Tchaikovsky had clear same-sex tendencies; some of the composer’s closest relationships were with men. He sought out the company of other same-sex attracted men in his circle for extended periods, “associating openly and establishing professional connections with them.” Relevant portions of his brother Modest’s autobiography, where he tells of the composer’s sexual orientation, have been published, as have letters previously suppressed by Soviet censors in which Tchaikovsky openly writes of it.
More debatable is how comfortable the composer felt with his sexual nature. There are currently two schools of thought. Musicologists such as David Brownhave maintained that Tchaikovsky “felt tainted within himself, defiled by something from which he finally realized he could never escape.” Another group of scholars, which includes Alexander Poznansky and Roland John Wiley, have more recently suggested that the composer experienced “no unbearable guilt” over his sexual nature and “eventually came to see his sexual peculiarities as an insurmountable and even natural part of his personality … without experiencing any serious psychological damage.”
Both groups agree that Tchaikovsky remained aware of the negative consequences should knowledge of his orientation become public, especially of the ramifications for his family. While his father continued to hope Tchaikovsky would marry (and may have been unaware of his son’s orientation), other members of his loving and supportive family remained more open-minded. Modest shared his sexual orientation and became his literary collaborator, biographer and closest confidant. Tchaikovsky was eventually surrounded by an adoring group of male relatives and friends, which may have aided him in achieving some sort of psychological balance and inner acceptance of his sexual nature.
The level of official tolerance Tchaikovsky may have experienced, which could fluctuate depending on the broad-mindedness of the ruling Tsar, is also open to question. One argument is that general intolerance of same-sex orientation was the rule in 19th century Russia, punishable by imprisonment, loss of all rights, banishment to the provinces or exile from Russia altogether; therefore, Tchaikovsky’s fear of social rejection was grounded in some justification.Musicologist Solomon Volkov mentions state documents that indicate men attracted to the same sex “were under tight police surveillance” and maintains that public life in Russia was “based not on laws but on ‘understandings.’ That means that formally existing laws are applied or ignored based on the position and wishes of the authorities…. No one could feel confident of the future in those conditions (which is one of the goals of a society built on ‘understandings’).”The other argument is that the Imperial bureaucracy was considerably less draconian in Tchaikovsky’s lifetime than previously imagined. Russian society, with its surface veneer of Victorian propriety, may have been no less tolerant than the government.
In any case, Tchaikovsky chose not to neglect social convention and stayed conservative by nature. His love life remained complicated. A combination of upbringing, timidity and deep commitment to relatives precluded his living openly with a male lover. A similar blend of personal inclination and period decorum kept him from having sexual relations with those in his social circle. He regularly sought out anonymous encounters, many of which he reported to Modest; at times, these brought feelings of remorse. He also attempted to be discreet and adjust his tastes to the conventions of Russian society. Nevertheless, many of his colleagues, especially those closest to him, may have either known or guessed his true sexual nature.Tchaikovsky’s decision to enter into a heterosexual union and try to lead a double life was prompted by several factors—the possibility of exposure, the willingness to please his father, his own desire for a permanent home and his love of children and family. There is no reason however to suppose that these personal travails impacted negatively on the quality of his musical inspiration or capacity.