‘From today I seriously intend to enter into lawful matrimony with anyone at all.’ Tchaikovsky made this apparently flippant comment to his brother Modest in 1876, when he was 36. Unfortunately, he wasn’t joking. On 18 July the following year, just 11 months later, Tchaikovsky married Antonina Milyukova, a woman eight years his junior, at a Moscow ceremony with most of his family absent.
Their union lasted the blink of an eyelid: two months later they separated, never to be reunited. What had gone so spectacularly wrong?
The official line, peddled for decades by Tchaikovsky’s friends and family, was that Antonina was to blame. A one-time student of Tchaikovsky’s at the Moscow Conservatory, she wrote to him in the spring of 1877 confessing her long-held love and admiration. Against his better judgement Tchaikovsky replied, starting a correspondence which Antonina described as ‘not without interest’.
The two were, though, desperately ill-matched. Despite a respectable family background, Antonina was, Tchaikovsky wrote, ‘utterly poor’ with only an ‘average level’ of education. His brother Modest was even more unkind, calling her a ‘crazed half-wit’ who was unable to understand her future husband’s refined sensibilities and intellectual interests. In truth, however, Tchaikovsky’s blind desire to suddenly marry ‘anyone at all’, and use her as a cloak to hide his homosexuality from society, was the real culprit.
He had good reason to fear that his sexuality could ruin a career that had already yielded masterpieces such as the ballet Swan Lake and the First Piano Concerto. Russian society of the period tolerated homosexuality only if it remained private. Declaring it publicly would, Tchaikovsky realised, bring shame and scandal, and ‘pain to the people close to me’.
But was marrying a woman he barely knew and didn’t love – ‘to shut the mouths of all those scum whose opinions I don’t give a damn about’ – really the answer? For a while it seemed it might be. Tchaikovsky told Modest he wanted a woman who would ‘not interfere with my peace of mind or my freedom’, and initially he reported Antonina was ‘blindly compliant with my every wish’. This included, he added breezily, the non-consummation of the marriage. ‘No deflowering took place,’ he wrote of their wedding night, ‘nor is it likely to happen any time soon.’
This unnaturally contrived situation, stifling for Antonina, couldn’t last. Tchaikovsky admitted to finding her physically ‘absolutely repulsive’, a rejection which must have shaken Antonina deeply. He spoke of ‘unbearable moral torments’ and was unable to write music. Wracked with anxiety, he suffered a complete nervous collapse and fled to Switzerland, leaving a hapless Antonina behind.
Some of the tormented passions of this period found their way into Eugene Onegin, the opera he was writing. ‘The best of all his operas,’ Antonina later called it, ‘because it is based on us’ – though in fact Tchaikovsky had started composing it before their first encounter. The two remained officially married – divorce was complicated in tsarist Russia – but the rift was total. From that point on, Tchaikovsky vilified his wife as ‘the reptile’, and Antonina has been demonised for destabilising their marriage with unreasonable emotional demands, not least by those keen to airbrush the composer’s sexuality from official narratives of his life.
Nowadays, however, we may view her as a largely unwitting victim of a sexually repressive society, and of a husband whose attempt to hide his own sexuality led to marital disaster – albeit some recent biographers have claimed that prior to his untimely death he was reconciled to his homosexuality. Antonina outlived Tchaikovsky by 23 years although, sadly, she spent most of this time in psychiatric hospitals.
Find out more about Tchaikovsky and his works