmed the account of suicide, also relating that Tsar Alexander III was shown the incriminating letter from Stenbok-Fermor after Tchaikovsky’s death). When he died, at fifty-three, sixty thousand people applied for tickets to his funeral, which was paid for by the Tsar; for only the third time in Russian history, a Tsar ordered a state funeral for a commoner.
There are many theories about the actual cause of Tchaikovsky’s death – both natural (cholera) and by suicide (poisoning). Conflicting reports arose within days of his death. Suicide would have been a crushing blemish on the reputations of both Tchaikovsky and his countrymen. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky was adored in his native Russia, and he was perhaps the best cultural ambassador Russia had ever had.
Thirteen years after Tchaikovsky’s demise, his nephew “Bob” tragically took his own life, as well.