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If we move back into the nineteenth century we get nothing like the same number. And in a society still largely governed by the tenets of the church, discussions of a homosexual nature were difficult. But even so, the eagle-eyed have difficulty making such an extensive list: Ethel Smyth, Saint Saëns (possibly), Tchaikovsky, Schubert (possibly).

Homosexuality itself was a nineteenth century construct. The word came into existence in 1869 so Tchaikovsky (1840 -- 1893) is one of the first who would have been able to classify himself as homosexual, if he had wanted to. Language has an important effect on the way we think, so the development of the word homosexual can be seen to have helped the development of some sort of homosexual consciousness. Before the late nineteenth century the concept of a homosexual person was vague, non-existent even. There were just homosexual acts. But with this homosexual consciousness (for want of a better word) would have come the sense of being an outsider, of not belonging. For much of the twentieth century homosexuals were in society without ever completely belonging. Could this sense of not quite belonging, of being in some ways an outsider, be a pointer to the prevalence of twentieth century composers who were homosexual?

So where does this lead to? Some of you will remain convinced that whatever composers did in the bedroom should remain firmly there and not be brought to light. Others will wish to assume nineteenth century composers are heterosexual if the evidence is not resoundingly to the contrary. This brisk canter through a list of composers is hardly a firm basis on which to create a theory. But it does help to make us think about what it takes to make a major composer. Why some people create great music and why others, despite immense talent, fail to do so. And this is, ultimately, why I think such lists matter. Initially, perhaps, they are created to help re-affirm the identity of the people making the list. But such lists give us fascinating little windows into the make-up of the composers involved.

I am, though, no further on with an explanation of this significant number of twentieth century gay composers and I would be interested in hearing from anyone who might have something positive to contribute to this discussion.

Copyright © 11 March 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK



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