Monday, December 29, 2008

Did He, or Didn't He?

In the 1980's some historians suggested that the Russian composer Tchaikovsky engaged in same-sex genital contact. Some additionally suggested that a secret society ordered him, or blackmailed him, into committing suicide. What is the evidence?

Just nine days after the first performance of his Sixth Symphony, in 1893, in St Petersburg, Tchaikovsky died.

Some musicologists believe that he consciously wrote his Sixth Symphony as his own Requiem. In the development section of the first movement, the rapidly progressing evolution of the transformed first theme suddenly “shifts into neutral” in the strings, and a rather quiet, harmonized chorale emerges in the trombones. The trombone theme bears absolutely no relation to the music that preceded it, and none to the music that follows it. It appears to be a musical “non sequitur”, an anomaly — but it is from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the Dead, in which it is sung to the words: “And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints.” Tchaikovsky was buried in a graveyard in St Petersburg.

Until recent years it had been generally assumed that Tchaikovsky died of cholera after drinking contaminated water. However, a controversial theory published in 1980 and based only on oral history (i.e., without documentary evidence), explains Tchaikovsky’s death as a suicide.

In this account, Tchaikovsky committed suicide by consuming small doses of arsenic following an attempt to blackmail him over his homosexuality. His alleged death by cholera (whose symptoms have some similarity with arsenic poisoning) is supposed to have been a cover for this suicide. According to the theory, Tchaikovsky’s own brother, also homosexual, helped conspire to keep the secret. There are many circumstantial events that some say lend credence to the theory, such as wrong dates on the death certificate, conflicting testimony from the brother and the doctor about the timeline of his death, the fact that Tchaikovsky’s funeral was open casket, and that the sheets from his deathbed were merely laundered instead of being burned. There are also passages in Rimsky-Korsakov’s autobiography years later about how people at the funeral kissed Tchaikovsky on the face, even though he had died from cholera. These passages were deleted by Russian authorities from later editions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s book.

The suicide theory is hotly disputed by others, who argues that Tchaikovsky could easily have drunk tainted water because his class regarded cholera as a disease that afflicted only poor people, or because restaurants would mix boiled water with cool, unboiled water; that the circumstances of his death are entirely consistent with cholera; and that homosexuality (“gentlemanly games”) was widely tolerated among the upper classes of Tsarist Russia. To this day, no one knows how Tchaikovsky truly died.

Tchaikovsky’s childhood fits the out-dated stereotypical theory of homosexuality: hovering, emotionally high-strung mother, distant father. Tchaikovsky’s younger brother turned out gay, too. Only fourteen when his mother died, Pyotr was devastated by the loss.

After that, his closest female connection was with a rich widow he never met. For fourteen years, he carried on a devoted and remarkably intimate correspondence with her, who supported him financially but insisted on no personal contact. Early on, an apparently serious proposal to an opera singer was called off, and a midlife marriage to a love-struck student was brief and disastrous.

But two of Tchaikovsky’s greatest works were completed in the shadow of that spectacularly ill-starred marriage. It’s hard not to read autobiography into the opera, with its worldly-wise young nobleman spurning a lovesick girl. But one historian has gone so far as to read sexual conflict into the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.

The most hotly contentious issue, though, is Tchaikovsky’s death. For decades, the official story was that he had died of cholera after downing a glass of unboiled water. But in a 1979 article, one historian argued that the composer committed suicide when an unofficial “honor court” threatened to expose his advances toward a young man.

It was a fanciful scenario based on whisperings over the years, but there remains no hard evidence. “We don’t know what caused Tchaikovsky’s death,” a U of M historian in Ann Arbor says. “That is the bottom line.”

But he adds, “The suicide theory just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

To sum it all up, the theories of the 1980’s were this: Tchaikovsky engaged in same-sex genital contact; he was discovered; he was blackmailed into committing suicide.

In order to accept those theories, it would be necessary to prove the following: (1) that Tchaikovsky engaged in those sexual activities; (2) that it was discovered; (3) that there was an organized conspiracy to blackmail him; and (4) that he complied.

One more thing would have to be proven: that it Tchaikovsky’s social circle, homosexuality was condemned to the point that it would entice a man to suicide. In fact, many of the more notorious artists of that era were “out” and flamboyant homosexuals. Why would Tchaikovsky have even cared, if he were a homosexual, and someone exposed that fact?

The unsatisfying conclusion we must draw is this: we have too little evidence to say conclusively whether or not Tchaikovsky engaged in same-sex genital contact. His private life will remain forever that: private.