Tchaikovsky's sexual torments

December 15, 1991|By Roger Dettmer

TCHAIKOVSKY: THE QUEST

FOR THE INNER MAN.

Alexander Poznansky.

Schirmer.

679 pages. $39.95. "The lives of great men inevitably become encrusted with a mythology that they themselves, their relatives and friends, their contemporaries, or their posterity produces, inadvertently or intentionally. . . . This is not a study of Tchaikovsky's music. [It] is devoted to the man as God created him, to his education, to his circumstances, to the character of the age and country in which he lived and worked."

What Alexander Poznansky promises in the preface of this vast and richly illustrated book, he delivers. Unsparingly, it "outs" Russia in the second half of the 19th century, yet neither pruriently nor judgmentally. "The Quest for the Inner Man" examines its homosexual protagonist from within and without. A decade of research by the Soviet-born and -educated author -- today a librarian at Yale University -- has resulted in a biography as penetrating, profoundly revealing, and readable in the bargain, as Henry-Louis de La Grange's of Mahler in 1972, or Hans Moldenhauer's of Anton von Wedbern in 1979.

Tchaikovsky, who already was lionized in his lifetime, became after death one of the world's most enduringly beloved composers. The cause of death at the age of 53 was cholera -- not peer-pressured suicide on orders from the czar, as whispered back then or again recently.

In a surprising number of ways, cultural Russia during the composer's lifetime (1840-'93) resembled the United States today, including counterparts of Ed Meese, Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer. Homosexuals were recognized, gossiped about and, if famous enough, socially courted -- from Grand Duke Sergey Aleksandrovich (brother of the czar) to Prince Meshchersky (trusted adviser of the czar) to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (favorite composer of the czar).

Otherwise, a legion of anonymous gay males partied, met in steam baths, cruised parks, coupled and decoupled while the rest of the populace went about their lives unaware. That is, unless their paths crossed -- as those did of Tchaikovsky and a former student, Antonina Milyukova, who sent him a passionate letter in 1877 declaring her love.

Aware that his growing fame needed a bourgeois screen, he mar

ried her quickly and secretly, on the condition that they never have sex. When she reneged (very likely did not understand the condition), he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hurried to Switzerland by younger twin brothers (one of them gay, the other not).

Preadolescent boys were his weakness, although infatuations did not automatically (or perhaps very often) lead to sex, nor was he the predator that parents of pretty boys fear most. But diaries about the 12-year-old nephew who became his terminal amour, and to whom he dedicated the "Pathetique" Symphony, were embarrassing even in a bowdlerized translation 40 years ago.

Even so, he was no misogynist, despite calculated deceits -- notably in the case of Nadezhda von Meck, the rich widow who gave him a munificent monthly allowance for 13 years in return for correspondence and confidences. Mr. Poznansky's research reveals an anomalous woman who surely loved, and purchased, Tchaikovsky as she might a piece of property, yet insisted that they never meet.

Considering that decades of Soviet censors have inked out or suppressed a great deal from the composer's indiscreet letters and diaries, Mr. Poznansky warns modestly that future revelations and possible revisionism not only are possible but likely. He directs those interested in the music per se to a four-volume study in progress by David Brown (with the caution that Mr. Brown is not always a trustworthy biographer). However, as a portrait of the person who made this music, and the milieu he inhabited, "The Quest for the Inner Man" is definitive, and in greater part likely to remain so.

Mr. Dettmer is a longtime classical music critic. He lives in Baltimore.

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