Tchaikovsky's 174th birthday: I'm finally coming out as a lover of his music
It’s birthday time for Tchaikovsky. Actually, it’s also Brahms’s birthday, which I celebrated last year. But this year I decided to do something I’ve been thinking about doing for probably twenty years now: I’m “coming out” as one who has loved his music for a long time now and will continue to love it.
Why have I been relatively silent, even “closeted”, about being a Tchaikovsky fan?
Although I did not grow up with classical music training, it was basically unavoidable to encounter a lot of excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s music from radio, TV, movies. Late in high school, I started listening to a local radio station at night while studying, and found that WQRS Detroit, the classical station, provided good “music to study to”. Now and then I would hear something familiar and realize that I had heard some of it in a cartoon or ad, and make note of what the musical piece really was: who it was by and what its title was. This was when I started identifying music as being by Tchaikovsky (whoever that was; some Russian): for example, my favorite cartoon around age ten was “Tom and Jerry” and I distinctly remembered music from that cartoon.
The thing about his music was that it was very easy to remember and hum and much of it made me want to move. He wrote a lot of waltzes, for example. He clearly had a gift for melody. Also, in his orchestral music you can always hear different instruments playing distinctive lines. I simply effortlessly enjoyed his music, and I know that many others do, and that is why his music is still popular.
In college, many things changed for me that led to my basically deciding to keep quiet about my love for Tchaikovsky’s music.
The main thing that happened was that early in freshman year, in 1987, as I made friends and encountered classmates and others with much more of a classical music background than me (I arrived at college never actually having attended an orchestra concert or even seen a string quartet), at least two specific individuals (one of them a new friend who introduced me to Mozart, for which I am tremendously grateful for) questioned my “taste” and declared Tchaikovsky to be second-rate and sentimental.
Basically, I learned that in certain circles, it was not correct to like Tchaikovsky’s music. It’s easy to make light of this now, but think about it: I bet that in your own current social circles, some kinds of music or performers are deemed inferior and it would be embarrassing (maybe even actually ostracizing) to admit to liking them.
Note that the criticism of Tchaikovsky was not actually without musical point. I was told that his music was too repetitious, that he didn’t know how to do “development”, and so forth. On reflection, I sensed that yes, his music was not perfect, and I did get bored when listening to his longer works (like his symphonies). But I couldn’t help noting that the tone of the criticism wasn’t entirely just objective, but also was a kind of snobbery, an identity marker.
Remember that the year was 1987.
The other thing that happened was learning more about Tchaikovsky, the man. I learned that he was probably homosexual (I believe that later, by the 1990s, a general consensus about this had developed).
In the general population in the US, attitudes toward homosexuality were very different from attitudes today.
I went through four years of college without knowing that three individuals who were part of my social circles (one of them a dorm suite mate) were gay. I learned only later, a year or two after graduating in 1991, that coincidentally each of them came out as gay after entering grad school somewhere. I had no idea. In fact, two of them actually frequently made remarks and jokes disparaging homosexuality.
I do not know how I would have reacted if my dorm suite mate had revealed to me that he was gay. It was a different time; 27 years later, I know plenty of openly gay people now, but back then, words like “fag” were thrown around casually in conversation in my social circles. When I think about that, it is not a surprise that an apparently sizeable number of friends and classmates of mine were gay and closeted. If you need a reminder of the conversational climate, watch the “Bill and Ted” movies from the period (which I watched happily with my friends); you may cringe.
In any case, returning to Tchaikovsky, there was something of atmosphere of disparaging his music as “effeminate” or some such thing, as opposed to the “masculinity” of Beethoven.
By the way, note that even today, there are still those who, despite all the historical evidence, try to deny Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation.
For the first year or two in college, while I was exploring a lot of music I hadn’t heard before anyway, I let go of my youthful enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky.
But by senior year, I was done with pointlessly internalizing any external pressures I thought I faced. If anyone had asked me, I would not have denied enjoying Tchaikovsky’s music.
I still remember excitedly discovering an old LP recording, in one of the campus libraries, of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting a performance of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, the “Pathétique”, I jumped to check it out and copy it to cassette tape.
But today, I am going further than just standing my ground. I am declaring that in fact, Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of beautiful, worthy music. It would be a mistake to focus on how he did not write music structured like Beethoven’s. Why should we judge someone by whether his work is like someone else’s? In fact, Tchaikovsky outspokenly did not like the music of Beethoven anyway. His favorite composer was Mozart!
Ironically, it is completely unremarkable for me to be praising Tchaikovsky today. You might even wonder why I’m doing this. I believe that sometime in the 1990s, it became OK again to like Tchaikovsky. So my whole awkward experience early in college was a glimpse into an earlier era of taste. I wrote this post mainly to share some memories of what the atmosphere was still like in the 1980s. Maybe if you are over forty or fifty years old, you can remember also.
The main lesson I have learned is to be true to myself, and not play bullshit games with trying to “fit in” socially through markers of musical (or other) taste.
I feel like my teens and even my twenties were wasted by caring what the hell people thought about me. Today, I hide nothing. Maybe I’m just old and cranky now, but it seems silly to me to base my identity or ego on what kind of music or food or clothing or hairstyle or car I like or don’t. Well, here I am. I love Tchaikovsky; do you have a problem with that? That’s what I’d tell my 17-year-old self if I could travel back in time. And I’m saying it now to you, if case you’re reading this and you’re in your teens or twenties! Free your soul. Don’t care what your closest friends think; it’s OK to be different from them.
The other lesson I have learned is that being in the majority can easily blind you to the realities of life for a minority. I’m not gay. As a result, I never quite understood how life was for gay people in the US in the 1980s. It was really eye-opening to me when a year after graduating from college, I kept hearing about people I thought I knew coming out as gay. I learned that I could not make assumptions any more about people.
Some musical excerpts
It wouldn’t be a birthday celebration without some musical excerpts.
“June” barcarolle from “The Seasons”
I played a bit of “June” for myself on my digital piano to celebrate. I’d never actually touched it till today. I may work on learning the whole thing. Or not. Anyway, I was in the mood. It’s still only May, but here’s a beautiful live performance by pianist Lev Oborin, possibly the best I’ve found on YouTube:
I still haven’t gone to a ballet performance of “Swan Lake” but mean to sometime. (No, I have not watched the “Black Swan” film yet and don’t know that I will!) There is a lot of beautiful music in “Swan Lake”.
I played for myself a piano transcription by Bantock of the famous act 2 scene 10 (sorry, there is no recording of myself of that yet).
Here’s a live video of a performance of the original orchestral version:
Symphony no. 6, “Pathétique”
Great music, if depressing. Live performance conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1951:
1812 Overture on melodica and violin
Now for something hilarious and delightful: James Howard Young and Cliff Bernzweig in action.
A quarter of a century ago, I was made to feel uncomfortable about enjoying Tchaikovsky’s music. Times have changed, but I wanted to share my story (and also some favorite musical selections).
How do you feel about Tchaikovsky’s music? Do you participate in uncomfortable social cliques of taste revolving around policing of musical taste? When do you think everyone will finally accept that Tchaikovsky was gay?comments powered by Disqus