Wednesday 12 July 2006

The Sound of Silence - 1

I’ve recently been reading 2 books that shed some interesting side-lights on the subject of composers and their sexuality. The first is new, Ellen Harris’s "Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas" and the second is quite old, but was ground breaking, "Queering the Pitch", edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas.

The first is essentially a survey of Handel’s Italian chamber cantatas but Harris has found some interesting links between the cantatas and their begetters which seem to derive from a homosexual mileu. The second book is an assembly of essays by gay musicologists and whilst many of them are ephemeral, two in particular strike resonances, Gary Thomas’s essay on Handel’s sexuality ("Was George Frideric Handel Gay?": On Closet Questions and Cultural Politics) and Susan McClary’s essay "Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert’s Music" on Schubert’s music and his possible sexuality.

The first question that you might ask is does all this matter? To many commentators, the dwelling on the possibility that a composer such as Handel or Schubert might be gay or re-assessing Beethoven’s attitude to women, says more about the writer’s attitude to sexuality than to informed opinion about the relevant composer.

Unfortunately there is a resounding silence in the archives when it comes to detailed information about the sexuality of many 18th century figures. Not only this, but 18th / 19th century habits are not 21st century ones and close male friendships can be read in a variety of ways (see Alan Bray’s books on these matters, "The Friend" and "Homosexuality in Renaissance England"). The fact that Schubert lived for most of his life with a close male friend can be read as proof of his being gay, but against this another commentator can provide examples of how men did develop close, non-sexual relationships. A further area of dispute is the tendency of heterosexually inclined commentators to take the example of one relationship with a woman to be proof that the person in question was heterosexual.

The hetero/homo-sexual identities really only developed in the mid 19th century though they were starting to in the 18th. For many people in Handel and Schubert’s times, there was no such thing as sexual identity, simply sexual acts. And acts with persons of one sex did not preclude acts with persons of another.

What we end up with is defining relationships according to that dread word, homosocial. A word coined to enable us to say that someone’s relationships are predominantly male orientated and could possibly involve sexual relations, but they might not. (see the Wikipedia entry)

Though modern commentators might regard themselves are balanced and enlightened, it is unfortunately true that most, when writing on their chosen subject, fill the resounding silence of the subject’s sexual identity with detail of the commentators own imagining.

To answer the question, does it matter? The answer is yes, because the issue seems to matter so much to other commentators. If everyone would let well alone, perhaps it would be different. But they don’t. Paul Henry Lang in his biography of Handel invented a whole series of female liaisons for Handel, apparently because he could not be content with the speaking quality of the silence around Handel’s sexuality. Similarly, Donald Burrows in the recent biography refers to Handel’s possible relationship with Vittoria Tarquini as "the only rumour of a sexual liaison during Handel’s career for which there is sufficient evidence to deserve serious consideration". The fact that this biography was written after Brett’s article would seem to indicate a side-swipe at the article. But apart from this comment Burrows keeps a magnificent silence on Handel’s relationships. Whereas Jonathan Keates says "The assumption that as a lifelong bachelor must perforce have been homosexual is untenable in an eighteenth century context, when the vagabond life of so many musicians made marriage a hindrance."

Perhaps even more tellingly, Susan McClary in her essay on Schubert in "Queering the Pitch" tells of her presentation of her paper about Schubert’s sexuality to the 1991 annual Schubertiade at the 92nd Street Y in New York The audience were just unable to accept even the possibility of Schubert’s being gay.

Part 2 to follow tomorrow.


  1. Anonymous3:45 pm

    I can't realy comment on the gay thing, but I do know that, in music and in a whole range of fields, it can be disconcerting to see rank upon rank of men. Sometimes this really matters, as in politics or literature, and other times it just makes one feel alienated, which is why many female academics have made a point of unearthing underpraised female figures (Gwen John is now, I understand, rated more highly than Augustus John)so I imagine that there is an element of that with gay people.

  2. The problem is that we can be a little to enthusiastic in our desire to identify people in the past as gay, which usually says more about our needs and desires rather then being helpful to our understanding of the figure from the past.


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