Did This Legendary Gay Russian Composer Commit Suicide?

Written by | Entertainment, Music

Tchaikovsky statue

(Tchaikovsky Image courtesy Shutterstock: tovsla)

Russia’s most famous composer was gay. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was twice engaged and once married. But he carried on long-term relationships with men throughout his adult life.

His delicate melodies adorned The Nutcracker suite and were put on display in the Disney classic, Fantasia. And who but Tchaikovsky would go so over-the-top gay as to call for canons in his orchestrations?

There’s a reason his most literally bombastic piece, The 1812 Overture, makes for the fitting climax of V for Vendetta. Tchaikovsky’s canons are augmented by fireworks — and the destruction of London’s iconic skyline.

Much has been done over the years to bury Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation, particularly under the Putin regime, with officials stating flat out that the composer was straight.

Who Was He, Really?

From almost the beginning of his life, Tchaikovsky swam against the tide of expectation. He was educated to become a civil servant. When he finally did emerge from music studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1865, he won both instant favor and scorn because his music sounded so “western.”

As one of the premiere composers of the Romantic Period, Tchaikovsky ultimately built bridges between the nationalists who first rebuked him and more European influences.

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Despite the beauty of his work, Tchaikovsky battled depression throughout his adult life. Numerous biographers postulate that his early separation from his mother and her subsequent death had much to do with his mood swings. Others believe that his attempt to deny same-sex attraction kept him from ever knowing lasting happiness.

Legacy

Because his scores could vault from the ornate and sentimental to the grandiose, his work was first more popular with audiences than critics. And for a musician whose work was widely beloved across the strata of society, he dealt with stage fright until his success as a conductor finally helped him enjoy the rapturous reception his music engendered.

He is the man behind Peter and the Wolf and Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. And over the past century, his works have been performed from one end of the planet to the other. Although Disney saw fit to change the running order of the vignettes that make up The Nutcracker for his first animated feature that wasn’t billed as “a cartoon” in Fantasia, he also brought an entirely new audience to the music.

Tchaikovsky only lived to 53. Some say cholera killed him nine days after he conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique in Saint Petersburg. Other biographers point to his drinking and smoking. And others say that a lifetime in the closet led to excess.

In the words of one historian: “As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out.”

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Last modified: October 2, 2019