mercredi 12 mars 2008

Tchaikovsky and his lovers

"Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) 's homosexuality was denied by Soviet musicologists until fairly recently [...]. His lovers included [the poet] Alexey Apukhtin (1840-1893) in his music student days 1867-1870.

He had a long relationship with his manservant Alexei Sofronov, "Alyosha" (1859-1925) who was his valet from 1872 to the end of his life. But he also had strong [...] attachments to younger men: Vladimir Shilovsky (1852-1893), a wealthy young lad whom he also met at the Moscow Conservatory, during 1868-1872, and who financed several trips for the two of them ; his pupil Eduard Zak (1854-1873) [who committed suicide and] inspired the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture ; the young pianist Vassily Sapelnikov (1867-1941) who went with him on a tour to Germany, France and England...

The violinist Yosif Kotek (1855-1885) inspired the lyrical Violin Concerto. In a previously censored letter to his brother Modest, Tchaikovsky describes his feelings for the 22- year-old violinist in the mid-1870s : "I have known him for six years already and have several times fallen in love with him a little. . . However, I am far from wanting physical relations. . . It was a ravishing moonlit night. I hired a troika and we flew. . . He was feeling the cold in the end of his nose. With my bare hand I held up the collar of his coat to warm this nose that was sacred to me. The freezing of my hand gave me pain along with the sweetest consciousness that I was suffering for him. We spoke about the concerto. . . and he repeated he'd get angry if I didn't write it." When you know the feelings behind the concerto, I think you hear it in a new light. He frequently had affairs with members of the lower classes, and also used male prostitutes, particularly abroad. Many [...] are recorded in his cryptographic diary ; e.g. on March 22, 1889 he records that a ‘Negro came in to me’, to his hotel room in Paris.

Even more telling is a series of letters to Modest describing Tchaikovsky's involvement, that lasted for a couple years (1879-­1880), with a young male hustler in Paris whom he calls "Louise" (several relevant passages still remain unpublished). The use of this name prompted some earlier scholars, who were given access to parts of this correspondence, to believe that they describe an authentic heterosexual encounter. Read, however, as a whole, these texts make abundantly clear that the object of Tchaikovsky's desire was indeed a young man. [...] Some of the letters make even an inadvertently comic impression, when the composer alternates masculine and feminine pronouns on the same page. An additional reason for this cross-gender conceit must have been concern with Imperial censorship as at the time many letters sent to Russia from abroad were randomly examined by the police.

There is no reason to believe that at early stage Tchaikovsky thought his preference for men as anything fateful or unavoidable : rather, he considered it temporary and subject to change when the need comes. In this he was mistaken : his life's record makes it clear that Tchaikovsky's homosexuality was exclusive, which is unequivocally confirmed by his brother Modest in his autobiography : "Women were never the object of [his] infatuations ; physically, they aroused in him only indifference." He felt both attracted to and repelled by the homosexual subculture he became well acquainted with, and did not consider himself its member : the sense of values his upbringing instilled in him contravened the flamboyant gay life style, adopted, for instance, by his friend Apukhtin [and] his brother Modest (1850-1916), who was also gay, and who lived relatively openly with his boyfriend Nikolai (‘Kolia’) Hermanovich Konradi (1868-1923), a deaf and dumb boy whom Modest tutored and with whom he lived for about seventeen years from 1876.

[...] Vladimir Lvovich Davïdov (1871-1906) to whom he dedicated the Symphonie Pathétique (1893) – Tchaikovsky’s nephew nicknamed ‘Bob’ – became his lover from the late 1880s. Tchaikovsky was always homesick during his musical tours abroad – he hated the loneliness of large cities – and he always longed to get back home to be with his beloved nephew – ‘my idol’ – whom he made his heir. His letter to Bob from a hotel room in London in May 1893 shows this correspondence to have been his life-line: ‘I am writing to you with a voluptuous pleasure. The thought that this paper is going to be in your hands fills me with joy and brings tears to my eyes.’ Later that year ‘Kolia’ chucked out Modest, and there were plans to set up an apartment in St Petersburg where Modest, Piotr and Bob would live together.

