Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Scandalous Overtures: Tchaikovsky: Fear And Loathing In St. Petersburg

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and William Bruce Jenner: really, can we imagine a more unlikely pair? Tchaikovsky was a nineteenth century Russian composer of exquisitely lyric music; a shy and sensitive man, fastidious in his habits and Victorian in his manners and bearing. Bruce Jenner is a dyslexic jock from Westchester County in New York. When his football career was cut short by a knee injury he went on to track and field and won a gold medal at the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal. He has been squarely in the public eye since, as an athlete, actor, racecar driver, businessman and, since 2007, a reality TV star.

Their differences aside, both Tchaikovsky and Jenner led secret lives of remarkable similarity. That Tchaikovsky’s secret killed him while Jenner’s has inspired fascination and no small degree of public support has much to tell us about the environments in which they lived.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a deeply neurotic man. His neurosis sprang from a personality so over-sensitive that his governess called him a “porcelain child”; from his inferiority complex as a composer; and from his sexuality. Tchaikovsky was a died-in-the-wool homosexual living and working in one of the most homophobic cultures of recent memory: Imperial Russia.

Praise heaven, Tchaikovsky’s neuroses did not preclude him from composing a lot of wonderful music. Au contraire, as great artists are wont to do, he transformed his angst und schmerz und mishigas (craziness, for the Yiddish impaired) into music of extraordinary beauty and expressive power.

In doing so Tchaikovsky became a Russian national hero. But in becoming a national hero, Tchaikovsky’s fear of being outed grew into genuine paranoia.

He spent the first half of his life believing that all he needed was the “right” woman to redeem and “cure him” of his homosexuality. So he tried marriage. A mistake. The marriage lasted but 10 weeks; longer, admittedly, than Carmen Elektra and Dennis Rodman (two days), but just about the same length as Kris Humphries and Kim Kardashian (the latter being Bruce Jenner’s stepdaughter, like you needed me to tell you that). The only thing Tchaikovsky’s marriage cured him of was his belief that his homosexuality was “curable”.

And so Tchaikovsky led a double emotional life. On one hand, he was an enthusiastic participant in the demi-monde of rough trade, enamored of slim, clean-shaven adolescents (“twinks”, in contemporary parlance), and dressing in drag. On the other, he was consumed with self-loathing and remorse and morbidly afraid that his “abnormality” should become publicly known. In the end, Tchaikovsky’s fear of exposure cost him his life.

Like Tchaikovsky, Jenner was embraced as national hero. Like Tchaikovsky, Jenner has lived much of his life in the public eye. Like Tchaikovsky, he built his life and career around an image of conventional masculinity. Like Tchaikovsky, Jenner married: three times (thus far). Unlike Tchaikovsky, Jenner managed to stay married for more than 10 weeks at a time and in the process fathered 6 children and step-fathered four more (those would be the Kardashians). And like Tchaikovsky, it appears from news reports and interviews with family members that Jenner has led a secret life with his desire to look, dress, and live as a woman. Out from under the heavy thumb of his ex-wife — the 59 year-old Kris Jenner — the 65 year-old Jenner began his transformation back in February, when he reportedly had surgery to flatten his Adam’s apple. Sources claim that he is now taking estrogen. He is growing out his hair and according to observers, he is wearing sports bras and strapping on corsets and Spanx. It remains to be seen whether he will opt for all-out sex-reassignment surgery or be content to live with the outward manifestations of womanhood.

Lucky Bruce Jenner. However difficult it must be for him to go through these changes in the public eye, the fact that he is willing and able to do so indicates a degree of self-acceptance on his part and tolerance on society’s part that poor Tchaikovsky could never – not in his wildest dreams – have imagined. Check out the latest episode of Scandalous Overtures on OraTV below for the tragic story of what happened when Tchaikovsky was threatened with public exposure:


  1. Classical music history has
    never been this much fun! It’s about time somebody came along to fill us in on
    the lives of some of our revered composers. Nobody is more qualified and charismatic
    than Robert Greenberg to do just that. His presentations could not be more
    entertaining and educational—two words that
    usually don’t go together. The omnipresent music is well-chosen, the backdrops apropos, the
    graphics clever, and of course Greenberg at his finest. He has great respect
    for the composers but does an amazing balancing act between being reverent and
    irreverent at the same time in telling interesting, salacious, and humorous
    stories about their lives—which illustrate they were human afterall; Greenberg
    exhumes them for a closer examination. The anecdotal episodes in video are
    wonderfully creative! Bravo! Bravo!

  2. There’s so many untruths in this, I don’t know where to begin. Greenberg should begin by reading some modern scholarship on Tchaikovsky — Poznansky and Wiley to begin with — and he should stop trading on sensationalism. Tchaikovsky deserves better than this unsubstantiated nonsense.

    For a genuinely scholarly examination of Tchaikovsky’s death and the circumstances surrounding it (disproving the myths and legends that arose after Tchaikovsky’s death), from Oxford University Press:

    And for a measured look at Tchaikovsky the man and his life, visit the Tchaikovsky Research website: