Thursday, May 7, 2020

Tchaikovsky’s poison

‘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, absolutely cannot do without the poison . . .’ So confided the great Russian composer, Tchaikovsky, born 180 years ago today, to his diary. Although the diaries are full of references to his drinking, they reveal nothing about his inclination towards homosexuality; they do, though, provide lots of comment on other musicians and on writers: he was a great fan of Tolstoy, and admired the composers Beethoven and Mozart, but considered Brahms a ‘scoundrel’.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on 7 May 1840 in the Ural Mountains near the metal works where his father worked. He started piano lessons at five, and, while at the School of Jurisprudence, between 1850 and 1859, he helped in a choir. Although he began his career at the Ministry of Justice, he did not stay long there, preferring to enter the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he worked under Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba. Later, he taught at the new Moscow Conservatory. Although his First Symphony was given a good reception in 1868, a year later his first opera, The Voyevoda, flopped. Subsequent works were largely successful.

In the mid-1870s, he found a patron in Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow, and this allowed him to give up teaching. Though they never met, the two corresponded for over 13 years. In an attempt to deal with growing concerns about his sexuality, Tchaikovsky married an admirer in 1877. But the marriage failed almost immediately, and he plunged into an emotional crisis and an attempted suicide. His brother, also a homosexual, took him back to St Petersburg. Thereafter, as he travelled widely across Europe, and, once, to the US, his fame as a conductor and composer grew. Although it was said he died of cholera, some researchers suggest he may have committed suicide out of fear that his affair with a Russian nobleman would be exposed. More biographical information is available online at the Tchaikovsky Research website, Wikipedia, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Tchaikovsky kept a diary during the latter years of his life, and this was first translated (by Wladimir Lakond) and published (by W. W. Norton, New York) in 1945. However, nearly half a century earlier, G. Richards in London published Tchaikovsky - His life and works, with extracts from his writings, and the diary of his tour abroad in 1888. This latter book is freely available online at Internet Archive, but the 1888 ‘diary’ reads as though it were written as a memoir not a diary. See The Diary Junction for some links to online extracts of Tchaikovsky’s diary.

Academics have, naturally, examined the diaries very closely, not least in search of some clues concerning the composer’s sexuality. In his book Musical Musings Petr Beckmann has a chapter on How Homosexual Was Tchaikovsky?, and this is available online at Fort Freedom. Beckmann notes, first of all, that the musicologist E. Yoffe believes 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’.

Beckmann explains that Tchaikovsky’s diaries often contain brief, even one-word entries (‘A walk. Newspapers. Whist. Supper at home.’) and very frequently contain statements about his inclination to drink: ‘I drank a good deal’; ‘Drunkenness’; ‘Felt bad from drunkenness’; ‘Drunkenness at the [railroad] station’; ‘Drunkenness during intermission [at the opera]’. However, Beckmann then goes on to discuss some ambiguous entries in the diaries where Tchaikovsky writes of unspecified ‘inclinations’.

Beckmann concludes as follows: ‘I know only of two places in Tchaikovsky’s diaries and correspondence where he 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.’

As for the diaries themselves, the excellent Tchaikovsky Research website provides comprehensive information on all the surviving manuscripts and fragments. It also has available many extracts, newly translated into English. The main diary index provides a portal to view extracts from April-June 1884 and February-April 1886, but other extracts in English can be found when viewing the results of searches on individual topics, such as other composers.

20 February 1886
‘Bright, frosty, but spring is near, - the snow was melting in the sunshine, and during the day it was just as warm in the gallery as in the room. After tea I went to the school, but a mass was in progress (somebody’s funeral service) and there were no lessons. I wrote with success. After dinner I walked to the river via Praslovo (but skirting it to avoid the urchins). During tea I read Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”. I like it very much, and yet I’m not a Shakespearist. I worked splendidly in the evening. After supper I fussed over my choice of Mozart for the suite, playing them through until 11.30. Aleksey sorted out all my letters today. Photographs.’

