Tchaikovsky: A Life
by Alexander Poznansky (continued)
Bearing in mind his affair with Désirée Artôt, there is every reason to believe that until the middle of the 1870s Tchaikovsky did not take his homosexuality too seriously and, as frequently is the case, did not allow himself to think that his sexual preferences were irreversible or insurmountable. Most probably he thought that he could act on his inclinations for as long as possible, but that, when it became absolutely necessary, he could simply abandon these habits.
After travelling with his brother Modest and Nikolay Konradi in early 1876, Tchaikovsky clearly realized that the emotional atmosphere surrounding his brother's relationship with his charge was unhealthy and deeply fraught with potential, if not imminent, danger. He became conscious of this on a very personal level, since he also felt an erotic attraction to the boy, and had always been a role model for his younger brothers. And so the composer resolved to end the crisis in his own way by setting an example himself.
On 19/31 August 1876 Tchaikovsky suddenly wrote to his brother: "I have decided to marry. It is inevitable. I must do this, and not only for myself, but also for you and for Anatoly, Aleksandra [their sister] and all whom I love. For you in particular! But you also, Modest, need to think seriously about this. Homosexuality and pedagogy cannot abide in harmony with one another" . A month later, in a letter to Modest, he stressed this point further: "A man who, after parting with, so to speak, his own (he can be called your own) child then falls into the embraces of any passing trash, cannot be the real educator that you want and ought to become" . Discussing with Modest the possibility of the three of them living together the following year, the composer touched upon another issue which no doubt had been weighing heavily on his mind: "I do not want evil tongues to wound an innocent child, about whom they would inevitably say that I am preparing him to be my own lover, moreover, a mute one, in order to elude idle talk and rumours" . Contemptuous though he was of public opinion, Tchaikovsky found that he could ignore it no longer. He was never a fighter by nature, and in the end he had no choice but to yield. His sudden and impulsive decision to marry was motivated primarily by an emotion more altruistic than selfish—-a desire to ensure his relatives’ peace of mind and to retain full and mutual understanding with them without the need for reticence or deception.
Until this time Tchaikovsky had treated his homosexuality as a morally indifferent phenomenon. Now it suddenly seemed imperative to suppress it and, what is more, to advise his brother to do the same. Indeed, his customary relationship with Modest dictated that Tchaikovsky set an example of behaviour to be imitated, one that might save Modest from the danger of scandal without causing him to abandon a pupil who was so deeply loved by both brothers. That he himself would have to make certain sacrifices in this respect must no doubt have flattered the self-esteem of the composer, who may well have seen the decision as an almost heroic gesture. Nevertheless, however vigorous their intent, Tchaikovsky's preparations for marriage did not proceed without some severe setbacks. A few weeks after his sombre letters to Modest about marriage, he went to the country estate of his friend Bek-Bulatov, where he discovered a veritable homosexual bordello, and found himself infatuated with his coachman .
Tchaikovsky was torn by ambivalent feelings on the subject of sexuality and marriage. In a letter of 28 September/10 October 1876, after referring to three homosexual encounters since his last letter, he agreed with his brother, that "it is not possible to restrain oneself, despite all one’s vows, from one's weaknesses" . Moreover, at the end of the same letter he honestly confessed: "I shall not enter into any lawful or illicit union with a woman without having fully ensured my own peace and my own freedom" . The "freedom" that Tchaikovsky intended to ensure obviously refers to the freedom to indulge in those "weaknesses" which could not be resisted, whatever vows one may make.
Some time later, at the end of 1876, he fell deeply in love with his conservatory student Iosif Kotek. This was a "passion" which, he admitted in a letter to Modest on 19/31 January 1877, assailed him "with unimaginable force":
It happened that around this time, in the spring of 1877, when Tchaikovsky’s passion for Kotek suddenly declined (owing to the latter's infidelity and his disfigured finger), and when another close homosexual friend Vladimir Shilovsky was getting married, Tchaikovsky received several love letters from a former conservatory student named Antonina Milyukova (1848–1917) . Tchaikovsky hardly remembered Antonina, since he met her for the first time in Moscow in late May 1872, at the apartment of her brother, the staff-captain Alexander Milyukov (1840–85), whose wife Anastasia (née Khvostova) was a close friend of the composer from his days at the School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg .
