LGBTQI+ History Month Icons – Tchaikovsky
Who is your ‘LGBTQI+ Icon?
Growing up in some rather rough bits of Ayrshire in the early 1970s before my father’s job (luckily) moved us to more “middle class” Prestwick, I stood out in lots of ways. Being obviously gay was one way. Another was my love of classical music which morphed into a lifelong passion for opera in my early teens. It is in this context that I have chosen the Russian composer Tchaikovsky as my Gay Icon for LGBTQI+ History Month 2021.
Why have you chosen Tchaikovsky?
We all know some pieces of Tchaikovsky’s music – the main theme from Swan Lake, dances from the Nutcracker, the 1821 overture and many more. He was incredibly creative and inventive in his compositions but it was his operas, particularly Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades and his final opera, Iolanta, which affected me as an uncertain, closeted teenager and which retain the power to move me deeply 40+ years later. In my opinion, in these operas he channelled his struggles with his sexuality into the main characters and their music in powerful ways. Onegin and Queen of Spades (based on works by Pushkin) deal with unrequited love; created from a Danish fairy tale, Iolanta is blind and has to believe in the power of love in order to restore her sight. It is not hard to see how the metaphors here – allied to Tchaikovsky’s heartfelt music – would resonate with a spotty Scottish teenager who couldn’t imagine living happily as a gay man and finding love.
If you want to get a sense of what I am talking about, have a listen to Lisa’s final aria from Queen of Spades: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoLf4PzwwXA or to Iolanta’s aria from that opera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inss78tYgX4
How do you know that Tchaikovsky was gay?
Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was hidden from society and he struggled with the shame and guilt of it all his life. For most of the 20th century it was not publicly acknowledged (and is still denied by authorities in Russia). The biographies and books on music I borrowed from the local library in the 70s and early 80s never mentioned the fact that he was gay, though it was sometimes hinted at (being gay you learn to pick up on what is not said or what is implied). In more recent years, biographers have openly acknowledged Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, partly helped by the publication of his letters with previously censored passages restored. The cause of Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893 remains a source of much debate, with suicide due to his homosexuality a strong possibility.
Has your view of Tchaikovsky changed over time?
Despite my initial attraction to Tchaikovsky’s music due to what I perceived as his struggles and anguish in the three operas mentioned, over time I have come to love more of his music, much of which is positive and bright (as well as wonderfully melodic). Here – appropriately enough – is February from his piano sequence “The Seasons” Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37a, TH 135 – 2. February: Carnival