13 July 1886
‘When I made the acquaintance of L N Tolstoi I was overcome by fear and a sense of awkwardness in front of him. It seemed to me that this supreme student of human nature would, with one glance, be able to penetrate into all the recesses of my soul. In his presence, so I thought, there was no longer any way of successfully concealing all the rubbish which I have at the bottom of my soul and just showing myself from the bright side. If he is kind (and that he must be, of course), I said to myself, then he will tactfully and gently, like a doctor investigating a wound who knows all the places that hurt, avoid touching and irritating these, but in this way he will also make me feel that nothing is hidden from him; if, on the other hand, he is not particularly compassionate, he will stick his finger straight into the sorest spot. I was terribly afraid of either of these situations. However, neither the one nor the other actually occurred. In his writings the most profound student of human nature, he turned out to be a simple, sound, and sincere person in his treatment of other people, and he revealed very little of that all-knowingness which I had been afraid of. He did not avoid touching [these sore spots], but neither did he seek to cause deliberate pain. It was clear that he by no means saw in me an object for his investigations; rather, he simply wanted to chat with me about music - something that he was interested in at the time. Amongst other things, he liked to reject Beethoven and openly expressed doubts as to his genius. Now that is a trait which is not at all characteristic of a great man, since bringing down to the level of one's ignorance a genius who has been recognized as such by all, is typical of narrow-minded people.

Perhaps never in my life has my composer’s pride been so flattered and moved as when L N Tolstoi, sitting beside me and listening to the Andante from my First Quartet, burst into tears.’

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, absolutely cannot do without the poison against which Mr Miklukho-Maklai [a Russian anthropologist] 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 . . .’ (This extract can be found on the Fort Freedom website.)

2 October 1886
‘Probably after my death people will be interested to know what my musical passions and prejudices were, especially since I rarely expressed these in conversation.

I shall make a small start now and eventually, when I get to those composers who lived at the same time as me, I will also discuss their personalities.

I’ll start with Beethoven, whom it is customary to praise unconditionally - indeed, one is supposed to cringe before him as before God. And so, what does Beethoven mean to me?

I bow before the greatness of some of his works, but I do not love Beethoven. My attitude towards him reminds me of how I felt as a child with regard to God, Lord of Sabaoth. I felt (and even now my feelings have not changed) a sense of amazement before Him, but at the same time also fear. He created heaven and earth, just as He created me, but still, even though I cringe before Him, there is no love. Christ, on the contrary, awakens precisely and exclusively feelings of love. Yes, He was God, but at the same time a man. He suffered like us. We are sorry for Him, we love in Him His ideal human side. And if Beethoven occupies in my heart a place analogous to God, Lord of Sabaoth, then Mozart I love as a musical Christ. Besides, he lived almost like Christ did. I think there is nothing sacrilegious in such a comparison. Mozart was a being so angelical and child-like in his purity, his music is so full of unattainably divine beauty, that if there is someone whom one can mention with the same breath as Christ, then it is he.

Speaking about Beethoven, I have stumbled across Mozart. It is my profound conviction that Mozart is the highest, the culminating point which beauty has reached in the sphere of music. Nobody has made me cry and thrill with joy, sensing my proximity to something that we call the ideal, in the way that he has.

Beethoven also caused me to shudder. But it was rather out of something akin to fear and painful anguish.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 7 May 2020.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This "Beckmann" external link is false : it is entirely based on a false interpretation of a letter partially censored in 1986 (Beckmann's text is not very new as you can see), but now entirely disclosed. That the letter was about homosexuality was clear enough in 1986 :

"I am so set in my habits and tastes that it is not possible to cast them aside all at once like an old glove. And besides, I am far from possessing a will of iron, and since my last letters to you I have already surrendered some three times to the force of my natural tendencies. Would you imagine !"

But in 1986, Beckmann wrote these "natural tendencies" were alcoholism because Tchaikovsky was orthodox and therefore couldn't have been a homosexual !!! Fortunately, the letter is now entirely uncensored :

"One of these days I even went to Bulatov’s country estate, and his house is nothing but a pederastic bordello. As if it were not enough that I had been there, I felle in love as a cat with his coachman !!! So you are prefectly right when you say in your letter that it is not possible to restrain oneself, despites all vows, from one’s weaknesses."