Gender, Sexuality and the Lyric Voice in Chajkovskij's Romances to Lyrics by Apuxtin and Romanov

Philip Ross Bullock, Oxford University

The Russian art-song, for all its popularity with performers and audiences, has been too rarely studied. Sophisticated formal, musicological and literary analyses have indeed been published (Asaf'ev, Vasina-Grossman, Hodge), yet we still await both documentary and cultural histories of the form, as well as close readings of individual works. This paper is an attempt to offer a culturally contextualized reading of about a dozen songs by Chajkovskij, arguing for biographically sophisticated interpretations which reveal an unexpected sense of intertextuality, self-irony and impersonation. Chajkovskij's homosexuality is well-documented, even if its implications are often misunderstood.

Chajkovskij's settings of Apuxtin and Romanov have been selected since he knew the poets well; moreover both poets were susceptible in varying degrees to same-sex eroticism. Chajkovskij's own understanding of his sexuality and self-presentation in music can therefore be read through his selection of texts which were set to music between 1870 to 1886 (Apuxtin) and 1887 (Romanov). In brief, his Apuxtin settings articulate a febrile attitude of intense desire, whereas the later Romanov settings are characterized by a sense of silence, discretion and indeed melancholy. Such readings are not so much attempts at straightforwardly biographical contextualization; after all, Chajkovskij famously identified with his operatic characters, and his status as a national treasure in nineteenth-century Russian culture means that a version of his private life necessarily became public property. Rather, this paper trades on this public/private discontinuity to illustrate how the superficial charm and naivety of many art-songs can mask a sophisticated sense of form and an ironic attitude towards self-presentation. The importance of these ideas are reinforced when the song is performed since the grammatical gender of the lyric voice is frequently at odds with the gender of the performer.