The world of Classical and Popular music is numerously populated by compositions that openly celebrate courtship, love, sex, and marriage. Equally numerous, although less overtly advertised, are works that exult in the suspension of a partnership, the break-up of a relationship, or the decree of final divorce. Following his separation from his wife Antonina Miliukova, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) hastily fled to the town of Clarens. This small and peaceful Swiss resort village on the shores of Lake Geneva not only allowed him to mentally recover from a feeble attempt at suicide, it also saw the reunion with his former student and lover, the violinist Yosif Kotek. Barely a year had past since the lovers had unceremoniously separated, however, their passion had recently been rekindled. Travelling with his brother Modest, Tchaikovsky met Kotek in Vienna in November 1877, and the merry threesome happily undertook some scenic travels throughout Europe. Still in the midst of a personal identity crisis that reflected the dialectical irony of homosexuality itself—how to reconcile the need for passive submission towards his male friends that was simultaneously contradicted by competitive aggression towards them—Tchaikovsky eventually summoned Kotek from Berlin to join him in Switzerland. Amongst a good deal of comforting, music making and other pleasantries, their renewed association quickly gave Tchaikovsky the idea of composing a violin concerto.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1878)
Yosif Kotek, ever so willing, provided his technical expertise and hands-on experience and within a month, the concerto was finished. Writing to his brother Anatoly, the composer rejoiced, “how lovingly [Kotek] busies himself with my concerto! It goes without saying that I would have been able to do nothing without him. He plays it marvellously!” Initially, Tchaikovsky wanted to dedicate the new composition to Kotek but feared that it would somehow draw attention to the true nature of his relationship with the violinist. By eventually dedicating the work to Leopold Auer—surely also a gesture of passive aggression towards his philandering lover—Tchaikovsky caused a permanent rift in the relationship. Kotek hastily departed, and Tchaikovsky continued to complain about Kotek’s “unbelievable womanizing”. Kotek never forgave Tchaikovsky for changing the dedication, and when the composer approached him with a peace offering—formally asking him to publicly perform their concerto—he flatly refused. Although they would occasionally meet, love had clearly turned into contempt, and they found each other’s company “more unpleasant than pleasant,” and more “tiresome than attractive”. As it happens, contempt turned into pity when Kotek contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Switzerland for treatment. Tchaikovsky rushed to the bedside of his estranged and ailing lover, and dispensed various spiritual and physical comforts for six days. Kotek died, aged 29, and Tchaikovsky was charged with informing Kotek’s parents of their son’s untimely passing.
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