Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Is Tchaikovsky’s "Pathétique" Symphony a Suicide Note?

I haven’t updated this blog in a week, mostly because I graduated from UC Santa Barbara on Sunday, earning a PhD in Music. I’ve been preoccupied with the logistics of visiting relatives and the hooding ceremony. But my personal celebration has been tempered by a national tragedy, the attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 people. It’s an attack on humanity, and it’s an acute reminder to my friends in the LGBTQ+ community that their lives are in danger by virtue of who they are.

Among the many discussions on social media in response to the massacre, UC Riverside musicologist Byron Adams linked to an article in The Guardian about how some news coverage has glossed over the fact that the victims were targeted for being gay. He has studied the erasure of gay identities in music reception over the centuries, and the conversation on his post turned to a topic that fits with the mission of this blog: The myth that Tchaikovsky committed suicide from shame over a homosexual affair. This entry was shaped by my conversation with Dr. Adams on this topic, and I am grateful for his assistance.

Here’s the myth: Tchaikovsky had an affair with a young nobleman, and alumni of the School of Jurisprudence (where Tchaikovsky studied in the 1850s) thought it would discredit their institution. So, fearing blackmail and/or wishing to preserve honor, Tchaikovsky poisoned himself. As he died just nine days after the premiere of his sixth symphony, the work can be considered his suicide note, the last testament of a dying man.

In reality, Tchaikovsky died of cholera. He didn’t know he was about to die, so although the symphony may have been inspired by deep thoughts about mortality and the human condition, it was not written as a precursor to suicide. The myth circulated in the years after Tchaikovsky's death, and it was given legs in 1979 when Russian musicologist Alexandra Orlova published an article about it. It propagated in the 1980s through program notes and an unfortunate entry in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. However, there is no documentary evidence to support the suicide story, and musicologists have debunked it.

Nevertheless, the myth persists. When looking for program notes on Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony online, I found a site that claims the suicide story is “[t]he most far-fetched yet now widely-accepted view.” (Just another reminder to be wary of online sources.) Many writers hedge their bets using weasel words, saying that “The debate…rages on unresolved,” “it has never been quite discredited,” and it is “endlessly debated.” In reality, it has been resolved, it is not still debatable, and the myth has been discredited. The wishy-washy language is much like that used in the article I discussed about Salieri killing Mozart – pretending that some scandal might have possibly happened is more appealing to readers than killjoy musicologists saying that it definitely didn’t.*

It’s easy to understand why this myth got so much attention. Suicide is much juicer than cholera. This story promises to unlock some mysteries in the music, give us a psychological insight into the mind of its composer. But there are some disturbing reasons why this myth got the traction at the time it did, and that has to do with public perception of homosexuality.

When I heard the myth, my reaction was, “Wow, life was very difficult for a gay man in the 19th century.” I took the story as an indictment of Tchaikovsky’s society, not his sexuality. However, mine is a perception rooted in the culture of the 2010s, which is very different than the 1980s in regard to sexual orientation. Remember, for a good chunk of the 20th century, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Tchaikovsky’s gayness was intrinsically tied to his depression and anxiety, seen not as a contributing factor, but as another manifestation of mental illness.

This myth also comes after a decades-long trend of using Tchaikovsky’s music to pathologize him. As Malcom Hamrick Brown points out in his essay “Tchaikovsky and his Music in Anglo-American Criticism, 1890s-1950s,” commenters often discussed his music in terms of what it “reveals” about his troubled psyche. In English-language criticism especially, his music was cast as effeminate, emphasizing ways in which Tchaikovsky doesn’t conform to English and American concepts of masculinity. Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was seen as a defect, a way in which he was flawed as a man.

One of the uncomfortable paradoxes of classical music is that, while musicians skew liberal on social issues (at least in my experience), a not-insignificant portion of the audience is socially conservative. The 20th century is filled with examples of writing that avoids talking about LGBTQ+ composers’ sexuality, by omission or overcompensation, because the audience would find it inappropriate.

Why, then, would the myth of Tchaikovsky’s suicide take off, when it puts his homosexuality front and center? Unfortunately, it’s acceptable because he suffers for his sin. Tchaikovsky’s gayness causes him pain, and he embraces his punishment. When I think back to the 1980s and initial discussion of AIDS as the “gay plague,” I’m disturbed by the subtext of the suicide story.

I think the cultural climate has improved overall, in that we can talk about Britten-Pears and Barber-Menotti without resorting to coded language. Even now, though, if you look at the comments on an article about a gay composer, you’ll find some commenter grumbling, “Why do you have to mention that they’re gay? Why does it matter? Can’t we just enjoy their music without bringing the ‘gay agenda’ into it?” There’s still a portion of classical music lovers who would prefer not to think that their favorite composers are gay. This is a form of erasure, similar to how some news agencies present the tragedy in Orlando.

Some classical music writers still cater to these delicate sensibilities. As I was searching for sources for this blog post, I came across this symphony guide by Tom Service in The Guardian. The first sentence was so unequivocal that it made me cheer:
Let’s get this clear: Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony is not a musical suicide note, it’s not a piece written by a composer who was dying, it’s not the product of a musician who was terminally depressed about either his compositional powers or his personal life, and it’s not the work of a man who could go no further, musically speaking.
Later in the article, Service also dismisses the habit of reading specific autobiographical details into non-programmatic works, something that annoys me. So, I was generally happy with this article, until I noticed that it avoids talking about Tchaikovsky’s sexuality.** Even though homosexuality is relevant to this story, it’s glossed over with the euphemism “his personal life.” Those who already know the myth will understand what he means, and the others won’t have to be reminded that Tchaikovsky was gay. Ignoring that aspect of why the myth persists is also erasure.

Thank you to Byron Adams for proposing this topic and discussing it with me.

* I should mention that I found a few program notes that handled the myth responsibly, explaining how it originated and why it’s false: notes for the San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
** Service does mention "an anti-homosexual secret court" later in the article, but I'd say he brings it up in a way that a reader could willfully avoid connecting it to Tchaikovsky's own sexuality.


Notes on Symphony #6, "Pathétique" by Peter Gutmann for Classical Notes,

"About the Piece: Symphony No. 6, 'Pathétique'" by Thomas May for the Los Angeles Philharmonic,

Program notes for Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, "Pathétique" by Jack Sullivan for Carnegie Hall,

Program notes for Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique for the New York Philharmonic,

“Tchaikovsky and his Music in Anglo-American Criticism, 1890s-1950s” by Malcom Hamrick Brown in Queer Episodes in Modern Identity (2002), 134-48.

"Symphony guide: Tchaikovsky's Sixth ('Pathetique')" by Tom Service in The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/aug/26/symphony-guide-tchaikovsky-sixth-pathetique-tom-service


  1. Followed your link here from Dumbing of Age. Thank you for an interesting look at one of my favorite composers, and congratulations on finishing your PhD!

    1. Thank you for checking it out! I didn't know how much of an overlap there'd be in the fandoms, but at the very least _I'm_ someone who loves Willis's comics and classical music, so I thought there might be at least one other person. Take care!

  2. This post was so helpful! I just started a blog but I am still having trouble narrowing down what to talk about and how to reach out to a specific audience. thanks!

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