Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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Tchaikovsky – the brilliant composer of Swan LakeThe Nutcracker, and dozens of other classic works – occupied (and still occupies) an unusual position as a gay Russian celebrity. His music’s worth is beyond dispute, recognized as it has been on an international scale for the past century and a half; his sexuality, however, has become highly politicized and contentious, caught up in light disputes between musicologists, and his home country’s more serious ingrained homophobia.

During Tchaikovsky’s lifetime Russian music was only beginning to come into its own. Traditional folk tunes were viewed as being at war with Western European conservatory-style teachings, and there was little formal acclaim or recognition to be won as a composure. The limited opportunities offered to musicians convinced Tchaikovsky’s parents that he would be better in the civil service realm, but he abandoned the promise of steady work, and was lucky enough with his timing to enroll in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory’s premiere class. From there, he managed to navigate the turbulent nationalist waters well enough to rise to a fame based on what was viewed as a uniquely Russian style of composition, and one shaped by the discipline of a formal musical education.

The musicologist dispute over the degree to which Tchaikovsky’s sexuality influenced his composition can also be viewed as a debate over 19th century Russia’s sexual permissiveness, a point of historical contention. Some critics maintain that surrounding cultural hostility fostered in him a sense of guilt, while others maintain that a combination of Russia being more open than is popularly realized, the protection from legal hostility his fame brought him, and the close circle of friends, family, and lovers he was able to keep, made his sexuality a relatively small concern in his life. What is known is that he freely confided his love affairs in his sister, Modest, and that he was married and had a few other relationships with women, though those ended poorly. (His marriage, for example, only held for a few months before he fled.)

Nowadays, anti-gay laws in Russia are leading to reported self-censorship on the part of producers of an upcoming Tchaikovsky biopic. Acknowledging that one of their country’s national heroes had same-sex attractions may put the filmmakers at risk for fines under new regulations that prohibit “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” so they have reportedly adopted the spin that Tchaikovsky suffered from rumors about his sexuality.

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