Both born under the sign of Taurus, their lives were both defined by those Taurean keywords, “I Have.” It is a sign concerned with assets, with the ‘stuff’ that gives us the pleasure and which makes us feel secure. It doesn’t mean that a Taurus will inevitably have everything he or she wants — very often it is the opposite, because the flip side to all this having is… desire. This aspect of the sign that resonates most strongly in these two composers. Both were born on May 7th. Both, in their personal lives and musical output, were defined more by the not-having than by the having.
In Tchaikovsky’s case, the issue was his homosexuality. Though the Putin regime will vigorously deny it today, Tchaikovsky was gay. Then, as now, Russia was not an environment where this could be safely and openly expressed. He existed in a sham marriage that made him miserable, and pined after men he could never hope to approach, let alone have. His music is full of big emotion, of anguish and, of course, sensuous melodies. His tragic ballet Swan Lake overflows with these characteristics, as does his music for the star-crossed (read: unfulfilled) lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The hallmark of his symphonic output rests with his Sixth Symphony. It is known as the “Pathétique,” referring to passion or pathos, and was his final work. Some historians view it as a musical “suicide note,” as Tchaikovsky died not long after its premiere. How he died is still under question, but whether it was from cholera as originally reported, or by his own hand as some suspect, there is no question that it marked the end of a life full of frustration.
Johannes Brahms, who lived a long and prosperous life, was also plagued by great and unfulfilled desires, but he was somehow able to live with it. Brahms spent his adult life yearning for a woman he could not have. The phenomenal pianist, Clara Schumann — a woman of tremendous depth, intelligence and musical acumen — was married to his ailing friend and colleague, Robert Schumann. Out of loyalty to Robert, Johannes and Clara kept their mutual feelings forever in check. But Brahms remained close with Clara, seeking her advice and opinions on his work, and dedicating some of it to her, at times covertly. The opening strain from the slow movement of his G major string sextet, he said, was the symbol of his love for her. That piece is an irresistible unfolding of sumptuous tenderness and desire. And there’s plenty more where that came from! The melody that opens the Andante from his Piano Quartet in c minor, coveted by cellists everywhere, is just as sensuous and seductive — and if that weren’t enough, it is quickly joined by the violin in a vivid love duet that, if played well, should make you blush! Inside all of Brahms’ work are the sometimes languid, sometimes urgent rumblings of desire, be it in his symphonies, his solo piano works or chamber music. There is always the visceral churning of yearning — which is why, of all the Taurus composers to walk the earth, he is my favourite: He makes desire a pleasure in itself!