Thursday, January 8, 2015

Gay … Music?

At dinner after last night's book group, I was struck by how many members of the group are very knowledgeable about classical music. Not just Steve, but also Fred, Robert, Tim and probably others I am forgetting or don't know about. I would really like to find some way to benefit from this assembly of musical expertise. One thought, not sure if a good one: is it possible to detect anything specifically gay in the music of gay classical composers—Tchaikovsky, Britten, Copland for instance? I don't mean, in words or literary structures associated with their music—song lyrics, librettos of operas, written "programs" of symphonies—but in the music itself? Probably not—music doesn't make reference to external reality in the ways that either literature or the (representational) visual arts do. Certainly, there wouldn't be any one "gay trait"—there aren't many traits Copland shares with Tchaikovsky, are there? And while music obviously generates emotions, I don't think gay people's emotions are very different from straight people's. So, this is probably a dead end, but if anyone has any thoughts, I'd be glad to know. Another question: I can't off hand think of any known gay composers before Tchaikovsky—are there any?   [posted for John]


DCSteve1441 said...

Excellent questions, John. To take the more straightforward one first, the main reason there were so few famous gay composers before Tchaikovsky is that there were few famous composers, period. To overgeneralize a bit, until the Romantics came along, writing music was viewed first and foremost as a job, done either for the glory of God or for money. As a result, there was little interest in a composer's personal life.

Handel is the first prominent composer I can recall who has been suspected of being gay, but that seems to be based on a mixture of wishful thinking and guilt by association (he spent all that time in the opera world, after all, and we know how flamboyant singers are!). It is true that he never married, but that's also true of many other creative figures who are regarded as straight.

As for the larger question of what, if anything makes music "gay," you've framed it well, John. As you note, there aren't many traits Copland shares with Tchaikovsky--but I think there IS a common 'gayness" to be found among the works of Copland, Barber and Bernstein, for instance. Ravel is another figure whose works sound "gay" to me even if I can't put into words precisely what I mean by that.

I'll reflect on this some more and see if I can come up with anything else, but I hope this has been useful. Cheers, Steve

Robert Muir said...

Jim, there is the story (I like to believe it's true) that when Tchaikovsky first met Camille Saint Saens...within a short time they were at the piano in drag doing arias.

Robert Muir said...

That was to say "John."