A couple of days ago the Daily Telegraph in London published an interview with a cellist which I found to be about the most confusing piece of writing on music I've come across for a long time. Perhaps the cellist – and I didn't recognise the name then and can't remember it now – was not very coherent; although I doubt that since every cellist I know speaks passionately and fluently on music. Perhaps the interviewer didn't write it up very well; although the Daily Telegraph is usually pretty good in the standard of its written English. Most likely the blame lay with me; I read the piece on a crowded underground train trying to fend off two dozen different conversations in as many different languages going on around me in the carriage. Whatever the excuse, I found that the content of the interview was, like the cellist's name, forgotten almost as soon as it was read. But one comment did stick in the mind. The cellist complained bitterly to the interviewer about a critic who had described his recording of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations as "colourless".
I have to confess that as a critic, and as an examiner, I use that word rather a lot. It's one of those handy catch-all terms which you pull out to help keep within your word-count. It may be loose and vague, but it does have a meaning which, I suppose, implies a lack of variation in dynamics, a lack of expression and an absence of all those little interpretative nuances which help lift the music off the page. I can understand why a performer objects to being criticised for being "colourless", and I have made a mental note to use the term much more sparingly in future. Levelling that charge against someone who is performing Tchaikovsky, a composer who is, above all others, "colourful", is especially offensive. I've not heard the offending disc nor read the review, but I can imagine both what the critic was complaining about and why the performer was so upset. However, the interviewer went on to ask the cellist what he thought the critic had meant, and the response was startling. "Tchaikovsky, you know, he was gay".
One thing you can never say about Tchaikovsky is that his music is gay. Pained, impassioned, fraught, self-indulgent, maybe, but gay never. When he comes up with something superficially cheerful (like the third movement of the Sixth Symphony), there is always an undercurrent of bitterness there. Certainly gaiety and Tchaikovsky go together as comfortably as Russian Roulette and Longevity.
Then I realised my mistake. Born and brought up in England, with literate and well-educated English parents and taught English at good schools by competent English teachers, I developed an extensive early vocabulary which has stood me in good stead throughout my life. The problem is that I have been rather slow to latch on to new meanings which have been given to words which, in my youth, already had a very definite and useful meaning. The worst example of that is the hi-jacking of the very clear and unique word "gay" by those seeking a word to apply to those whose sexual preferences are directed towards their own gender. I've often wondered why they chose that word; I once saw a grim young man, togged out in torn denims, dirty tee-shirt, shaven head and tattooed face and bearing the scars of bad acne, poor shaving and a forlorn future, sporting a badge bearing the inscription "Proud to be Gay". He was manifestly neither proud nor gay. I've often wondered, too, why they felt they needed a word in the first place. Those whose sexual preferences are for those of the opposite sex, for themselves, for animals or non-existent never seem to feel the need to have a label, and certainly I don't recall seeing badges with inscriptions like "Proud to be Auto-Erotic", "Proud to indulge in Bestiality", "Proud to be Celibate" or "Proud to be in a Monogamous Relationship with a Member of the Opposite Sex", but then, perhaps, those groups don't suffer the same inferiority complex as the first. All that is, of course, irrelevant. The thing is, why should Tchaikovsky being homosexual justify a colourless performance of his Rococo Variations? More than that, is Tchaikovsky's sexual preferences of any relevance when it comes to interpreting his music.
A leading concert pianist who is clearly "Proud to be Gay" has said that he feels closer to the spirit of Tchaikovsky than those who have the misfortune not to be. What rot! Following that argument I should be an instinctive and perceptive interpreter of Bach and Handel, both, like me, portly fellows. I'm not and, if anything, I feel artistically closest to the composer Frank Martin who was not only about the most gaunt and cadaverous composer in musical history, but was also a chain-smoker (a habit I detest and have never taken up myself) and avoided alcoholic drink (a pastime I enjoy almost above all others). There seems to be an inordinate desire to find and identify homosexual composers; I was once asked if I thought Handel was a homosexual - my response was that I had no opinion on the matter and I didn't see what on earth it had to do with anything - and listening to Humphrey Burton on BBC Radio 4 the other day talking about Leonard Bernstein a similar point was raised. I loved his reply; "The gay community like to claim him as one of their own, but in fact the only person he ever lived with was his wife of 25 years". So it is with Tchaikovsky. The fact that he was a homosexual should be totally irrelevant when it comes to understanding, appreciating and interpreting his music. But it's not quite that simple.
It may be irrelevant that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual, but it is very relevant that he was a homosexual in a society where such practices were completely forbidden and regarded as abhorrent. Knowing how desperately Tchaikovsky needed to cover up his sexual orientation helps us understand the pain, anguish and frustration, not to mention the taint of bitterness undermining moments of cheerfulness, which permeates all his music. It was because Tchaikovsky was a homosexual that he was not gay.