The Tchaikovsky Files: Confessions Of A Composer
A film by Ralf Pleger (2015)
Based on letters and diaries of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Music by Tchaikovsky
With Kadja Grönke, Philip Bullock, Vladimir Malakhov, David Garcia, Cameron Carpenter and Dirk Johnston
TV format: NTSC 16:9
Sound: PCM stereo
Language: English / German
Region code: worldwide
EUROARTS DVD 2061518 [53:00]
In a comment on his country's musical history that came as something of a surprise to many of us in the West, Russia's culture minister Vladimir Medinsky claimed, in 2013, that Tchaikovsky was not gay. The country's music lovers were no doubt highly relieved, for the minister thereby allowed the composer to retain his place in Russia's artistic pantheon without any risk of being perceived as transgressing the spirit of the latterly introduced criminal offence of "promoting" homosexuality.
The film on this DVD takes, however, an opposing view and is quite upfront about why it does so. As we read on its back cover, "Tchaikovsky's life as a gay composer in a homophobic environment is of timeless topicality, even today... [This film is] a must see not only for classical music enthusiasts or LGBT campaigners, but for everyone concerned about personal liberties in a modern society."
Of course, that promotional text itself raises a problematic issue, for the terms "gay" and "homophobic" are modern constructs, neither of which would have been recognised by Tchaikovsky and his contemporaries. The film contends that after an anguished period of self-loathing - though not so severe, it seems, as to curtail a very active sex life - the failure of his disastrous marriage forced Tchaikovsky to recognise that he had no realistic alternative to accepting his sexuality and living his life accordingly. While that seems quite a convincing hypothesis, we nevertheless cannot expect the composer, no matter how relaxed he may have become, to have adopted the terminology and attitudes of a Gay Pride movement that didn't come into existence until 75 years after his death.
If, then, Tchaikovsky wasn't seen marching the streets of St Petersburg while waving a rainbow flag, we have to rely on his private thoughts when seeking evidence about his sexuality. Thankfully, he was remarkably honest in writing both his private diaries and his letters to his brother Modest. The fact that both brothers' erotic inclinations were directed towards men meant that their exchanges were extremely frank, if sometimes slipping into the sort of clichéd polari that will be fondly recalled by devotees of the Round the Horne characters Julian and Sandy. It conveys something of the flavour to learn that the two siblings often referred to each other, their friends and their casual sexual partners by women's names (composer Pyotr signs himself off as "your big sister Petrolina").
Thanks to those written sources, we can begin to get a rounded picture of the composer's full and physically - but not, it seems, emotionally - fulfilling sex life. Unsurprisingly, given that he was often promoting his music in places where he knew no-one and where homosexuality was a criminal offence, much of it involved casual, anonymous encounters or commercial transactions. That left him open, as his letters confirm, to intimidation by pimps, blackmail and potential violence of the sort that, as two contributors to the film personally attest, still happens today.
Mentioning the contributors, an array of them appear on camera to offer commentary on many of the issues raised in the course of the film. We not only hear from dancer Vladimir Malakhov but briefly see him performing in Boris Eifman's ballet Tchaikovsky. Organist Cameron Carpenter, in between offering his own insights, dashes off his arrangement of part of the Pathetique symphony's scherzo. More expert input comes from the composer's biographer Philip Bullock, the musicologist Kadja Grönke and the psychiatrist David Garcia. MusicWeb readers will be particularly interested, I imagine, in any links that those commentators identify between Tchaikovsky's personal issues and his music itself: the general consensus appears to be that there is a pretty direct link between the two - so much so that some people, Ms Grönke points out, actually find the music's excessive emotionalism quite distasteful.
Of course, all those expert opinions could easily have been delivered in a formal, talking-heads style documentary. That isn't, however, award-winning director Ralf Pleger's way. He constantly reminds us of the subject's contemporary relevance, including, for instance, film - thankfully edited - of real-life gay-bashing in today's Russia. The excerpts from Tchaikovsky's letters or diaries are similarly related to contemporary life: as we hear them read, on-screen reconstructions of the action described take place in distinctly 21st century bedrooms, showers, saunas and so on. As those locations suggests, there is a certain amount of bare flesh on offer, though nothing's actually full-frontal. That's a relief, I suppose, if you're of a modest disposition - though a disappointment, presumably, if you'd been Modest himself.
This is certainly not a film focused - as is this website - on music. Indeed, when interviewed for the DVD booklet, Ralf Pleger admits that "It is not so much about Tchaikovsky the composer as about Tchaikovsky the man... It is an important story that needs to be told, though it doesn't necessarily belong in the category of music history, but rather that of social history".
While this may well be a “story that needs to be told”, some may consider that, at just 53:00 in length, it has been told rather too succinctly. The visuals, too, may strike some viewers as rather too self-indulgent and, at times, a little gimmicky.
This is a DVD that is targeted primarily, I suspect, at the gay market. Indeed, the positive review (“Ein intensives Meisterwerk”) stickered to the DVD’s front cover derives from the German gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender lifestyle magazine Männer. Pleger's film is, nonetheless, of very much universal interest in the way it throws a distinctive light on Tchaikovsky as a human being. Like all of us, the man was flawed - but he was also a genius, albeit, it seems, a particularly tortured one. The film on this DVD will, by examining an often overlooked – or even willfully denied – aspect of his life, offer, I think, a fruitful perspective to many admirers of his timeless music.