BY MADELINE ROYCROFT
The Australian people will soon have the chance to vote in a same-sex marriage plebiscite, challenging archaic restrictions on the rights of our LGBTQIA+ friends, colleagues, and family members.
As the nation prepares, we at CutCommon have decided it’s time to take a moment to shine the spotlight on the LGBTQIA+ classical music community, and celebrate contributions from five of its most iconic composers.
It’s certainly not an exhaustive list, but a tip of the hat to those who valiantly defied prejudice and social stigma while simultaneously creating some of the 20th Century’s most influential music.
5. Lou Harrison (1917-2003)
An immensely influential gay rights activist and successful composer, Lou Harrison’s distinctly rhythm-oriented style is perhaps best showcased in Double Music, his 1941 collaboration with queer contemporary and experimental icon John Cage.
Alongside commissions from both the Portland and Seattle Gay Men’s choruses, Harrison’s output is bedazzled with work promoting equal rights: his 1971 opera Young Caesar is an erotic love story written ‘for X-rated puppets’; and Parade for M.T.T. (1995) was written for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s inauguration of legendary music director Michael Tilson Thomas, classical music’s first openly gay conductor.
Harrison formed a musical power-couple at age 50 when he met his partner Bill Colvig. Electrician by trade but amateur musician at heart, Colvig helped Harrison build the two gamelan ensembles that inspired many of his subsequent compositions, and the straw-bale Composers’ Cave they built and lived in together is still used today by composers and artists-in-residence of the ongoing Harrison House Music, Arts & Ecology program.
4. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Rather than coming out publicly, Britten celebrated his homosexuality by making little effort to conceal it: in 1937, the then-23-year-old composer met a young tenor named Peter Pears, who would go on to become his personal and professional partner. During an era in which ‘homosexual offences’ were still prohibited, Britten and Pears spent their lives touring and performing together, somehow managing to evade the crackdown on homosexual acts that took place in England and Wales during the early 1950s (resulting in the imprisonment of over 1000 gay men). Shortly before his death, Britten wrote in a letter to his other half:
I do love you so terribly, not only glorious you, but your singing … What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for? … I love you, I love you, I love you.
After Britten’s passing in 1976, Pears received a personalised letter of condolence from none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps being the most successful composer of English opera since Purcell simply earns you special treatment, but it seems that Britten and Pears’ was one of the earliest same-sex relationships to be respected rather than reprimanded.
3. Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)
Avant-garde and feminist musical communities both suffered a significant blow last year with the passing of American composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros. If her thought-provoking electronic music or her establishment of the relationship between music and meditative practice isn’t quite enough for you, also note that Oliveros was instrumental in shaping the modern reception of queer composers – specifically, those identifying as female – with her devotion to feminist activism and willingness to engage with the self-described “lesbian musicality” of her work.
In 1965, Oliveros produced an improvisatory recording called Bye Bye Butterfly, which features spooky, reverberating tones and two tape decks; one of which gradually unravels a reel of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Oliveros said this work “bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th Century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalised oppression of the female sex”. Amen to that!
2. Wendy Carlos (b. 1939)
American composer and keyboardist Wendy Carlos is best known for penning the film scores to two cult classics: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). While she was aware of her gender dysphoria from an early age, Carlos only began to engage in transgender issues upon moving to New York City in the 1960s, and in 1979 became one of the first public figures to undergo gender reassignment surgery. This was funded by the commercial success of Switched-On Bach, the 1968 album released under her birth name, Walter Carlos. In 12 blissful tracks, Carlos defies the Bach purists by playing inventions, airs and fugues on a Moog synthesizer. In addition to the life-affirming change it enabled, the album also helped popularise the use of synths in mainstream music, won three Grammy awards, and is perhaps one of the funnest things you could ever possibly listen to.
Carlos chose Playboy as her platform to come out as transgender, in a series of magazine interviews in 1978 and 1979. “The magazine has always been concerned with liberation, and I’m anxious to liberate myself,” she said. And that, she did. Several years later, when speaking of her time living as a man, Carlos said: “There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It has proven a monstrous waste of years in my life”.
(Also, just a side note: we are slightly obsessed with Carlos’ retro, I-don’t-give-a-heck HTML website. As well as offering all relevant news and professional information, the ‘Living Page’ is a veritable goldmine of cat drawings and photos of total solar eclipses – highly recommended.)
1. Michael Tippett (1905-1998)
Affectionately described by partner and biographer Meirion Bowen as an “unabashed homosexual”, Sir Michael Tippett was incredibly influential in shaping public perception of homosexuality in the 20th Century. Openly gay from his mid-30s, Tippett made no secret of the numerous and sometimes overlapping same-sex relationships he enjoyed throughout his lengthy career. Sir Michael shone with a mammoth output of symphonies, cantatas, concerti, oratorios, brass fanfares, sonatas and string quartets; but most socially groundbreaking were his advances in opera.
Opera was a genre in which he bypassed the haters by consistently basing his original libretti on taboo topics, including but not limited to the plentiful homoeroticism in King Priam (1962), the interracial gay couple at the centre of The Knot Garden (1970), and the strong themes of racism and social prejudice that play out in The Icebreak (1977). Tippett was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966.
Rightly so, don’t you think?
Did your favourite 20th Century composer make the list? Drop us a comment below!
Image Torbakhopper via Flickr CC BY 2.0.