IF you were to ever ask me what my taste in music was, you’d often get a confusing muddle of different bands, singles and classical pieces. Perhaps my upbringing in the Cathedral Choir would be to blame, where I was constantly surrounded with the latter genre of music. And, despite my best efforts, some of it has rubbed off on me.
The subject of this week’s Monday’s Musical Musings is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, (mov. I) and I specifically chose this for the end of LGBTQ+ History Month. As many of you may know, it was quite recently revealed that Tchaikovsky was a gay man (see The Guardian’s article published in 2018), despite the best efforts of Soviet-era historians to expunge this. In my opinion, this biographical context best shines a light on the unusual structure of the first movement of his 4th Symphony; a piece composed shortly after his marriage to Antonina Miliukova, which has widely been assumed as an attempt to hide his sexual orientation. After all, he left her after only two months.
As a result, when composing his 4th Symphony he varied wildly from the expected structure of this piece, defying the compositional conventions of the time. He unexpectedly inserted a Waltz style, before gradually morphing it into Sonata Form. During the period, the Waltz had an immense social function: for the rich and wealthy young men and women to come together, dance, and form meaningful connections. By inserting it into Sonata Form, he manages to show great contrast between the light-hearted nature of the Waltz, and the otherwise very dark alternative, with the frivolous melodies of the Waltz being constantly knocked around by gloomier countermelodies. Perhaps a critical reading reveals this as an autobiographical description of his own life at that point: the frivolous act of his marriage being completely upturned in light of his hidden sexual identity.
The misused musical structure showed his disdain and unhappiness at a point of great personal struggle. If he had come out as openly gay, he would have been ostracised or likely killed. Yet, in hiding his sexuality, he paid a psychological price instead, as noted in his writings about movement 1: “fleeting dreams and visions of happiness… No haven exists… Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths.”
We’re lucky enough now (in 21st Century Britain) to no longer live under the conditions that Tchaikovsky endured, but it is important to note that by no means are homophobia, transphobia and all other forms of discrimination dead and gone. This is why we celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month: to observe how social attitudes progressed to where we are, and how we can continue to improve these as time goes on.