Antonina later admitted, both in her letters to Tchaikovsky (1880s) and in her recollections (1893), that this first meeting made an indelible impression on her, resulting in a profound affection that lasted for many years. She lent special meaning to the fact that her love arose from her attraction to Tchaikovsky’s appearance and purely human qualities, and that she was utterly ignorant of his music and growing fame in cultural circles. At Tchaikovsky’s personal invitation Antonina attended the premiere of his Cantata for the Opening of the Polytechnic Exhibition in Moscow on 30 May/11 June 1872. Their relationship, however, did not develop in the years after their first meeting, and it was only during Antonina’s studies at the conservatory that they briefly saw each other within the walls of this institution. As Antonina later wrote, she loved Tchaikovsky “secretly” for over four years. In late 1876, Antonina received a small inheritance due to the division of the family estate. This potential “dowry” was apparently the immediate incentive for taking active steps toward renewing her acquaintance with the composer .
On 26 March/7 April 1877, Antonina sent Tchaikovsky a written confession of her love for him . Both Antonina and Tchaikovsky testified that they “began a correspondence", as a result of which the composer received her offer “of hand and heart” already in the early days of May 1877 .
On 20 May/1 June Tchaikovsky met Antonina. An analysis of Antonina’s surviving letters suggests that in all likelihood their personal meeting was initiated by Tchaikovsky himself. The threat of suicide, made in the last letter Antonina wrote before their meeting, cannot be considered a serious factor in Tchaikovsky’s eventual decision; in the context of the entire letter, this “threat” seems to be no more than a device in the tradition of sentimental models from so-called “letter books,” which were popular at the time and which contained samples of fictional letters for all occasions .
The meeting occurred in the house where Antonina was renting a room, on the corner of Tverskaya Street and Maly Gnezdnikovsky Lane in Moscow. At the next meeting, on 23 May/4 June, Tchaikovsky made a formal proposal, promising his bride only his "brotherly" love, to which she readily agreed . But Tchaikovsky chose not to mention this meeting in his letter to Modest, written on the same day. Instead he sought to explain his cooling off with regard to Kotek, and even began to see the manifestations of Providence in various coincidences that had recently happened:
The marriage took place at Saint George’s Church in Moscow on 6/18 July 1877. The bridegroom’s witnesses were his brother Anatoly and his friend Iosif Kotek, the bride’s were her close friends Vladimir Vinogradov and Vladimir Malama. They were joined by the priest Dmitry Razumovsky, who was also professor of history of church music at the conservatory .
The majority of biographical works on Tchaikovsky date the beginning of his relationship with Antonina Milyukova to early May 1877, the time of the genesis and first drafts of his opera Yevgeny Onegin. According to the composer’s own testimony in his letters to Nadezhda von Meck, an important factor in their rapid intimacy and marriage was Tchaikovsky’s fascination with the plot of Pushkin’s novel—his sympathy for the heroine and his desire to avoid “repeating” Onegin’s cruelty towards a woman who loves him. Another significant factor was Antonina’s own insistent requests for meetings, accompanied by threats to commit suicide in case of a refusal. The fact that there remained about two weeks before the idea of the opera Yevgeny Onegin took root in Tchaikovsky's mind, after being suggested by the singer Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya on 13/25 May, allows one to conclude that the choice of Pushkin’s novel as the plot for an opera could have been stimulated by Tchaikovsky’s personal situation: a distant female acquaintance confessing her love in a letter .
From the very beginning of his married life Tchaikovsky greatly suffered from his new predicament. He quickly realized that he had made a grave mistake. Moreover, he found himself unable to accept the personality and character of his wife as well as her family and circle of friends. After 20 days of cohabitation their marriage was still not consummated . It is uncertain whether Tchaikovsky had confided in his wife at the outset regarding the problem of his homosexuality or whether she may simply have disregarded such a confession. On 27 July/8 August, Tchaikovsky left Antonina for one-and-a-half months, travelling to Kamenka to stay with his sister .
After returning to Moscow the composer lived with his wife from 12/24 September to 24 September/6 October at their apartment on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street (not far from the conservatory), before leaving her for good. In the first instance, Tchaikovsky contrived to be summoned to Saint Petersburg on a fictitious errand, and thereupon he departed abroad for a considerable period of time in order to recuperate from a nervous breakdown which, as it transpires from archival documents, was faked .
Be that as it may, there hardly remains any doubt that his homosexuality, coupled with the psychological incompatibility on which he insisted in his correspondence, proved the ultimate cause of the break-up of his marriage. This recognition forced Tchaikovsky to admit that he had failed in his plan to enhance his social and personal stability. Most importantly, however, his impulsive marriage helped him to realize that his homosexuality could not be changed and had to be accepted as it was. That Tchaikovsky at some point came to think of it as "natural" follows from his use of that very term in a letter to his brother Anatoly on 13/25 February 1878 from Florence: “Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature" .
