Episode: Tchaikovsky: Does His Sex Life Matter to His Music?

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Tchaikovsky: Does His Sex Life Matter to His Music?

It's hard to talk about Tchaikovsky these days without getting into, well, sex.

That probably says less about the Russian composer, who was born 175 years ago Thursday, than it does about us, according to Simon Morrison, a professor of Slavic Studies at Princeton University. 

Tchaikovsky's letters and journal entries leave little doubt that he was gay. But Morrison cautions against reducing his operas, ballets and symphonies to coded expressions of his private life. "Generally these works are very rich," said Morrison, who recently wrote about Tchaikovsky for the Times Literary Supplement. "And to some degree, I wonder whether the average gay person looking at the kind of things that are written about this composer – his suffering and his identity – would actually find them rather offensive."

Homophobia has figured in some of the attacks on Tchaikovsky over the years, including criticisms that his music is overly emotional and sentimental. Things get murkier, too, when we consider Tchaikovsky's music in the context of contemporary Russia, where the church and state wield a lot of influence on cultural matters.

In 2013, for instance, when a prominent Russian screenwriter, Yuri Arabov, set out to make a bio-pic about Tchaikovsky, with state funding, he announced that he wouldn’t be mentioning the composer's sexual orientation. It came on the heels of Vladimir Putin's newly enacted "gay propaganda" laws. And a recent conference at the Glinka Museum in Moscow featured a panel that took a sharply critical line on Western critiques of the composer. 

"There's a broader agenda within cultural circles to look at a composer who's legitimately Russian," said Morrison, "and look at how his local legacy has been tarnished and distorted through an over-emphasis on his personal life and intimate matters. There's a pullback and a reaction against it. But to write articles saying he was not homosexual – that's not true."

How should audiences come to terms with Tchaikovsky's love life? Listen to the full segment at the top of the page and please leave your thoughts below.

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