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New Film Puts Tchaikovsky Back in the Closet

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Saturday Aug 24, 2013
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n 1978, Ken Russell made a biopic about Tchaikovsky in which its opening sequence ended with Richard Chamberlain (as the composer) and British actor Christopher Gable (as a member of the Russian aristocracy) falling into bed. Called "The Music Lovers," the film suggested the root of Tchaikovsky’s problems was that he couldn’t deal with his homosexuality. To hide it, he marries an fervent fan (played by Glenda Jackson) with disastrous results.

You will likely not see this interpretation in an upcoming biopic being made in Russia set for release in 2015. This Tchaikovsky biography, to be directed by the acclaimed theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, is already controversial due to comments made by its screenwriter, Yuri Arabov, in an interview in the newspaper Izvestia.

In a report in the New York Times, Abrabov told the Izvestia reporter that his film would not focus on Tchaikovsky’s sexuality because "it is far from a fact that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual.

"Only philistines think this," he continued. "What philistines believe should not be shown in films."


Instead, the Times continued, "’Tchaikovsky’ would show Russia’s most revered composer as a man who ’is marked by rumors and suffers greatly from this.’"

According to Serebrennikov, the film would tell "the true story of the tragic love and death of the brilliant Russian composer." In this scenario, Tchaikovsky runs into his first love at a ball, only to discover she’s married. "When she finally leaves her husband," the Times reported, ’the composer dies of cholera with her at his side."

Abrabov claims that his decision to not show Tchaikovsky as gay has nothing to do with the recently passed anti-gay legislation that has put Russia in the international spotlight. But that the film is to receive state financing only reinforces the notion that the filmmakers are willing accomplices to rewriting history. Abrabov said he would not sign his "name to a film that advertises homosexuality... Not because I don’t have a gay friend, but because this is outside the sphere of art."


Whatever the reason, the new film resembles those old Hollywood biopics that whitewash the lives of composers (gay or straight). The most flagrant example of a gay composer getting the straight makeover was Cole Porter in 1946’s "Night and Day." Played by Cary Grant he was an urbane womanizer in love with Alexis Smith. Porter was said to have loved the film, but added there wasn’t a word of truth to it.

Like Porter, Tchaikovsky was said to have been indiscreet about his homosexuality, which has led to theories that it led him to suicide (by drinking a glass of water contaminated with cholera) because of his being gay. Some theories claim he did so under orders of a so-called "Court of Honor" convened after a complaint was made against the composer that was to be sent to Czar Alexander II, but a local government official intervened and called a "Court of Honor" instead, which was comprised of some of Tchaikovsky’s old schoolmates. They are said to have demanded he commit suicide to avoid a scandal; he was said to drink contaminated water the next day.

Another theory has that the suicide order came from the Czar after it became known that Tchaikovsky seduced a young man who lived in apartments adjacent to those of his brother Modeste. A third posits that the composer recklessly drank the water when he realized the extent of his infatuation with his young nephew at the time he was writing his Sixth symphony. He was to die nine days after the October, 18893 premiere in St. Petersburg, which he conducted.


The composer’s (now questioned) homosexuality came up in an open letter that British actor Stephen Fry sent to the British prime minister David Cameron of Britain and the International Olympic Committee this week. Comparing the anti-gay atmosphere in Russia today to that of Nazi Germany, he concluded that to refer to Tchaikovsky as gay would be criminal today.

"Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment," he wrote.

The question of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality has led to a number of different interpretations amongst musicologists. Some suggesting that it was the guiding force in his life (and despair); others, such as the position held during the Soviet regimes, saying that he was not gay at all. Russell’s film articulated the former position, while the new film follows that latter, more doctrinaire line.


Writing on the BBC website, musicologist Dr. Marina Frolova-Walker sees the truth as falling somewhere between the idea that Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was the lief-motif that guided his life or (as the new film suggests) a fiction, stating that he could balance a straight public persona (by getting married) with gay indiscretions on the side. Frolova-Walker says this all changed after his failed marriage, after which he became "resigned himself (with some relief) to the life of a discreet homosexual, forming a long-lasting relationship with his servant Alyosha Sofronov, while from time to time he had temporary relationships with men of his own social class, like the violinist Josef Kotek, and while abroad he would sometimes seek the services of male prostitutes. The exact nature of his profound love for his nephew Bob Davydov, the dedicatee of the Sixth Symphony, may never be known."

Do we need to know this? Frolova-Walker concludes: "Perhaps we do, if only to provide a corrective to the myth that Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was a cruel, inescapable ’Fate’ that made his life miserable and made him write hysteria-ridden music. It certainly troubled him at times, but it did not lead to social exclusion, loneliness, or, indeed suicide (as another of the myths would have it). He tended to bemoan his sexuality only at times of crisis. For the rest of the time, it brought him both sorrows and joys much like any other individual, straight or gay. While critics continue looking for signs of ’essential’ difference in his music, such as ’queer’ tonal relations and homoerotic symbolism, audiences, perhaps more level-headedly, are happy to embrace Tchaikovsky’s universal humanity with open hearts."

But in today’s Russia, Tchaikovsky is clearly headed back in the closet.


Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.

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