The conflict between public persona and private feelings was never more deeply felt than by Tchaikovsky in his life’s final years, and never expressed with greater poignancy than in the Pathétique Symphony. Or so we’ve been led to believe. (For a variety of interpretations, see Tchaikovsky: A Self-Portrait, by Vladimir Volkoff, p. 322ff, Robert Hale & Co., London, 1985.)
“Tchaikovsky Agonistes,” a composer tormented by his homosexuality, is a 20thcentury invention. While not without concerns about his emotional peace of mind – and who can say otherwise ? – the composer’s personal predilections were neither flaunted nor hidden. If homosexuality was not embraced by Imperial Russia, it was tolerated both by members of the Romanov Court and the musical establishment.
Outwardly, Tchaikovsky’s last years were triumphant. In 1892, the Académie Française elected him a member and Cambridge University chose him to receive an honorary Doctorate of Music. His works were performed throughout the Continent, and his career as guest conductor was flourishing, with engagements booked into May of 1894. Most important, perhaps, he continued to compose prolifically. For the Mariinsky stage he created Pique Dame in 1890, Iolanta in 1891, and The Nutcracker in 1892, and his orchestral scores included the symphonic ballad Voyevoda in 1890-91 and the Pathétique Symphony in 1893, his last completed work.
For the Pathétique and its surrounding mystique, Tchaikovsky himself set the stage. While planning it, he wrote to Vladimir ‘Bob’ Davydov, his nephew and lover and the Symphony’s dedicatee: “During my stay in Paris last December I had the idea of writing a program symphony; but to a program that should remain an enigma for everyone but myself; let them try and guess it! For my part, I intend to call it simply ‘Program Symphony.’ The theme of it is full of subjective feeling, so much so that as I was mentally composing it during the journey, I frequently shed tears…”