But it was not to be, for in November 1893, less than a month after the premiere of the Symphonie Pathétique, Tchaikovsky [...] died from cholera, caused by drinking an unboiled glass of water. [He] dined at a restaurant with Bob after seeing a play, and insisted on being brought a glass of water even though it was unboiled and even though his friends remonstrated with him. (Another version has it that he ran to the kitchen in Modest’s apartment to get the unboiled water, shouting ‘Who cares anyway!’) On November 2 he fell ill, and on November 6 he was dead, from kidney failure and dehydration caused by vomiting and diarrhoea. But death from cholera cannot possibly occur so soon after an infection, and even Rimsky-Korsakov, who paid his respects to the composer’s body in Modest’s apartment, thought it was strange that the apartment had not been disinfected and that people were even allowed to kiss the corpse despite government regulations that required that the coffin be sealed in cases of cholera. Rumors of suicide began to fly. In the 1920s one of the doctors who attended him, Vasily Bertenson, admitted that Tchaikovsky had poisoned himself.

The facts of Tchaikovsky's death [...] was privately known in Soviet musical circles in the 1920s and 1930s (including people such as Alexander Glazunov) that Tchaikovsky had not died of cholera, but had killed himself. [...] In autumn 1893 Duke Stenbok-Fermor wrote a letter addressed to Tsar Alexander III complaining of the attentions the composer was paying his (the Duke's) young nephew [...]. Exposure would have meant loss of civil rights and exile to Siberia, and public disgrace not only for Tchaikovsky, but for his fellow former students of the School of Jurisprudence. [...] [The letter was intercepted and ] a court of honor of the old boys of the school [...] required Tchaikovsky to kill himself and he had promised to comply with their demand. A day or two later his illness was reported. Nataliya Kuznetsova-Fladimova, the granddaughter of the sister of the wife of Tchaikovsky’s eldest brother Nikolay, after reading [this] account in 1987, told her that the story was true, and was the same story told by her grandmother who died very old in 1955. Her grandmother also said that Tsar Alexander III was shown the incriminating letter to Count Stenbok after Tchaikovsky’s death.

[...] Tchaikovsky's most recent biographer Alexander Poznansky rejects the court of honor story because he does not believe such things could happen in the civilized society that Russia was at this time. Poznansky even points out that there were other homosexuals in the School of Jurisprudence, such as the statesman Vladimir Meshesvsky, who was protected by the Tsar after being denounced for seducing a bugle boy in the imperial marching band, However, trying to seduce the son of Count Stenbok might well have been considered more reprehensible and damaging to the public image of the School. In any event, the historian Simon Karlinsky has proved that courts of honor did in fact exist at the time (though usually they only demanded resignations etc., as when Chekhov’s editor was called to a court of honor). Karlinsky acknowledges that the Russian law against homosexuality – more specifically, Paragraph 995 which prohibited mujilostra or anal intercourse between men – was not very often enforced. Nevertheless, there was a very notable scandal during Tchaikovsky’s day, when a teacher who had seduced many teenage boys was tried and convicted, and exiled to the provincial city of Seratov for five years. (The maximum penalty was resettlement in Siberia for a period of five years.) Tolstoy in his book Resurrection mentions the case of a prominent homosexual who escapes legal punishment, and calls this a case of ‘evil triumphant’. In other words, homosexuality was neither legal nor respectable in Russia, In any case Tchaikovsky’s own comments quoted at the beginning of this essay indicate that a suspicion of homosexuality was often used to shame people. And he often felt shame, or at least regret, over his own homosexuality, writing in his diary, for example, ‘What can I do to be normal?’ The enigmatic Fate motif in his Fourth Symphony probably stands for the ‘tragic curse’ of his homosexual orientation.

[...] The [Pathétique's] last movement, the Adagio Lamentoso, is prophetic not only of Tchaikovsky’s own death, but also that of its dedicatee, Bob Davïdov, who became curator of the Tchaikovsky Museum at his uncle’s home in Klin, and who killed himself, at the age of thirty-five.

The great hopes that Tchaikovsky had once had for his favourite nephew were never fulfilled. Bob never developed into the outstanding personality that his uncle saw in him, and while endowed with certain musical and artistic gifts, he never became more than a dilettante. His presence at the deathbed agony of his beloved uncle seems to have severely traumatized his own psyche, and he soon lost all interest not only in success in life, but even in life itself. There have been rumours of morphine addiction, not at all surprising given the fate of his mother and his elder sister, with whom he had become particularly close in the last years of her life. Continuous awareness of his role in his uncle's life and of the fact that he must inevitably live in his uncle's shadow may have further contributed to his deterioration. Throughout his life Bob suffered agonizing headaches that drove him to despair - and, according to his brother Yury, to suicide. While such an explanation is obviously shaky, until new documentary evidence is brought to light we shall not know the direct cause and circumstances of Bob Davydov's death. in 1906, at the age of thirty-four, Bob shot himself in an apparent fit of depression.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Vladimir Lvovich Davïdov

