This article considers a number of Tchaikovsky's songs—specifically those with texts by Apukhtin, Romanov, Heine, Goethe, and Tchaikovsky himself—to explore how silence constitutes a powerful yet elusive form of expression. It argues that Tchaikovsky's songs, an underappreciated and underexplored aspect of his output (at least in the West), are characterized by a degree of literary and musical sophistication seldom attributed to the composer. Their self-consciousness is held to be the product of a combination of three main social and aesthetic forces characteristic of Russian culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Drawing first on the work of Bakhtin, the article argues that the nature of Tchaikovsky's songs as lyric forms in an age dominated by the realist novel invests them with a creative tension between the need to conceal (an imperative inherited from the lyric poetry of the 1820s and 1830s) and the need to reveal (a feature of the novel's tendency to intimacy and confession). Then, turning to the work of Foucault, it traces how a coherent discourse of homosexual identity (as opposed to an otherwise unrelated series of individual homosexual acts) arose in the later nineteenth century, forcing queer artists to address (whether consciously or otherwise) the question of how best to relate this identity to their creativity. Finally, it looks at the evolving status of the artist in late Imperial Russia and suggests that an uneasy relationship between revealing and concealing was imposed upon personalities in the public eye by an audience that wished to feel close to the artist, yet also required discretion and the avoidance of scandal.
At the heart of the article lies a study of silence as a particularly expressive form of apparent non-expression, dealing with frequent instances in Tchaikovsky's songs of silence as a poetic trope, as well as with equivocation on matters of gender and identity in lyric forms as indicative of a potentially queer sensibility. Also, the article refuses to reimpose a categorically and reductively homosexual reading, posited on some presumed opposed heterosexual norm. Rather, it argues that Tchaikovsky was able to discern the peculiar appeal of lyric forms as referentially incomplete yet aesthetically self-sufficient fragments, and that he approached such lyrics in a way that emphasized qualities of ambiguity, allusion, and the uncanny. Although drawing extensively on literary models, the article also considers how music is paradoxically well placed to enact poetic silence. The relationship between words and music, and between composition, performance, and reception, is a further instance of how song became an apt medium in which the thoughtful composer could explore issues of personal and creative identity in an age of profound artistic and social transformation.