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Tchaikovsky's Eyes

Among published accounts of gay men concerning when they first knew they were gay, you will find a good many threads of similar texture and color: “I knew I was gay when I first sat next to blue-eyed Bill Jones in 6th grade…” or “I knew I was gay when I found myself thinking of my brother-in-law every time I kissed my wife.”  For myself, I can say that the first time I knew I was gay was when I first heard the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  Not that I knew that Tchaikovsky himself was gay.  I was only ten years old, after all, and couldn’t have spelled or even pronounced the composer’s name correctly, let alone been able to lay hands on such exotic information about his sexual proclivities.  The few texts I had found dealing with Peter Ilyich were uniformly drippy with rose-colored romanticism, which is to say, they rehashed the old story about the congenitally sad Russian composer, who because of his morbid shyness could only find the ideal female soul-mate in his invisible patroness Nadezhda von Meck.  Even at my naïve age, I sensed that this explanation for Tchaikovsky’s solitary state was so much fantasy, meant to conceal a more significant truth.

No, I had nothing to go on except the music. But what music. Being a rummaging sort of boy, I had found in a drawer a recording of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony. This was no run of the mill “Pathétique,” but the esteemed 1945 Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra recording, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski, a conductor even I knew to be something of a demi-god. The pristine slipcase easily yielded an immensely heavy set of six shining black 78 rpm discs enveloped in brown cardboard casings, which in turn were incased in a stormily decorated cover of the sort that record companies used to turn out mid-20th century: a shattered stone archway giving out on a spare wasteland, with grim hills in the distance and above them the sort of sunset inspiring not visions of happy endings but of bleak Judgment Day punishments, and in the doorway a departing robed figure, hood over his bowed head, hands hanging resigned at his sides.  Was this Death personified?  Hope marching resolutely into the desert?  A disgruntled monk fleeing the abbey?  As darkly fascinating as the imagery was, and the fact that to a boy born in 1964 a set of records from 1945 seemed like a relic from a pharaoh’s tomb, it was where the records came from and what they contained that kept me in perpetual rapture and, in turn, put me in touch with a part of my persona that, as was true of Tchaikovsky, made my being gay also a part of my being an artist.

The set had about it an aura of magic as much related to its former owner as to the music it contained.  It had been given to my father by his late concert pianist aunt, a lady I had never met but who, considering my own musical interests, had taken on the same sacred aesthetic significance within my mind which opera divas were to assume at a later period.  Aunt Cleo was the wife of my father’s equally glamorous uncle, a violinist and cellist, and they lived in a villa-like house in Southern California, a house with a tennis court, avocado orchard and a bathroom not only lined with purple tiles but fitted with a purple sink, tub and toilet.  I had been there once, when about five years old, and so only remembered the purple bath tub, along with a birdbath in the garden, and that because I had wandered into the garden early one morning to splash my fingers in it and scare the sparrows, only to find myself lifted into the arms of my tall, princely granduncle and held against his irritatingly stubbly face as he carried me back up the terrace steps to the house.  By that point Aunt Cleo had been dead for a long time, but her spirit remained enshrined in her now silent grand piano, around which the family had gathered in the years before World War II, in my father’s childhood, to toss off classical duets, trios, quartets and all sorts of other splendors I so wished I had been alive to partake of.

I thought of all this, that afternoon when I first placed Aunt Cleo’s Tchaikovsky records on our old stereo. The back of the album set offered photographs of both Stokowski and of a bearded but youthful Tchaikovsky, and I looked at them as the music played. The Stokowskian portrait was campily quintessential—disheveled silver hair, frighteningly penetrating eyes, the knife-like nose and a sense of commanding his players with a gesture not out of place in a deity ordering the cosmic choreography of the universe, so at variance with the subtlety and profound depths of feeling he was able to coax from an orchestra.

And I gazed a long time at the picture of Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky was a handsome man, not quite Russian-looking (his mother was French) but not quite European, with an oval face, fleshy nose, and sensitive full lips.  It was the eyes that caught me.  The veil of black and white photography and the conventional pose of the subject concealed from me exactly what color his eyes were, made it difficult to imagine how they might look if the composer smiled.  But their urgent brightness, their substance of what English poet Stevie Smith described as “raindrops on black twigs,” haunted me. Simply put, I fell a little in love with Tchaikovsky.  Those eyes seemed to look at me with an understanding at once benign and brotherly and yet at the same time seemed liquefied by the heat of voluptuous passions. Above all, they glowed with the same message that emerged when I lowered the diamond needle onto the fast spinning disc of Aunt Cleo’s 78s, validating my powerful sense that what sounded from the minute grooves of each record were my own feelings, made so public and real that I remember I instinctively turned down the volume, lest others in the house should hear what was said of me.  Because there I was, in Tchaikovsky’s eyes and in his Symphony No. 6, in all my hyper-reactive emotionalism, my lyric unspoken loves, my secret desperation. 

Though knowing at that point nothing about the composer’s own struggles, in those four movements I heard Tchaikovsky’s soul speaking to me: the first movement’s loving caress brutally rejected, the second movement’s waltz, brave but poignant as a lone onlooker at a ball, the jaunty third movement which proclaims that none of this passion really matters, and the fourth movement, with its soul-burning realization that without this passion life itself is not worth living.  My obsession with what the “Pathétique” told me about myself increased to such a degree that I had to protect the information at all costs.  In the days that followed I feigned illness to stay home from school, and when my mother went to the store I put on the scratchy old records, turned up the volume, and sat there listening over and over, alone with my fate, and in tears before my joyful yet terrified realization of what it would mean for my future: That I was a boy unlike other boys.  That I would never marry a woman, but would search, like Tchaikovsky, for a man I could love, who could love me.  That I would never have children, but that my creative loins would produce, like Tchaikovsky’s, another sort of progeny. That I would be an artist—a writer, a musician, I didn’t yet know which.  All I knew, as I heard the brass proclaim bitter but inevitable truth through the shadowed scrim of strings at the end of the fourth movement, and looked again into Tchaikovsky’s eyes, was that he and I shared the same strange path; that it would not always be happy or even bearable, but that it was the path we were born to take.