Sunday, 27 April 2014

Guest Post - "Tchaikovsky and my journey towards understanding my sexuality"

I have been asked to share the journey of a fellow minister, at the start of their ministry career.

So often in ministry, being honest comes at personal cost - to self and to career. For this reason, this is posted anonymously, but I do have contact with the author. Discussion welcome, but offensive remarks will be removed.

The post follows below:
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My favourite composer is Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. He's probably best know for his ballet suites these days: Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

I adored Tchaikovsky's music long before I'd even heard his name. As I ten year old I had lots of his melodies and themes in my head. I know this because I distinctly recall singing the main theme of his Violin concerto, whilst dancing around my parents landing, dreaming I was hopelessly in love, alternating between singing the theme and doing forward rolls on the carpet until I was quite dizzy. There was no-one else around at the time, so I was totally uninhibited doing this.

My mum and dad love classical music. They took me to lots of formal concerts, and I had grown up playing the violin and piano. But it wasn't there that I grew to love the great Romantic composers. It was at home. Dad was very proud of his record deck and hi-fi, and as a family we spent several Winter evenings listening to symphonies and concertos by Beethoven, Sibelius, and of course Tchaikovsky, by the warm log fire.

It must have been in these times that I subliminally memorised virtually every theme from Tchaikovsky's Symphonies, concertos and ballet music. We didn't have a television, which I now feel was a huge blessing, not least because it meant that I didn't associate the melodies I heard with any cheesy TV adverts. As a 13 year old I was adamant  that the best composer ever was Tchaikovsky. There was a newsagent down the road – it sold classical CDs for 99p each (some company I discovered had gone bust). I would go after school and buy more and more. They weren't bad recordings either, and I built up quite a large collection. But my Tchaikovsky section was the biggest by far, as I bought every CD I could find by him in the shop: Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, the violin and piano concertos, and the symphonies. What surprised me most was that every time I played a “new” CD I recognised the theme. They were all in my brain somewhere, lodged away.

Of course, my musical friends tried to convince me that other composers were better – that the music of Bach was more clever and skilful, or that Mozart was more refined. I thought perhaps because I was a violinist I preferred string music to organs and pianos, but that wasn't quite it. Tchaikovsky was seen as emotional and youthful, but generally over the top – but that was exactly why I liked it. The soaring melodies, the unrestrained nature of it all felt to me like love ought to be. It felt truly Romantic – not in the clich├ęd sense of roses and trite words;  more like a roaring ocean, or a beautiful sunset on a beach, or somebody's smile. The Violin concerto theme painted a picture for me of having dinner with someone I loved, at the edge of a lake lit by moonlight, then rowing a boat out onto the lake afterwards. The tunes were memorable- you could hum along to them, and they were so unchecked. Compared to other composers, who seemed often bound by formal rules, Tchaikovsky's music felt to me like the difference between a formal kiss on the cheek given to greet a guest at a dinner party, or a passionate kiss between two lovers.

I only began to discover my sexuality later in life, from when I was 16, and although looking back I can clearly see that I was gay, I was reluctant to acknowledge this to myself until I was a good few years older. The discovery that I had a homosexual orientation crept up on me, and I repressed it for many years, packaging it away it in the box of “negative temptation”. Certainly it didn't help that it felt to me that gay people (and activists in particular) were perceived as Public Enemy Number One by some of my close family, who saw them as undermining the church. Because of this I dared not open up to them about my own desires and gay attractions towards men. My parents also, I later discovered, didn't seem to really believe in sexual orientation at all, and just saw homosexual attraction as a “phase.”

I couldn't admit to my friends either that I was attracted to guys (especially not the one I was in fact attracted to). It didn't help that I was at an all boys grammar school where to admit to being gay would probably have been social suicide at the time. Even as a 17 year old, when I thought I was respected and safe from peer pressure, I made a mistake of looking down at a DVD in HMV from the gay cinema section, when we were out on a history trip. I thought I'd got away without being spotted, but one of my classmates caught me and despite flatly denying it to my friends I was then known at school as “gay cinema boy”.