There is not a single document from the rest of his life that can be construed as an expression of self-torment on account of his homosexuality. Some occasional expressions of nostalgia for family life are perfectly understandable in a bachelor, and have nothing to do with sexual orientation. Tchaikovsky’s eventual solution in his private life became, while often entertaining passionate and even sublime feelings for young males among his social peers, including his pupils, to gratify his physical needs by means of anonymous encounters with members of the lower classes. In between was his manservant Aleksey Sofronov ("Alyosha"), whose status changed over the years from one of bed-mate to that of a valued friend, who eventually married with Tchaikovsky’s blessing, but stayed in his household till the very end. At the end of his life the composer succeeded in creating an emotionally satisfying environment through close family relationships, and by surrounding himself with a group of admiring young men, headed by his beloved nephew Bob Davydov.
Tchaikovsky undertook several attempts at divorce between 1878 and 1880, but without success, since for a long time Antonina continued to believe in the possibility of some sort of future “reconciliation”, and refused to agree to what her husband proposed, thereby invoking his wrath, with accusations of stupidity, suspicions of "blackmail", etc. Only in 1881 did Tchaikovsky finally abandon the idea of divorce. At this time he ceased paying his wife the pension he had promised her (it had fluctuated from 50 to 100 roubles a month) on the rounds of her erratic and unpredictable behaviour.
Antonina Milyukova’s role in Tchaikovsky’s life is no longer viewed in the one-dimensional terms that used to prevail. It is impossible to deny that she had a very negative effect on the composer’s psychological and physical state, a fact that is confirmed by Tchaikovsky’s own statements in his letters and diaries. Tchaikovsky called his wife a "terrible wound"—he felt heavily burdened by his legal bind and sometimes even afraid of possible "disclosures" by her concerning his homosexual preferences.
Yet Tchaikovsky was also deeply concerned over the entire fiasco, and felt sincere remorse for his apparently cruel treatment of Antonina. Paradoxically, it is precisely the years from 1877 to 1880—the most difficult time in Tchaikovsky’s marital drama—that stand out as one of his most productive periods in a creative sense. Subsequently Tchaikovsky was plagued with pangs of conscience: for instance in his letters to Pyotr Jurgenson from 1883 and 1888, where he asks his publisher to locate his abandoned spouse in order to help her materially. Tchaikovsky appreciated his wife’s musical abilities, which is evident by a series of favourable judgments found in his letters. But Tchaikovsky often perceived Antonina’s personal qualities unfairly, painting a distorted picture of her, based on his irritation at this or that trait of her character (for instance, in his letters to Nadezhda von Meck, his brothers, and others). One of Tchaikovsky’s more balanced statements in respect to his wife can be found in a letter to his sister Aleksandra, written from Rome on 8/20 November 1877: "I give full justice to her sincere desire to be a good wife and friend to me, and... it is not her fault that I did not find what I was looking for" . The fact remains that, despite her ruined family life and perennial pain, not once did Antonina attempt to “avenge” her husband. On the contrary, she even embellished slightly the composer’s human image in her recollections: “No one, not a single person in the world, can accuse him of any base action.”
Until recently, most of Tchaikovsky’s biographers have recounted the details of Tchaikovsky’s marriage in a superficial and tendentious manner, always with a bias in favour of the composer. Antonina Milyukova’s own recollections, which present her side of the story, have been labelled the product of a rash and insane woman, and therefore ignored . Recent archival studies have made it possible to clarify several key details relating to Antonina’s origins, and the history of the couple’s acquaintance, marriage, further relationship and her life after their separation .
After the composer’s death, Antonina received a pension of 100 roubles a month, which Tchaikovsky left her in his will. She moved to Saint Petersburg and moved near to the Saint Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery, where he was buried. Antonina’s further fate was tragic: soon after Tchaikovsky’s death she began to display signs of an emotional disorder (a mania of persecution). By 1896 the disease had worsened and Antonina moved to Kronstadt, where she sought spiritual support and a cure from the renowned miracle-worker Father John of Kronstadt. For some unknown reason the priest refused to help her. In October 1896 Antonina ended up in the Saint Petersburg Hospital of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker for the emotionally disturbed. After her relative recovery, in February 1900, she was released from the hospital, only to return there in June of 1901 with a diagnosis of paranoia chronica. A month later, with the help of Tchaikovsky’s brother Anatoly, she was transferred to a more comfortable psychiatric hospital outside the city—the Charitable Home for the Emotionally Disturbed at Udelnaia. The pension of her late husband served as payment for her room and board. Antonina spent the last ten years of her life at this institution more as a “resident” than a patient. The home provided her with medical supervision in her old age, with attentive care by the personnel, and full living conveniences. She died of pneumonia on 16 February/1 March 1917, and was buried at the Uspensky Cemetery in Saint Petersburg. Her grave has not survived.
This page was last updated on 07 April 2013