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“They all fell to quarrelling over Tchaikovsky”:
Conspiracy, Biography, and Queer Musical Gossip
at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
As Malcolm Hamrick Brown (2002), Judith Peraino (2009), and Phillip Bullock (2017) have demonstrated, quasi-psychological readings of Tchaikovsky’s life and works in Anglophone musicology largely rely on homophobic tropes of repression and instability. Yet conspiracy theories surrounding the circumstances of his death and the supposed musical "confession” of his sexuality in his final symphony also took root extremely quickly within British and American queer musical circles during the 1890s and 1900s. In these communities, holding secret or hidden knowledge could be viewed not as an oppressive denunciation of the composer’s homosexuality but rather as a kind of insider knowledge and shared understanding of musical meaning. The act of repeating overtly negative gossip as an “acceptable” space for queer musical meaning is found within writings by various music critics, sexologists, and sex reform activists, including James Gibbons Huneker, Edward Prime-Stevenson, Edward Carpenter, and E.M. Forster. Debunking the apocryphal stories of Tchaikovsky’s death could also fuel further speculation during this period, as demonstrated by the reception of Rosa Newmarch’s seemingly neutral documentary research. By examining these surviving traces of Tchaikovsky gossip, I argue that one finds counternarratives of queer biography that would not appear openly within academic musicology until the 1990s, yet resist easy incorporation into contemporary queer theory and musicology.
Kristin Franseen is a PhD candidate in musicology. Her dissertation, supervised by Lloyd Whitesell, is entitled “Ghosts in the Archives: The Queer Knowledge and Public Musicology of Vernon Lee, Rosa Newmarch, and Edward Prime-Stevenson.” She has an MA in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a BA in music and women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Kristin has presented at meetings of the American Musicological Society, the Société québécoise de recherche en musique, and the Society for American Music, as well as themed regional conferences on biography, British queer history, women’s suffrage, public music discourse, and music and sexuality. Her research has been published in Keyboard Perspectives and Musique et pédagogie, and her article on Rosa Newmarch’s Tchaikovsky research is forthcoming in Ars Lyrica. Kristin's other research interests include Enlightenment philosophy in the operas of Antonio Salieri and the early promotion of the metronome.