Wednesday 23 July 2014

Reading the silence - aspects of Handel's sexuality

Handel as a young man in Italy
Handel as a young man in Italy
The issue of Handel's sexuality is one that continues to fascinate musicologists & music historians. We might say, what does it matter? But the issue certainly seems to bother people, particularly the idea of Handel's sexuality being anything other than normative. Knowing more about who and what Handel cared for would perhaps help us to shed more illumination on his somewhat elusive personal life. Writings by Gary Thomas and Ellen T Harris have been around for some time, considering the question from various angles but more recently Thomas McGeary has come up what he says is a definitive answer.

Gary C Thomas started things with his article in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology in 1994. To a certain extent, the article was simply Thomas throwing a stone to see what happened. He imaginatively stitched together what little we do and don't know into an apparently cohesive argument.  Ellen T. Harris in her 2001 book Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas attacked the question from a completely different angle, attempting to put a context to Handel's chamber cantatas. She posits Handel in an homosexual/homosocial milieu amongst his patrons in Italy and the cantatas seem to bear this out, and she extends this to Handel's early period in London under the patronage of the Earl of Burlington.

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association in 2011, Thomas McGeary's article Handel and Homosexuality: Burlington House and Cannons Revisited has examined the matter in forensic detail, but considering only Handel's London period. I have to confess that, when I first came across McGeary's article I disliked it.

Burlington House in 1854
Burlington House
The abstract for McGeary's article runs 'It has been claimed that Burlington House and Cannons, the homes of the Earl of Burlington and the Duke of Chandos, were homosexual or homoerotic settings and that Handel's presence in these environments suggests that he was ‘gay’ or influenced the secular works he composed there. Examining in detail biographical information about John Gay, Alexander Pope and William Kent, eighteenth-century biographical accounts of Handel and insights from the history of sexuality, this article argues that there is no basis for these claims about the homosexual milieux at Burlington House and Cannons or for Handel's sexuality.'

 I mistrust any article whose abstract claims to be so definitive, and have to admit that at first reading I thought there was a whiff of homophobia about the it too. But having fully read McGeary's article, I have to admit that there is something to his arguments.

He does keep his focus quite narrow, considering principally Handel's early years in London and makes no attempt to deal with Harris's arguments about Handel's Italian sojourn and the texts of the cantatas written there. But he presents a closely reasoned argument.

What it boils down to, is how you do interpret silence. The idea of a gay identity or even an homosexual identity is something of an anachronism for the 18th century. The written record for any concept of gay or homosexual identity is sparse, we can only really talk with certainty about homosexual acts. And even these were still profoundly frowned up, not to mention illegal. So, where in a modern setting we might have a reasonable body of direct evidence, in the 18th century there is only silence. Any homosexual activity had to take place under the radar and usually our main sources are records of prosecutions.

In the case of Handel, we know very little about his personal life at all, few documents have survived. So there is plenty of silence surround the inner Handel.  Except, of course there isn't. Whilst we might not know a lot about Handel's personal life, he is surrounded by chatter from friends and colleagues.

However, the very silence of Handel's personal documents might be telling; Thomas certainly thinks so, pointing to the fact that whilst Handel's manuscripts were carefully preserved, his personal letters seem to have been just as carefully removed. But we need not read too much into this, people in the 18th and 19th century disliked the idea of posterity looking over their shoulder, even Mrs Gaskell instructed her daughters to burn her letters.

Essentially, Thomas, Harris and McGeary take differing views on how to interpret the silence. McGeary takes the view that homosexuality and sodomy were sufficiently written about for the subject to appear in the written record if Handel was suspected. Thomas and Harris argue for the possibility of life separate and apart, even to the extent of marriage not counting in the argument. In this context it is important to remember that most men indulged, if at all, in homosexual acts in the context of an heterosexual identity. Few were brave enough to live out lives with an homosexual identity; though some did and we have quite a bit of evidence of the subculture of Molly Houses in London in the 1720's.

And here is the problem, quite how much do we read into the silence? McGeary in his article is clearly intolerant of Thomas and Harris's arguments and feels that they are doing too much special pleading.

In this context, I must bring in a little of my own experience from living in Scotland in the 1970's when homosexuality was illegal, often prosecuted but there was a lively gay sub-culture which was written about. I have friends from the time who were quite open and whose gay identity is probably clear from the written record. But I had other friends about whom the written record would probably be completely silent but who were equally gay they just lived their gay life under the radar.

3rd Earl of Burlington
Earl of Burlington
All this means, that we can't make a definitive statement about Handel from this aspect of the written record. The other informative aspect is the social milieu in which he acted. This issue of social milieu has very much informed current thinking about Schubert's sexuality. The written record is equally tantalising for Schubert but he lived much of his live in an all male, homosocial environment which can be very telling.

Unfortunately, Handel didn't. Both Thomas and Harris assume that Handel's initial stay in London, when he was under the patronage of the Earl of Burlington, placed him in some sort of homosocial milieu based around the Earl. Despite some effective pleading from Harris and Thomas, I have to accept McGeary's arguments that the coterie around the Earl of Burlington was not homosocial. Tempting as it is to suspect the relationship between the Earl of Burlington and William Kent, there does seem to be nothing at all to support it. And McGeary gives a great deal of detail supporting quite the opposite.

So where does this leave us?

Before I finish, I want to give another telling story. In the 1970's I had a biography of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It was a very reputable book, and regarding Sullivan's sexuality the author had to admit that the record was blank and he even went so far as to comment on the homosocial nature of many of Sullivan's relationships. Since then, the code in Sullivan's diaries has been decoded and it becomes apparent that Sullivan had a long and secret relationship with a married woman. So the written record can deceive.

I don't think that it is deceiving us about Handel. I am still worried about the tone of McGeary's article. He seems too keen and eager to prove that Handel could not be gay, as if that mattered to him. (But then as a gay man and musicologist, perhaps Thomas was keen in the other direction). A contributory factor in my thinking has always been Handel's writing for his female characters, notably what Winton Dean called the 'sex kitten' roles (Cleopatra, Poppea, Atalanta etc). Here Handel seems far closer to Puccini (who habitually fell in love with his heroines) than with Tchaikovsky (who identified with his).

Of course, McGeary's arguments only apply to Handel in London. We still have Harris's persuasive arguments on Handel's relationships with his patrons in Italy. Here we have to remember that the young and attractive Handel (yes, he was attractive as a young man) is making his way in a new world full of older patrons, some of whom may have had a clear attraction to him. I rather suspect Handel was what some of my older gay friends would call a naughty boy, a young heterosexual man who has no qualms about flirting with older gay men and teasing them perhaps, but going no further.

Despite Thomas McGeary's desire to be definitive, I think the issue of Handel's sexuality will continue to fascinate. Certainly, for anyone interested in the issue his article makes interesting and essential readings. It is available on-line direct from the publishers.
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