REVIEW: Stratford Literary Festival, John Suchet

John Suchet

Peter Buckroyd reviews John Suchet, Tchaikovsky, Stratford Play House, 30th April


This was a fascinating and elegantly delivered talk by John Suchet on Tchaikovsky’s life, hot on the heels of his new biography.

Forty-four years ago, before homosexuality was legal in Britain, I read a biography of Tchaikovsky and felt, reading between the lines, that he might have been homosexual. Thank goodness those euphemistic days of covert prejudice are over (despite Mrs Thatcher’s attempts to turn the clock back with Clause 28).

Suchet foregrounded Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, itemising a range of his gay affairs but making clear that Tchaikovsky’s deep unhappiness was not because he was gay but because he was riven with guilt at being so, feelings which remained with him all his life until his affair right at the end of his life with his teenage nephew. Suchet explained how homosexuality was rife in the St Petersburg School of Jurisprudence which Tchaikovsky attended from the ages of ten to eighteen and among the Russian aristocracy.

But it was not just extreme guilt which underlay Tchaikovsky’s behaviour and psyche; it was also desolation at abandonment. Indeed Suchet showed how his life was blighted by abandonments – by his governess, by his mother, unwittingly by his patroness of thirteen years who had enabled him to devote himself to composition, and by several other key figures in his life.

There was also a crucial element of irrationality which led him to marry someone he had only met twice in the forlorn hope that it would rid him of what he said was ‘a disease from which I need to cure myself.’ It didn’t work. The marriage was unconsummated; they never lived together and never divorced.

The last part of Suchet’s lecture was devoted to making some links between the biography and compositions and to showing how many close to Tchaikovsky denigrated his work.

Suchet successfully created in less than an hour a portrait of a lonely, desolate, guilt-ridden man who taught even though he hated teaching, conducted even though he hated conducting and relied on others to have sufficient money to compose. He also showed how in late nineteenth century Russia it was perfectly possible to be gay as long as it did not create scandal. It therefore prompted thought about early twenty-first century Russia and Britain.

Suchet seemed confident that Tchaikovsky could have flourished in twenty-first century Britain. It would be good to think this might have been the case, but I was left wondering.