Music: Classical

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Although it is possible but not provable that the song-writer Stephen Foster (1826–1864) preferred the company of men to women—he had an unhappy marriage and was the inseparable companion of painter George Cooper for the last two years of his life—the demonstrable LGBT impact on American classical music begins with the twentieth century. Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884–1920) studied in Germany from 1903 to 1907 and while there he learned of Magnus Hirschfeld, Oscar Wilde, and other open practitioners of homosexuality. He recorded his own affairs in a German-language diary. Influenced by late German romanticism, French impressionism, and Asian motifs, Griffes is most noted for his art songs, piano compositions, and the tone poem The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan.

Beginning in the 1920s, LGBT musical composers, performers, and writers formed a number of interlocking, close communities that have endured for more than eighty years. They have nurtured youthful prospects, written scores for texts by LGBT writers, and established a vigorous performance tradition that now calls attention to the AIDS crisis. This flourishing scene, without which most of twentieth-century American classical music would be inconceivable, developed from circles in Paris, New York, and California.

Early Influence of Boulanger and Copland

The French composer and composition teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979)—who, according to composer Ned Rorem (b. 1923) is "so far as musical creation is concerned, the most influential person who ever lived"—met the American expatriate community of Paris at the salons of lesbian writers Natalie Barney (1876–1972) and Gertrude Stein (1874–1946). Boulanger, who never married, was the first woman to conduct the New York, Philadelphia, and Boston Symphony Orchestras. She conducted the first performance of homosexual Russian expatriate Igor Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in 1938. Among her pupils were Virgil Thomson (1896–1989), Aaron Copland (1900–1990), Marc Blitzstein (1905–1964), Gian-Carlo Menotti (b. 1911), and Ned Rorem. All shared a respect for tonality and interest in relating their work to American popular culture. They all settled in or near New York City, and in turn inspired and collaborated with other gay composers.

Virgil Thomson is most famous for two operas for which Gertrude Stein wrote the libretti, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947), the latter an ironic take on American history combined with the story of Susan B. Anthony. Thomson's companion, painter Maurice Grosser, collaborated in the production of these works. As music critic for the New York Herald Tribune (1940–1954), Thomson was noted for his frequently vitriolic prose. His writings are collected in several volumes.

Aaron Copland studied with Boulanger—she was the soloist in the first performance of his Organ Symphony (1935)—and was influenced by Thomson. Unlike the sardonic Thomson, Copland's greatest works treated the American tradition with affection. His ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944) remain classics. A Lincoln Portrait (1942) and Fanfare for the Common Man (1943) are frequently performed by leading orchestras, the former with celebrities taking the speaking part of Lincoln. Copland's settings of American hymns and folksongs, especially "Shall We Gather at the River," are among the most moving pieces of those that regularly appear at AIDS benefits. In 1964, a decade after Copland was interrogated, to no avail, by U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy for his involvement in leftist activities, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Marc Blitzstein (1905–1964), although from a wealthy Philadelphia family, was an active member of the

Communist Party. He wrote articles for The New Masses as well as music journals. His most famous work, The Cradle Will Rock (1936), told the story of the oppression and resistance of steel workers. Supported by New Deal money from the Federal Theater Project, the first production was directed by Orson Welles on a shoestring budget because the opera's controversial subject caused Congress to cut the agency's funds. Blitzstein was married to writer Eva Goldbeck for three years before her death in 1936, but he preferred the company of men. He was murdered in Martinique after he tried to pick up three Portuguese sailors.

Gian Carlo Menotti is noted for bringing American immigrant and working-class communities to life in melodic works such as The Medium (1945), The Consul (1949), The Saint of Bleeker Street (1954), and his touching Christmas story, Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951). He founded the Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto, Italy, in 1958; he expanded it to include performances in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1977, which he continued directing until 1993.

