A recent article brought word of a new initiative in Russia: the passage of a law which would prohibit (or punish those who participate in) the dissemination of information relating to the existence of homosexuality. In short, Russia, in one fell swoop, intends to more or less deny the existence of homosexual citizens—or, at least, to deny that there is such a thing as homosexual behavior.
Being a straight, American man, this news wouldn’t seem to affect me. But there is, as always, a catch: I am not simply a straight, American man, but also a straight, American musician. To be more accurate, I am a classical musician—and that threw this news into even more sharp relief.
Forget, for a moment, the fact that this news does not merely relegate a segment of the population to 2nd class status, but effectively eliminates them altogether! That in itself is worthy of attention from people of all walks of life. But as a musician, my mind was drawn immediately to one name: Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky—or, perhaps we are now to refer to him as ‘The composer formerly known as Tchaikovsky’?—is (or was) a Russian icon. Perhaps no other composer defined romanticism quite as strongly. With his sweeping melodies, colorful use of folk-idiom, brilliant orchestration, rhythmic drive and love of the supernatural, the Romantic Spirit was made perfect in this tragic figure. He is certainly among the greatest of the Russian Romantics—arguably the most accomplished, most famous and most influential. And he stands (or stood) as one of the great Russian spirits: strong, indomitable, complex.
Tchaikovsky was also gay.
His homosexuality played a leading role in his life: it led, ironically, to his marriage to a lovely young woman, which was the very definition of a disaster. This led to a chain reaction: the unconsummated marriage led to a suicide attempt, which led to the 4th symphony, which led to the last two symphonies, which led to musical and cultural immortality. Of course somewhere in there he also found time to write a few ballets—perhaps you’ve heard of Swan Lake and another little ditty which apparently is trotted out during the holiday season, The Nutcracker—along with several tone poems (the supernatural Francesca da Rimini, the ravishing quasi-memoir Cappricio Italian, the sweeping Romeo and Juliet), a repertoire-defining concerto for violin and three for piano and a few operas. He also carried on a most notable affair: a long relationship with his pen-pal, benefactress and dear friend Nahedza von Meck. The two carried on a torrid affair of the heart entirely through letters. That this was sincere (and successful for both parties) is beyond a doubt. The relationship was never physical, for obvious reasons—along with the fact that a stipulation of the agreement was that the two were not to meet. But taken together, it was one of the most important relationships in artistic history.
Here ends the biographical sketch and history lesson, which is of course not the focus of the present text. But it should deliver a clear message: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the most important composers in music history and an indispensible part of Russia’s cultural landscape.
This is what makes this law so much more difficult for Russians. With the passing of the law, Tchaikovsky faces one of two fates: to be stricken from the record entirely, or to be subject to certain historical revisions.
Let us explore these possibilities. The former would be, at first glance, quite simple. Classical music is dying, anyway, so why not make it a little easier by just erasing a name? Sadly, the reality may not be as simple. Tchaikovsky has a few things named after him in Moscow (and throughout Russia), including a major conservatory and a museum. To change the name of these institutions would likely take time, despite the efficiency for which things in Russia are known to disappear. Such public changes are bound to attract attention (a fact which long ruffled the feathers of old Uncle Joe in his dealings with Shostakovich) and a committee approach would likely allow the memory of Tchaikovsky to linger for a generation or two longer than the authorities would like.
Then there is the matter of his music. Tchaikovsky, as it happens, remains quite popular. What is more, Russian orchestras and musicians are quite good at performing his music. Very good, in fact! There is certainly a wealth of Russian repertoire to take its place—the music of Miaskovsky and Schnittke, for example—but despite the sympathetic view on this matter of law–which is certain to be taken by other progressive countries!—there is a risk that the music if Tchaikovsky may remain in the repertoire of those countries’ finest orchestras. When Russian musicians go abroad, they are likely to be exposed to performances of this forbidden music or even expected to perform it themselves. The only recourse for Russian authorities would therefore be the complete restriction of touring and studies abroad for its finest orchestras and young musicians—quite a difficult thing to enforce.
And this is to say nothing of his ballet music! A ban on Nutcracker would likely deprive ballet companies and young ballet dancers of a long-established repertoire staple, imposing a Siberian winter on the holiday season centerpiece that so many audiences have come to look forward to. This ripple effect would go on and on.
That leaves the latter option of revising history: certain details would have to be omitted or altered. I suppose the memory of poor Ms. Miliukova—the ill-fated Mrs. Tchaikovsky—would fare better under this, but this would likely be the only victory in the matter. To say that Tchaikovsky was such a successful composer because of his sexual orientation would obviously be quite silly. After all, if such behavior allowed for an individual to become a productive member of society, laws such as this would never need to be passed! No, it is obvious that his success was likely to be in spite of his affliction. But in this case, it is no matter: the real point is the previously mentioned domino effect (marriage-suicide attempt-4th symphony) which imparted to his music a new emotional and intellectual depth. Without the suicide attempt, it is unlikely that the 4th symphony would exist as we know it—and we know what led to the attempt! But surely there is a way: perhaps the authorities could come up with an alternative story which is suitable to explain the particular despair (and ultimate triumph) of the 4th.
Yes, the matter of Tchaikovsky is complex and the task for the lawmakers and historians will be daunting. Perhaps it could serve as a reminder that the elimination, subjugation or marginalization of any group of people within a society is a herculean task. Perhaps it would be better, in this case, to allow certain things to continue as they have, or to find sympathy, understanding, compassion and acceptance within our grasp rather than to use our hands to effect iron fisted authoritarianism.