Gay Pride Weekend brings a chance to reflect on gay and lesbian composers who have enriched classical music throughout history. It’s a topic that concert programmers or musicologists rarely address, whether because of conservative attitudes or the risk of improperly linking musical styles and sexual politics.
Still, the question hasn't been completely ignored. In the fall 2013 issue of Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, University of Michigan women's studies professor Nadine Hubbs asserts that a core of American classical music developed a gay aesthetic during the mid-20th century.
Hubbs considers how American composers including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, Marc Blitzstein, Paul Bowles, David Diamond and Ned Rorem formed a close circle and "performed and programmed, admired and envied each other’s work." All happened to be defenders of tonality at a time when experimental, atonal styles (rooted in Austro-Germanic traditions) were dominant. Hubbs traces a stylistic lineage linking Copland to Thomson, who himself was inspired by the work of the American, Paris-based author Gertrude Stein.
Some have contested Hubbs's writings, arguing that plenty of gay composers were writing thorny, non-tonal music in these years, notably John Cage, Henry Cowell and Harry Partch. Still, Hubbs's thesis remains a compelling starting point, and her book, The Queer Composition of America's Sound (2004), is worth seeking out. In the meantime, test your knowledge on the topic in our quiz.