New York
2 May 1891

Things have gone so far that it is quite impossible to write letters. Not a free moment, and I scarcely manage to write my diary. I made a trip to Niagara. As soon as I returned I had to visit one Mayer at his country house and pay some visits in the few free hours I had left. Then I was invited out to lunch. Altogether I have been frightfully busy, and I am completely numb with exhaustion. Tonight I have to be at a big dinner, and then leave at midnight for Baltimore; tomorrow a rehearsal and concert there, the day after that Washington, then Philadelphia, then two days here, where all my time is already booked, and at last, on the morning of the 21st, I leave. Oh God! Will I ever come to that happy moment!!!

In about a week after you receive this letter I will be with you!!! This seems an unattainable, impossible happiness! I try to think of it as little as possible, to have enough strength to stand up to the last insufferable days. But in spite of all I feel that I shall remember America with love. Everybody has been wonderfully kind.

Here are a few newspaper cuttings. Shall bring many more with me. I think that you will all much prefer reading my diary than getting only short news from my letters.

I embrace you all.
P. Tchaikovsky
In only one week!!!

Town of Klin
District of Moscow
25 June 1891


As promised I can report that I finished the sketches for the ballet yesterday evening. You remember how, when you were here, I boasted that I had only about five days work left. How wrong I was, for I barely managed it in two weeks. No! the old man is definitely deteriorating. Not only is his hair thinning and as white as snow; not only are his teeth falling out and refusing to chew; not only is his sight deteriorating and his eyes getting tired; not only are his legs beginning to drag –p but the only faculty he has is beginning to fade and disappear. . . . I get very tired if I read in the evenings – it always results in a frightful headache. But unless I read I don't know how else to kill time at night. This (I mean headaches as a result of reading), is becoming a serious obstacle to life in the country, which made me decide to look for a place to live that was not in the suburbs of Petersburg but in the town itself. In general I think it would be simpler to settle in Petersburg for good. Just the possibility alone to be able to see more of you is so vitally important for me. I would love to know what you are doing. Write at least a few words. . . .

Klin, District of Moscow
22 July 1891

I am definitely coming to Kamenka, for I feel from your letter that you would like me to come, and also because I have a great desire to see you. . . .

You are not at all like an empty suitcase. There are plenty of things in it but they are still kept in disorder and it will take time to decide and sort out those that are important. However, stop worrying, for it will all sort itself out. Enjoy your youth and learn to cherish time; the longer I live the more frightened I get at the aimless dissipation of this prieless element of life. This rather high-flown sentence is nothing more than the advice to read as much as possible. You have an excellent gift of assimilating what you have read, I mean you do not forget it but put it away in a sort of mental store-room until you need it. I do not possess such a store-room. To be honest – no memory at all. Am sending several numbers of the Fliegende Blätter.

I embrace you, my idol!
P. T.

12-24 January 1892

I feel an awful fool. Here I have another two weeks without anything to help me kill time. I thought this would be easier in Paris than anywhere else but, except for the first day, I have been bored. Since yesterday I do not know what to think up to be free of the worry and boredom that come from idleness. . . . Am still keeping my incognito. . . .

I often think of you and see you in my dreams, usually looking sad and depressed. This has added a feeling of compassion to my love for you and makes me love you even more. Oh God! How I want to see you this very minute. Write me a letter from College during some boring lecture and send it to this address (14, Rue Richepanse). It will still reach me as I am staying here for nearly two weeks.

I embrace you with mad tenderness.

P. Tchaikovsky

12 August 1892

My dear Golubchik!

I have just received your letter, and was terribly pleased to hear that you are in a happy state of mind. Could it be that one of my letters to you has been lost? I did not write very often but I did write. With all my soul I long to join you, and think about it all the time. But what can I do? There are more and more complications and more work every day. . . .

So all I can say is that it is impossible for me to leave before I have finished all my business in Moscow.

I embrace you to suffocation!!!
P. T.

14 August 1892

I have just received the Paris photographs from Yurgenson and have told him to send four of them to you. I was so glad to see what a good likeness they were that I nearly started crying in the presence of Yurgenson. All this proof correction had completely destroyed all other feelings and thoughts and it had to be this little incident which made me feel again how strong my love for you is. . . . Oh God! How I want to see you.

