For its next concert, the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir is delving into the life and loves of one of the greatest ever composers, Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky. As the choir’s music director Dr. Sarah Penicka-Smith told the Star Observer it’s been a challenging process.
“Many choir members haven’t sung this kind of music before, and most choir members haven’t sung in Russian before! We’ve been talking a lot about Tchaikovsky’s life, and particularly his death, to try to understand what it was like to be a gay man in 19th century Russia, and how this impacted on Tchaikovsky’s music,” she said.
“There’s a big controversy around how Tchaikovsky died, with some people arguing he was forced to commit suicide or risk exposure of his sexuality.”
Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality is widely acknowledged, but little is known about exactly how comfortable he was with his sexuality. His marriage to Antonina Miliukova lasted less
than three months, and most of his friendships were with gay men, including his brother Modest. Penicka-Smith said she had been delving into Tchaikovsky’s letters to understand what life must have been like for the celebrated composer, juggling his desires with the constraints of 19th century society.
“In 1876, he wrote to Modest that he was contemplating marriage, saying that he found ‘that our inclinations are for both of us the greatest and most insuperable obstacle to happiness, and we must with all our strength struggle with our nature’. He also wrote to his patron, who asked him if he’d ever experienced a love that was not platonic, that he believed ‘the answer to that question is in my music … I have, with love, endeavoured repeatedly to express in music the torment and at the same time the bliss of love’,” he said.
Tchaikovsky’s love of music produced some of the best-loved symphonies, ballets and operas of all time, including Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Eugene Onegin. Penicka-Smith explained that listening to his works with the knowledge that they were written by a homosexual man living in less than accepting times added another lay of depth to their meaning.
“I don’t believe people create art in a vacuum – the more we understand a composer, the more we understand his or her music. And love of all kinds is such an inspiration to so many artists – reading about Tchaikovsky’s trauma, his struggles, and his passions in his letters just highlights all the feelings he poured into his music, feelings which he perhaps couldn’t express any other way.”
“Tchaikovsky is so popular, but so many people don’t realize he was gay. I think if we choose to sing his music, we need to have a conversation about his life, to be open about our interest in him, and not to treat him like a museum piece. If Tchaikovsky were living in Russia today, he would have had just as much trouble coming out.”
INFO: Tchaikovsky: The Lonely Heart, Pitt St Uniting Church, November 3. www.sglc.org