Here’s Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, writing in Sunday’s paper on Nadine Hubbs’ The Queer Composition of
America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music and
This is an ambitious, provocative and
impressively documented work, with more than 70 pages of
detailed footnotes for a 178-page text. It tries to prove
that what has come to be considered the distinctive
American sound in mid-20th-century American music–that
Coplandesque tableau of widely spaced harmonies and
melancholic tunes run through with elements of elegiac folk
music and spiked with jerky American dance rhythms–was
essentially invented by a group of Manhattan-based gay
composers: Copland, of course, and Virgil Thomson, Paul
Bowles, David Diamond, Marc Blitzstein, Leonard Bernstein,
Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem….
My gay brothers and sisters should welcome Ms. Hubbs’s account of the pivotal role played by gay composers in the development of a musical idiom that as the book argues, still signifies “America,” not just in the concert hall but also in movies, television and commercial culture.
Yet, I suspect that many musicians, however fascinated by
Ms. Hubbs’s treatise, will share my discomfort over the
notion of trying to identify anything as elusive as a gay
sensibility in music. It’s significant, I think, that most
of the advance praise for the book (“a landmark study,”
“breathtakingly original history”) comes from cultural
historians, not musicians….
Perhaps a sense of separateness emboldened this circle of
gay composers, who shared an affinity for French culture
and aesthetics, to distance themselves from the
domineering, aggressive (meaning rigorously German) brand
of 1920’s modernism….
By the late 1930’s, Copland, with his language now
simplified as well, was writing the works that would make
him famous, especially the ballet scores “Billy the Kid”
and “Rodeo.” Still, what is so gay about a symphony that
uses hymns as thematic fodder, or a ballet score run
through with cowboy tunes and Old West dance rhythms? What
is the gay sensibility of Copland’s 1939 “Quiet City” or
the vibrant 1943 Violin Sonata?
(Read the whole thing here.)
I was thinking of reviewing Hubbs’ book, but Tony has said most of what I wanted to say, and the rest of it can be found in an essay I wrote about Benjamin Britten for Commentary. Much of what has been written about Britten since his death in 1976 has revolved around the posthumously disclosed fact that he was sexually attracted to pre-pubescent boys. As I explained in 2000:
[R]evelations about the composer’s private life, particularly the candid account of his pederastic inclinations supplied by Humphrey Carpenter in his 1992 biography, add force to the now widely accepted argument that it is impossible to fully understand his music without taking his sexuality into account. Yet such a critical perspective, while capable of providing valuable illumination, is ultimately unequal to the task of explaining Britten’s enduring appeal….he is not a prisoner of identity, speaking only of and to his own kind, but a universal genius, intelligible to everyone. Even in The Turn of the Screw–perhaps his best work, certainly his most disturbing–he succeeds in transcending the particularity of his sexual character and portraying the human dilemma in terms that speak directly to all men in all conditions.
I’ve written in similar terms about Copland and Tchaikovsky, two other great composers whose music is infinitely important to me. The fact that they were both homosexual should never be disregarded in discussing their life and work–but only an unmusical ideologue would try to explain away their genius by engaging in the kind of politico-sexual reductionism of which Hubbs is merely the latest purveyor. In the words of Tony Tommasini:
Ultimately, what we may most value about music is that it moves us in powerful but indistinct ways. It’s the one thing that cannot be analyzed or deconstructed for its expressive content, and thank goodness for that.
I think that’s exactly right. It is, after all, the radical ambiguity of music that underlies its unique power–an ambiguity that cannot be clarified by resort to verbal analysis or description, however superficially sophisticated.
I’ll leave the last word to Felix Mendelssohn, who put it better than anyone else, before or since: “The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” By which Mendelssohn meant roughly what Igor Stravinsky meant when he said that “music expresses itself.” That’s why we love it, and never more so than in an age increasingly dominated by aesthetic politicians. It’s too blessedly slippery for such misguided folk as Nadine Hubbs to put it in a box and nail the lid shut.