Blogs > Cliopatria > Review of Nadine Hubbs's The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music and National Identity

Oct 25, 2004 4:08 pm


Review of Nadine Hubbs's The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music and National Identity



Anthony Tommasini, in the NYT (Oct. 24, 2004):

MUSICOLOGISTS now seem to agree that Handel was gay. So, it is thought, was Schubert. About Tchaikovsky there is no doubt: definitely gay, along with Britten, Copland and many other major composers and musicians.

They may not have been gay in the modern sense of the word, as the defining component of their sexual identity. Certainly not Handel, who hid what must have been terrible loneliness under a cloak of irascible heartiness. Nor Schubert, whose relationships with the young men in his circle still elude our understanding. Schubert's devoted friends considered the pudgy, bespectacled and sickly composer a genius in their midst. But who was sleeping with whom? We're not sure.

That we can now flesh out these giants' stories with this crucial missing component of their character is due to the efforts of some pioneering cultural historians and musicologists. Yet, along with the outing of past master composers and musicians there has been a more dubious effort by some to find evidence of a collective gay sensibility in their music.

What exactly is a gay sensibility? With today's gay icons ranging from the brainy, unkempt liberal firebrand Congressman Barney Frank to the stylish, flamboyant and cuttingly funny fashion guru Carson Kressley of"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," who can say? And if it does exist, just how is a gay sensibility expressed in music? Especially purely instrumental, or"absolute," music?

The latest to enter the discussion is Nadine Hubbs, a professor of music and women's studies at the University of Michigan, whose new book,"The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music and National Identity," has just been released by University of California Press. This is an ambitious, provocative and impressively documented work, with more than 70 pages of detailed footnotes for a 178-page text. It tries to prove that what has come to be considered the distinctive American sound in mid-20th-century American music - that Coplandesque tableau of widely spaced harmonies and melancholic tunes run through with elements of elegiac folk music and spiked with jerky American dance rhythms - was essentially invented by a group of Manhattan-based gay composers: Copland, of course, and Virgil Thomson, Paul Bowles, David Diamond, Marc Blitzstein, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem.

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