I embrace you.
P. Tchaikovsky

16-28 December 1892

I am still sitting in Berlin. I haven't got enough energy to leave – especially as there is no hurry. These last days I have been considering and reflecting on matters of great importance. I looked perfectly objectively through my new symphony and was glad that I had neither orchestrated it or launched it; it makes a quite unfavourable impression. . . . What must I do? Forget about composing? Too difficult to say. So here I am, thinking, and thinking, and thinking, and not knowing what to decide. Whatever happens these last three days were unhappy ones.

I am however, quite well, and have at last decided to leave for Basle tomorrow. You wonder why I am writing about all this to you? Just an irresistible longing to chat with you. . . . The weather is quite warm. I can picture you sitting in your room, scented nearly to suffocation, working at your college exercises. How I would love to be in that dear room! Give my love to everybody.

I embrace you.
P. Tchaikovsky

If only I could give way to my secret desire, I would leave everything and go home.

11 February 1893

If you do not want to write, at least spit on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, and send it to me. You are not taking any notice of me at all. God forgive you – all I wanted was a few words from you.

I am going to Moscow tonight. The concert will be on the 14th. On the 15th I shall be going to Nijny-Novgorod for about three days and from there straight to Petersburg. About the end of the second week in Lent, therefore, I shall be with you.

I want to tell you about the excellent state of mind I'm in so far as my works are concerned. You know that I destroyed the symphony I had composed and partly orchestrated in the autumn. And a good thing too! There was nothing of interest in it – an empty play of sounds, without inspiration. Now, on my journey, the idea of a new symphony came to me, this time one with a programme, but a programme that will be a riddle for everyone. Let them try and solve it. The work will be entitled A Programme Symphony (No. 6) Symphonie à Programme (No. 6), Eine Programmsinfonie (Nr. 6) [Modest suggested the title finally adopted, Symphonie Pathétique]. The programme of this symphony is completely saturated with myself and quite often during my journey I cried profusely. Having returned I have settled down to write the sketches and the work is going so intensely, so fast, that the first movement was ready in less than four days, and the others have taken shape in my head. Half of the third movement is also done. There will still be much that is new in the form of this work and the finale is not to be a loud allegro, but the slowest adagio. You cannot imagine my feelings of bliss now that I am convinced that the time has not gone forever, and that I can still work. Of course, I may be wrong, but I do not think so. Please, do not tell anyone, except Modest.

I purposely address the letter to the College, so that no one shall read it. Does all this really interest you? It sometimes seems to me that you are not interested at all and that you have no real sympathy for me. Good-bye, my dear. . . .

P. Tchaikovsky

17-29 May 1893

I am writing to you with a voluptuous pleasure. The thought that this paper is going to be in your hands fills me with joy and brings tears to my eyes. Is it not curious that I voluntarily inflict upon myself all these tortures? What the devil do I want it all for? Several times yesterday, on my way, I wanted to run away; but somehow I felt ashamed to return empty-handed. Yesterday my tortures reached such a pitch that I lost both appetite and sleep and this happens very rarely. I am suffering not only from anguish and distress which cannot be expressed in words (in my new symphony there is a place which I think expresses it very well) but also from a vague feeling of fear and the devil only knows what else. The physical symptoms are pains at the bottom of my bowels, and aching and weakness in the legs. So, definitely, this is the last time I am going through all this. From now on I shall agree to go anywhere only for a very large sum of money and not for more than three days. . . .

3 [or 2] August 1893

In my last letter to Modest I complain that you don't want to know me, and now he is silent too, and all links with your crowd are completely broken. . . .

What makes me sad is that you take so little interest in me. Could it be that you are positively a hard egotist? However, forgive me, I won't pester you again. The symphony which I was going to dedicate to you (not so sure that I shall now) is getting on. I am very pleased with the music but not entirely satisfied with the instrumentation. It does not come out as I hoped it would. It will be quite conventional and no surprise if this symphony is abused and unappreciated – that has happened before. But I definitely find it my very best, and in particular the most sincere of all my compositions. I love it as I have never loved any of my musical children.

. . . At the end of August I shall have to go abroad for a week. If I were sure that you would still be in Verbovka in September I would love to come at the beginning of the month. But I know nothing about you.

I embrace you with all my love.
P. Tchaikovsky

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