Music from the Closet

A disproportionate number of composers have been homosexual, and in an age when it was necessary to hide the fact. This week Mahlerman looks at how repressed or forbidden love might have found expression in great music…

If I were to try and make out a case for homosexual composers producing a ‘gay sound’ it would be time, I think, to ring for the men in white coats. What is interesting to note is the wide proliferation of gay men throughout the world, and particularly in America, who make careers in music as creative or re-creative musicians. And thinking about it further, could it not be asserted that if you were so inclined, and living through the first half of the last century (or earlier), you could reasonably claim to have been pushed to the margins of society and become a pariah or, at the very least, an outsider? And if you accept this as fact, it would not be too much of a stretch to imagine that any repressed feelings you might harbour, any emotional turmoil, could find expression in a musical composition particularly, say, in an opera. Immediately springing to mind is the isolation of Britten’s Grimes in Peter Grimes, and of Aschenbach in Death in Venice. Sex is there, in the shadows, but loneliness and solitude dominate.

When the composer Marc Blitzstein was beaten to death on holiday in Martinique in 1964 America lost a creative force that his friend (and lover) Leonard Bernstein described as ‘irreplaceable’. Although married, he was a predatory homosexual, and had picked up a trio of sailors, drunkenly propositioning one of them. I came across his opera Regina many years ago in a CD box dumped into a remainder bin at HMV and selling for a couple of pounds. It is a free adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes, and straddles both the operatic world and that of the popular musical – and, like Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Kern’s Showboat, is set in the Deep South of America. Unlikely ever to eclipse either of those masterworks it nevertheless has a pungent charm that offers no hint of its creator’s troubled life, and grim death.

Jean-Baptiste Lully was a very naughty boy who died, as we know from an earlier Lazy Sunday post, by spearing a toe with his conducting-rod and contracting gangrene. Italian-born, he spent most of his life in and out of favour at the court of Louis XIV, composing first a series of comedies-ballets, and later, with librettist Philippe Quinault, establishing an entirely new type of French opera, tragedie lyrique. For most of his life with both genders, he acted without moral restraint and, although he married the daughter of a friend and sired ten children, his life as a debaucher and debauchee continued unchecked. His music offers no clues to his reckless behaviour, being altogether clear, noble, and full of the spirit of grand siecle, never more so than here, in the opening scene and Prologue from his opera of 1677, Isis.

In my last Sunday of sloth Some Autodidacts, I mentioned that Francis Poulenc was the first modern composer to ‘come out’, and so he was. I return to him today not to labour the facts of his sexual orientation, but to celebrate his unique, albeit minor contribution to elegance and sophistication, suavity and irony in music. Here, a reminder of Poulenc’s great love of Mozart in this wonderful vid of the composer and his great friend Jacques Fevrier playing the Double Piano Concerto with perhaps the most elegant conductor to draw breath, George Pretre, happily still with us. Listen for the gamelan effects near the end, mixed with garlic and Wolfgang Amadeus – delicious!

Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett had much in common. They were both pacifist and, as war loomed, conscientious objectors; they were both leftist and both gay, Britten a rapacious seeker of boys, Tippett a more contained figure, more physically attractive, and with an appeal (which he did not resist) to women as well as men. And although they both revered Henry Purcell, their compositions could not have been more different – Britten precise and classical, with everything in its place, not a note too many, nothing left to chance; Tippett all over the place, and often declared ‘unplayable’. His most important male relationship was perhaps with the painter Wilfred Franks. ‘Meeting with Wilf was the deepest, the most shattering experience of falling in love…….all that love flowed out in the slow movement of my first quartet’. Here is the Lento Cantabile second movement from the Quartet No 1.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

5 thoughts on “Music from the Closet

    October 14, 2012 at 09:47

    The phrase “rapacious seeker of boys” is a bit strong, isn’t it? Britten’s attitude to boys was far from healthy but I’m not aware of any evidence that he molested them, which is what rapacious implies. He was far from Jimmy Savile territory, surely?

    October 14, 2012 at 11:34

    Well Simon, you are quite right that the particular phrase I used was ‘a bit strong’ – but I think there is enough evidence out there in the public domain (as well as plenty of tittle-tattle) to support the notion that after Britten’s rape by one of his schoolmasters, recounted by the librettist of Albert Herring, Eric Crozier, the learned-behaviour of that experience stayed with him throughout his life.
    In John Bridcut’s book ‘Britten’s Children’ (generally supportive of the composer’s extra-musical activities, and in no way a sensationalist tome) he reminds us of the incident in 1936 when the composer made a ‘sexual approach’ to 13 year old Harry Morris at a family holiday house in Cornwall. The boy fought him off with a chair and was packed off back to London the following day.
    The late actor David Hemmings is now almost as well known for his intimate friendship with Britten (sleeping together, but nothing more) as he ever was for his acting skills, but he suffered the harsher side of the composer when his voice broke during performances of The Turn of the Screw, whereupon Britten coldly dumped him.
    Bridcut also unearths a ‘scoop’ in the person of Wulff Scherchen (son of the well known conductor), a german teenager he met in 1934 and, if the letters that passed between them are any indication, their friendship was fully expressed.
    I never imagined that the hideous Savile would be featured in these pages but I suppose there are some parallels – a ready supply of young flesh – too young to either understand or, if they did, too afraid to ‘let on’; and a supporting cast of mums and dads who, to get their Martha/Arthur into the world of celebrity, were willing to ‘look the other way’.

  3. Worm
    October 14, 2012 at 12:59

    Such amazing detail MM,

    Along with the previously discussed prevalence of Jewish musicians and artists there must surely be a weighty tome crying out to be written about the outsider in art, and to what extent a feeling of ‘otherness’ drives creativity. Sure there’s plenty of books on the subject already

    October 14, 2012 at 19:02

    It had been marvelous weather, hot May sunshine, cloudless skies, warm nights. During the second week this changed, midway between a Bangladeshi downpour and Noye’s Fludde. Staggering upriver, a narrow cobbled lane hemmed in with high walls, Florence’s Via di San Leonardo, we finally took shelter in a doorway, as the rain eased I glanced across the street, a blue plaque had caught my attention. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky lived here, it proclaimed. Well well, I proclaimed, was this the old bugger’s love nest, a swarthy Tuscan youth secreted away within? Who knows?

    John Halliwell
    October 15, 2012 at 14:08

    “Ben, a word in your shell-like; have you heard that Mahlerman is postulating that a homosexual composer channels his repressed feelings and inner emotional turmoil into the creative process? And the cheeky bugger has written it underneath a photo of the two of us; me looking 30, wine glass, collar and tie; you looking 70, anxious, dicky to the fore. But I think he might have a point. Look at your obsession with all those lads: Paul Bunyan, Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Billy Budd, Owen Wingrave, John Gay and his Begger, that bloke Noye. Bloody hell Ben, throw him off the scent. How about a six act ‘Gladys and the Fiery Bosom’?”

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