But when I was 17, in a General Studies class, one of my teachers (actually the French teacher) played us all a Tchaikovsky Symphony. It was the 2nd movement of his Fifth Symphony, one I had in my collection, and I knew the main tune. But before playing it, he told us something that staggered me. He said that Tchaikovsky was gay. He also said that the pressures of the Tsarist Russian society he lived in (in one sense different from Soviet society today, but still pretty oppressive), coupled with his family's expectations of marriage, fuelled a deep depression in Tchaikovsky. His desire to love another man was doomed in the context of the time and place he was living in.

My teacher then explained that in this symphony the beautiful love theme is destroyed by the interruption of harsh trumpets. Out of a heartfelt desire to teach us not to be homophobic, by using this piece of music, my teacher was also explaining that Tchaikovsky was tormented by knowledge of his being gay and that his dreams of love were dashed once and for all.

I listened to the music, and I was staggered. There it was, the beautiful melody I knew well – but just as my teacher said, the trumpets kept bursting in, time and again – ending and disrupting it. I was shocked – it all seemed so tragic that a beautiful thing was being destroyed in this way.

Over the next ten years, I grew to a greater understanding of my being gay, and I experienced the pressures of a conservative Christian culture that seemed to want me to deny my emotions and desires, and continually ward me off from any romantic longings I might have. It helped me to continued to reflect on Tchaikovsky's music, and understand what it meant.

Last week, I picked up a biography of Tchaikovsky's, written by Anthony Holden. Like any biography, it has its opponents – people who said that Tchaikovsky's sexuality wasn't as big a theme  as Holden was making out, and so forth. But the real words from Tchaikovsky's letters strike a chord with me. Towards the end of his life, he wrote, “My whole life has been a chain of misfortunes because of my sexuality”. (To date, Russia refuses to allow this letter to be published, according to Holden).

Living as a young(ish) gay Christian starting out as a church leader is hard. Sometimes it feels like the melody of my soul, longing for love, represented by the melody of the strings is being shouted down by those brash trumpet players. (I don't mean any offence to brass players in general – well not too much, I am a biased string player!) I continue to empathise with Tchaikovsky. In fact, I think that in some sense, if anyone wants to understand who I am and where I am coming from, they should listen to the climax of the 2nd movement of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony.

(There is quite a good version of the movement at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jSki-VP6fE. To get the full idea of what I'm talking about, its best to listen to the full 12 minutes. But the key moments I am talking about. are when the brass bursts in at 6:37, and more crucially, 10:12. Turn your volume up and you'll get what I mean.)

But I also need to remind myself that Tchaikovsky's troubled life and sad end (he died of cholera, perhaps self-induced as he refused to take steps to boil his water to prevent catching it) is not the way that my life should go. The theme of many of Tchaikovsky's ballets (Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake) is that in spite of death, love conquers. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus defeated death, and conquered it through his love. That is the message of resurrection, and that is what gives me hope to let my loving desires, my loving gay desires, to overrule the temptation to slip into a life of loneliness, isolation, shame and bitterness. 

Tchaikovsky was private man, who wanted to hide his sexuality, because he thought it was a shameful thing. He said in letters, “The notion that one day people will try to probe into the private world of my thoughts and feelings, into everything I have so carefully hidden throughout my life, is very sad and unpleasant.” But I for one, am glad to have known of the anguish he experienced and the struggles he faced. For me to, my sexuality is a personal thing, but I find myself more and more driven to move into the open (and even under the spotlight) to challenge the injustices of this world.

And until this world understands, I will continue to think of Tchaikovsky, and listen to my favourite composer. Because love does conquer all.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you and the write for posting this. It makes me reflect on the last 14 years... :)

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  2. You're welcome.

    And sorry if my other comment came across as attacking you. It wasn't intended that way. I was just getting a bit mouthy. My bad.

    ReplyDelete