Saturday, January 22, 2005

Play but don't tell

My brother sent me an article from WBUR, Boston's NPR station, about Queer studies in musicology. Entitled Play but don't tell, this article by Mark Kroll highlights the history of academic enquiry into composer sexuality, starting with a session at the American Musicological Society in 1990. Mr. Kroll makes it sound like the battles are still being fought on this subject, but it really isn't so. In both musicology and music theory, there are those who do research on the effect of gender and sexuality on composition and performance, and there are those who don't. It is the rare person to criticize someone in the other "camp" for their research beliefs, other than Pieter van den Toorn. And Van den Toorn's book was considered out-of-date when it was published, as it addressed 1990 gender studies rather than 1996 gender studies, in a rapidly changing field.

As for my own opinion, here is what I wrote to my brother:
While media coverage of things like this tend to oversimplify for the sake of sensationalism, this one does make a good point that composers write a variety of pieces, each of which may or may not contain elements of the composer's sexuality.  I think some of Tchaikovsky's pieces have a tumultuous quality because of his struggles with his sexuality (he married a female student who ended up committing suicide).  I think Benjamin Britten gravitated towards operas about the other, because of his "love that dare not speak its name."  But then, Britten also wrote the War Requiem to portray his pacifist beliefs, nothing to do with homosexuality.  

Terry Teachout recently addressed the question of his sexuality, pointing out that it only mattered to those who were interested in him romantically. In other words, the CJ Craig line. I agree with this, when limited to the form of interactions with the person. But when looking at artistic endevours by someone, biographical information can be illuminating. A former professor of mine determined that Elgar had deliberately quote Wagner's Prize Song in his Second Symphony as a love letter to Mrs. Stuart-Wortley, proved by more traditional love letters he had written to her at the same time. (Gimbel, Allen. "Elgar's Prize Song: Quotation and Allusion in the Second Symphony." 19th-Century Music 12 (Spring 1989): 231-40.) Being aware of the extramusical influences of this quotation provides many interpretation possibilites for the performers. Likewise it could be helpful to know that Schubert was gay, in interpreting some of his songs.

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