COMPOSERS AND SEXUALITY
ROBERT HUGILL asks what effect sexuality can have
on the art of writing music
In the newspapers, the recent appointment of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies highlighted an interesting issue. Rather than concentrating on his music, an article in The Guardian on Monday 8 March 2004 also mentioned his politics (he's an old-fashioned socialist which would rather seem to put him at odds with both the government and institution of the monarchy) and his sexuality. Max is of a generation who are able to be open about their sexuality with relative impunity. But does this issue of sexuality matter? It obviously matters to The Guardian as they mention his sexuality in the first paragraph.
Music is a resolutely abstract art. In the written word it is possible to pin down references and allusions so that a critic can come up with a postulation about a sub-text, no matter what the subject matter. In music this is harder; if a composer does not choose to set words, how do you come up with a subtext? One can delve into the emotions expressed in a work, even come up with a context for them. But linking this to childhood trauma, relationship problems or sexuality is harder. In an ideal situation it should not matter, but people remain uncomfortable with public figures with non-standard sexuality.
For example: there has been much discussion, in recent years, about the nature of Schubert's sexuality. He definitely was not comfortably settled with a wife/girlfriend in the way of Schumann and Mendelssohn. His friends complained about his behaviour, but the exact nature of these complaints have been difficult to pin down. There is growing consensus that he might have had emotional or physical relationships with men. This causes problems with some commentators who will tolerate Schubert consorting with prostitutes but not with young men. Add into this the possibility of his falling in love with young women as well and you have a composer whose sexuality manifestly refuses to fall into a neat category. Again, it should not matter, but to many people it does. Leading one to wonder what effect sexuality can have on the art (or craft or science) of composing.
Copyright © 11 March 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK