Pathétique Chic


Arnold Schoenberg was the gayest composer in the world. This makes perfect sense— if you go by the rhetoric of cultural stereotypes. After all, Schoenberg turned his back on what is considered “natural” tonality and supplanted it with an “unnatural” system of ordering pitches, the 12-tone system. On top of that, the music sounds so anguished— surely a musical representation of torment, the natural condition of the homosexual.

Gustav Mahler might be a better candidate. His music is so blustery, exaggerated, and overly sentimental, with a good dose of anguish, too. Lots of fey, funereal movements in those unstable, bloated symphonies— one of them even ended up in Luchino Visconti’s movie of the gay novella Death in Venice.

Yet both these composers were die-hard heterosexuals, so they couldn’t possibly have written “gay music.” But if Schoenberg and Mahler happened to be gay, their music might well be talked about that way. The way, say, Tchaikovsky’s music is talked about. In fact, as music history’s token gay, Tchaikovsky— the only famous 19th-century composer that we know for certain was homosexual, and who killed himself because of it (or so the rumor goes)— could only compose “gay music” (whatever that is).

Take, for instance, the comment of Tchaikovsky biographer David Brown, who writes in Grove’s music dictionary: “The growing confirmation of his homosexuality was already leaving its marks on Tchaikovsky’s music. The element of overstatement must surely arise from the need to find an outlet for emotional drives that could not be channeled into a full physical relationship.” Or the passing comment of John Warrack, who writes in a recent BBC Music Guide: “Such [ballet] visions were part of his longing to seek escape from the deepening unhappiness of his life, tormented as he was by his homosexuality and craving the peace and fulfilment of the steady female love that seemed to lie beyond his grasp.” In other words, if music is deemed “hysterical,” that’s an accurate reflection of the poor, gay soul; and if the same music sounds happy, that’s nothing more than an effeminate escape from an unbearable reality.

I’ll admit there’s something “queer” about a waltz in 5/4 time in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, which was magnificently performed by the Kirov Orchestra under Valery Gergiev at Carnegie Hall last week, along with other late works, which are not necessarily (or consistently) “tragic.” (What about The Nutcracker, written about the same time?) But how this
unfortunately titled symphony has become an emblematic summation of a tormented life, even a musical suicide note, is part of a historical process privileging myth over reality.

Alexander Poznansky’s brilliantly researched 1991 biography, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man, turned the myth upside down. Poznansky convincingly demonstrated that Tchaikovsky had personally come to terms with his sexuality, a lifestyle tolerated by his gay brother, Modest, and in the aristocratic circles in which he traveled. His lovers included the poet Aleksey Apukhtin, his servant Alyosha, and the violinist Iosef Kotek (for whom he wrote his Violin Concerto and Valse-Scherzo). According to Poznansky, he had no idea he was going to die nine days after he conducted the premiere of his Pathétique, a symphonic masterpiece inspired by his love for his nephew, but understood ex post facto as his final, loveless farewell.

It seems that Tchaikovsky’s “suicide” boils down to an unboiled glass of cholera-infested water. Whatever the cause of his death, as musicologist Richard Taruskin writes: “The appeal of the suicide story is not that it happened, but that it ought to have happened.” This scenario is as appealing to gays with a stake in martyrhood as it is to misinformed though sympathetic straights.

In any event, what would queer musicology make of, say, straight-shooter Brahms, who could be infinitely more tragic and effeminate than his Russian contemporary? And what about the possibility of gay composers who want to pass as straight, and so beef up their music’s virility (as in the case of Handel, possibly)? This gets at the heart of the problem when talking about gender and sexual orientation in music. Not that it’s an uninteresting question, but once you attempt to answer it, nonsense ensues. The debate chases its tail, choking on it, as it necessarily revolves around cultural stereotypes and absurd generalizations. The situation says just as much about the amorphous nature of sexuality as it does about the abstract and ambiguous nature of music, not to mention the limits of language, and how we started talking this way. That’s the truly interesting stuff.

Tchaikovsky, reacting to the premiere of Wagner’s Ring, wrote: “Before, music strove to delight people; now they are tormented and exhausted.” For all the torment attributed to his music, Tchaikovsky, perhaps the most popular classical composer of all time, never torments listeners, gay or straight. It’s no surprise he’s ended up on Broadway, the gay ghost haunting Matthew Bourne’s decidedly homoerotic take on Swan Lake.