‘Who Made Tchaikovsky Gay?’ (a revisionist question)

‘Who Made Tchaikovsky Gay?’ (a revisionist question)


norman lebrecht

May 04, 2015

The Prokofiev scholar Simon Morrison has written a long essay in this week’s Times Literary Supplement, turning back the clock on a generation’s assumptions that Tchaikovsky was homosexual and that his death was not caused by drinking cholera-infected water.

Morrison is aware that he may give comfort to current Putinist musicology which (using the accusatory headline above) seeks to ‘cleanse’ the composer of the Putinist crime of gay sex, dismissing the aspersions of homosexuality and violent death as western inventions.

Morrison is exceptionally harsh on the British biographer David Brown, who ‘imagined (Tchaikovsky’s) life from having listened to the music.’ His critical argument, however, is with both sides, east and west, for trying to find the key to Tchaikovsky’s music in the circumstances of his life’s conflicts. Somehow we have all climbed into bed with him, wondering what went on in the great composer’s boudoir and whether or not, for the sake of his reputation and Russian culture in general, the linens should be sent to the cleaner.

Read the full, illuminating essay here.

trucking with tchaik



  • Harold says:

    The letters suggest that he was gay…he also looks of that orientation if I may be so bold to say such a thing!

  • CS says:

    Just to be clear, Morrison did not endorse in any way Russian efforts to purge Tchaikovsky of homossexual “blame”. His point in the article is merely to show that the current dispute on Tchaikovsky’s sexuality reflects our own contemporary tensions. He claims this is saying more about our time than about Tchaikovsky.
    Morrison avoids putting forward his take on Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, but his endorsement of Poznansky (who, according to him, “did his homework”) suggests he agrees with him that Tchaikovsky was indeed gay, sexually active, and ok with it – and I would add that I find it hard to understand how anyone who actually read Poznansky could deny this.

  • Mikey says:

    The only people who are “wrong in this entire debate are those who are trying to identify someone’s sexual identity through their music. Listen to Barber’s music. Does anything in it say “he was gay/straight”? Listen to Bernstein, or Copland, or Corigliano, or any of innumerable composers, and identify what it is in their music that says “he is/isn’t gay”. There’s nothing. It’s a futile effort.

    It’s even often futile to try and link specific events in a composer’s life with the “mood” of whatever piece he was working on, ie: life tragedy = tragic music, good life = happy music, etc…

    3 years ago, I nearly died from a massive internal hemorrhage. It was a very dark time in my life. And yet, I composed some of the most truly “happy” music I’ve ever written. The year I got married, surely the happiest of my life, i wrote one of the most tragic pieces I’ve ever written. So why would other composers be any different? Our music doesn’t always reflect any potential “turmoil” going on in our life.

    So Tchaikowski was gay, so what. Putin and his bunch of bigots don’t like gay people, so what. Let them try and straight-wash Tchaikowski’s life. The truth will still be there after Putin and his ilk are long gone and forgotten.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Much more worrying are the many signals that in Russia, so-called ‘academics’ indulge in myth making, ‘creating reality’ according to wish and / or regime sympathies. Some sort of atavistic insanity is bubbling-up again in the east, and we know what happened in the last century. If these things are supported by academia, that is bad news.

  • Herrera says:

    “about his relationship with Iosif Kotek, the celebrated violinist who helped him compose his D-Major Violin Concerto: ‘When he caresses me with his hand, when he lies with his head inclined on my breast, and I run my hand through his hair and secretly kiss it, when for hours on end I hold his hand in mine and grow faint in my battle with the impulse to fall at his feet and to kiss them – these little feet – passion rages within me with such unimaginable strength, my voice trembles like that of a youth, and I talk nonsense.’ ”

    I don’t know, the only thing this passage reveals is that Tchaikovsky had a foot fetish.

  • David Derrick says:

    But IS that an illuminating piece? It seems to me to be asking a few questions, but answering them with practically nothing.

  • Mark Shulgasser says:

    A regular reader of Slipped Disc might assume that Tchaikovsky was made gay by one of his music teachers.

    • Mikey says:

      I understand the “joke” reference you are making, but for clarity’s sake: a regular reader who made that assumption would be quite profoundly wrong. No act committed by another person will ever render one gay. You are, or you aren’t. It’s simply not something you “become” or “adopt” or “choose”.

      • Hilary says:

        Environmental factors do play a role. In Tchaikovsky’s case there was probably a genetic predisposition as his brother was also gay. A friend of mine met someone who claimed to be a relative of Tchaikovsky in the gay bar “CX79” and showed his passport to prove the connection.

        • Mikey says:

          Apparently, you have no understanding of what exactly “environmental factors” are. They are NOT “macro events” that precipitate a change. So being abused as a child, or molested, will not make you gay if you are not gay to start with.

          So enough with the erroneous repetition of bad data.

  • baron z says:

    Some composer’s music is informed by being gay, having an outsider or alternative view makes one less likely to write completely in the mainstream. I think it lends itself to using modes and alternative scales, to follow the French esthetic, at least in my generation. Oddly, the “gayest” of composers, Debussy and Ravel, who could be said to have composed gay music, were not gay, or not known to be.

    • Mikey says:

      Your entire commentary makes no sense at all.

      Why exactly would Debussy and Ravel be “the gayest” of music? You’re simply letting some silly personal bias show. To you, gay equals effeminate, and you associate French impressionism with effeminacy.

      By the way, despite the rabid indignation of those who supposedly knew Ravel personally, there is very strong evidence that suggests he was, in fact, gay.

      Following in your line of logic the music of Poulenc should be delicate and effeminate. Yet it is robust and aggressive in large part, rambunctious and playful.

      How do you then assign the sexual orientation of music produced by the likes of Copland, or Barber, or Corigliano, or Bernstein, or Rorem, or so, so many others.

      How about the mopey, introverted, emo music of people like Mahler? If there’s anything non-masculine in music it’s the music of Mahler.

      The argument just gets sillier and sillier the more you try to widen it.

      So admit it, you find French early 20th century music “effeminate” and to you, effeminacy equals “gay”. Thank the good lord you aren’t a serious musicological researcher.

  • Edward says:

    Tchaikovsky was a paederast who fell in love with Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen year old boys, so, you liberal hypocrites, would serve worse today in Ireland, the U.S. And the UK than he did in his own lunchtime, where he was actually quite happy with his boys.