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The words are tender and passionate, describing in raw detail the powerful emotions felt by one of the world’s best-loved composers writes Dayla Alberge for The Guardian. But until now some of the letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, in which he tells of his sexual desires, have been hidden from the world because the objects of those desires were other men.
Now the letters have been published in English for the first time, restoring sensitive passages about the composer’s homosexuality that had been deleted by Russian censors.
In one, never before published in Russian or English, Tchaikovsky wrote of a young servant “with whom I am more in love than ever”, adding: “My God, what an angelic creature and how I long to be his slave, his plaything, his property!”
Marina Kostalevsky, co-editor of the new volume, said: “In our book, all texts are presented in their entirety and hence are not distorted by either prudish censorial cuts or selective cuts.” She added that, while Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality had long been accepted in the west, “it is still a subject of heated and often ugly public debate” in Russia.
“When the Russian edition of the archival documents was released in 2009,” she said, “it was not perceived by many Russians as the definitive argument in a dispute that has gone on for years about Tchaikovsky’s sexuality. Some readers have even questioned the authenticity of particular letters kept in the archive. Therefore, it can be argued that the Russian edition, despite the wealth of new information … about Tchaikovsky’s life, did not erase the old biases about his sexuality in his native country.”
In one letter the composer wrote of encountering a “youth of stunning beauty”, continuing: “After our walk, I offered him some money, which was refused. He does it for the love of art and adores men with beards.”
Russian-born Kostalevsky, who is associate professor of Russian at Bard College, in New York state, said: “This passage has not been included in either the abridged version of the letters printed in Russian editions, or in one English translation.”
In another previously omitted passage, the composer told of a homosexual acquaintance: “Petashenka used to drop by with the criminal intention of observing the Cadet Corps, which is right opposite our windows, but I’ve been trying to discourage these compromising visits – and with some success.”
Such passages feature in The Tchaikovsky Papers: Unlocking the Family Archive, published in the US and Britain by Yale University Press. The letters are held in the archives of the Tchaikovsky State House-Museum in the town of Klin, north-west of Moscow, where he lived from 1892 until his death the following year, at 53, during a cholera epidemic.
Most of the letters have never before been available in English. They offer insights into the daily concerns and intimate thoughts of a composer whose masterpieces include the ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, and opera Eugene Onegin, as well as six symphonies and four concertos.
The book’s introduction notes: “The central taboo concerning Tchaikovsky’s life has been his homosexuality – the topic that has been barred from public discussion for almost a century … In the eye of the authorities, it would have been unthinkable to accept [that] … Russia’s national treasure was a homosexual.”
Among other censored passages was a letter to Tchaikovsky’s brother, in which he wrote from Italy: “At nine o’clock I felt like going for a walk and went out. Some ruffiani [pimps], you know the kind, guessed what I was looking for, and wouldn’t leave me alone. The bait they were using to hook the prey (ie me) was a delightful young creature.
“I had to put up some fierce resistance because the bait was working. But I didn’t let it get the better of me. I don’t know whether they wanted to blackmail me, or just screw some money out of me, but I didn’t let myself get taken in.”
In another letter, he wrote of “a torment of indecision”: “My rendezvous had been arranged for this evening. A truly bitter-sweet dilemma! Finally I decided to go. I spent two absolutely wonderful hours in the most romantic circumstances; I was scared, I was thrilled, I was afraid of the slightest sound. Embraces, kisses, an out-of-the-way apartment… tender talk, what delight!”
Tchaikovsky left more than 5,000 letters. Kostalevsky said the new edition contained “a great number of family letters that have never been published before”. She also noted that the new edition was restoring cuts that had previously been made by his younger brother and future biographer, Modest Ilyich, and other Russian biographers.
She said: “The Tchaikovsky Papers offers an English reader a personal tour through the private quarters of Tchaikovsky to his most informal and intimate zone. The book indeed keeps open the door unlocked only recently by the keepers of the house-museum in Klin. And, considering the sorry state of cultural politics in Russia and its anti-gay propaganda, there is no guarantee that that door will remain open much longer.”
The correspondence reflects the composer’s struggles and modesty. He wrote of his “unbelievable shyness” and many years spent “before I realised that even as a composer – I was merely a talented person, but no extraordinary phenomenon”.