Friday 14 July 2006

The Sound of Silence - 3

This part 3 of the article, part 1 is here and part 2 here.

Ellen Harris does not attempt to fathom Handel’s sexuality. Her book covers all of the Italian chamber cantatas but she prefixes each period with a summary of what we know. Her main discoveries have been about the fascinatingly homosexual/homosocial aristocratic milieu in which Handel wrote his cantatas. Interestingly, when he ceased living with aristocratic patrons and moved into his own house in Brook Street, he stopped writing cantatas. Interestingly, also, Harris argues that when the London Handel re-edited his cantatas composed in Italy for use in London had made a number of subtle changes which removed or obfuscated any possible homosexual/homosocial reading of the cantata or its text.

Harris’s book is pretty substantial, she covers every single one of the Italian continuo cantatas along with many other. Besides discussion the works in context she provides a good chronology for the cantatas along with the texts and translations of the continuo cantatas. But it her attempts to elucidate the background to the composing of the works that stay in the mind, her discovery of the apparently highly sexual milieu in which Handel wrote them.

There are times when Harris attempts to read too much into the subject matter and background to the cantatas. But with such a careful author as Harris, you come away thinking that there are so many small pointers that there must be something in it.

One final point, we have a tendency to think of Handel as the middle-aged bon viveur of legend. This is the image that most commentators project onto their reconstructions of his personality. But there is another Handel, the young attractive Saxon. Harris includes in her book a reproduction of a now lost image of the twenty year old, Handel. The image of a slim, attractive young man; just the person to capture the hearts and imaginations of randy Cardinals.

Like Handel, with Schubert we are reduced to close readings of small gestures. Granted there are more pointers, such as his close male relationships. And we do have more information than we did for Handel. Most of these issues are covered by Maynard Solomons in his paper “Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini” (published in 19th Century Music in 1989(. The title is a reference to an entry in his by Eduard von Baurenfeld that Schubert “Schubert somewhat ailing (he needs "young peacocks" like Benvenuto Cellini”. We have never fully elucidated this and Solomons takes is to be a double-entendre and that the peacocks refers to young male sexual partners. This issue of Schubert’s sexuality is one that troubles commentators, despite the increasing consensus. There has even been an article in Early Music which attempts to cast doubt on Solomons paper by denigrating his understanding of Benvenuto Cellini’s Peacocks, but the argument goes far beyond that.

So a recent biography of Schubert went so far as to grudgingly accept that Schubert was at least bisexual, but there has never been a study of how this might affect our view of his music. This is where Susan McClary’s article in “Queering the Pitch” sheds some light on the issue. She does not rehearse the pro’s and cons of the argument, instead she considers things from a musical point of view, examining the musical construction of some of the later works.

We cannot now know for certain what Handel or Schubert’s sexual proclivities were. But I think that it is important for us to accept that the record is silent on the subject and not to try and fill the silence with noise of our own making. That the vision of Handel as a vigorous, heterosexual man must be just as much a figment of a biographer’s imagination as the image of him pursuing choirboys under the watchful eye of an Italian Cardinal.

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