Menotti's life partner was the composer Samuel Barber (1910–1981). Barber is best remembered for his vocal music: two beautiful song cycles, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), written at the request of soprano Eleanor Steber, and the Hermit Songs, premiered by Leontyne Price (1953), are performed far more frequently than are his effective operas Vanessa (1958)—libretto by Menotti— and Antony and Cleopatra (1966; rev. 1975). Barber's orchestral music, especially the Adagio for Strings (1938), and concerti for cello, violin, and piano are established elements of the symphonic repertoire.

Ned Rorem, who studied with both Copland and Boulanger, has fashioned hundreds of melodic art songs out of poems by homosexuals including Sappho, Walt Whitman, Paul Goodman, W. H. Auden, and (perhaps) William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. His diaries, lectures, and music criticism, which comprise thirteen volumes, are characterized by the same elegance as his music.

Leonard Bernstein

Boulanger's pupils, in turn, mentored a second generation of gay composers. Most notable is Leonard Bernstein (1918–1998), who led a performance of Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock while a student at Harvard University in 1938. He also studied with Copland and championed his works. Bernstein was most noted in his lifetime as a conductor, especially of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, and for his efforts to bring music to new audiences, as in his Young People's Concerts and Norton Lectures at Harvard. His major compositions are well regarded, too. They include three symphonies, the second subtitled and inspired by a poem of W. H. Auden, "The Age of Anxiety"; the Broadway plays Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957); and Chichester Psalms (1965). Mass (1971), which opened at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., incorporated lyrics stressing the composer's opposition to the Vietnam War. Bernstein espoused radical politics, as in his support of the Black Panthers, yet was discreet about his homosexuality. He married Chilean actress Felicia Montealgre in 1951, had three children with her, and remained married to her despite his affairs until her death in 1978. Only in 1983, with the opera A Quiet Place, did he deal with a bisexual man who provides the emotional center for a group of unstable heterosexuals.

Henry Cowell and the Avant-Garde Movement

Unlike the Boulanger circle, Californian Henry Cowell (1897–1965) and his pupils John Cage (1912–1992), Lou Harrison (1917–2003), and (indirectly) Harry Partch (1901–1974) consciously set themselves up as an avantgarde movement that employed atonality, novel instruments, sounds previously considered nonmusical, and Asian influences. Cowell's anarchist parents acquainted him with Asian and folk music: as early as 1912 he employed tone clusters in a piano composition. Later works used an electronic keyboard (the "Rhythmicon"), the East Asian gamelan, and a "string piano"—plucking strings inside the piano—and offer performers the freedom to improvise based on a nontraditional notation that Cage more fully developed. Although he wrote twenty symphonies and numerous other works, Cowell is best known for his indefatigable championing of modern American music—he was an early publicist for Charles Ives—through organizations he founded such as the New Music Society of California (1925), the quarterly New Music (1927), and the Pan American Association of Composers. His manifesto, New Musical Resources (1930), is probably more famous than his compositions are. In 1936, Cowell was convicted of having sex with a seventeen-year-old youth; at his trial, he confessed to other contacts as well. He served four years in San Quentin State Prison. He was pardoned in 1942, moved to the East Coast, married ethnomusicologist Sidney Hawkins Robertson, and continued to teach composition until his death.

Cowell's most famous pupil, Los Angeles native John Cage, rejected composition techniques that University of California at Los Angeles Professor Arnold Schoenberg taught him in favor of Cowell's methods. Cage incorporated various "noises" (which he refused to separate from music) such as radio and audience sounds (the latter most famously in 433″[1952]—of silence, that is), along with Asian philosophy and indeterminacy, into his works. He adopted the Zen Buddhist notion that music existed to "sober the mind" rather than to communicate ideas, and relied on the pattern of chance provided by the I Ching to determine in what order his musical fragments would constitute a whole. Many of Cage's works accompanied ballets performed by the company founded by and named after his lifetime partner, Merce Cunningham (b. 1919), who also pioneered in physical movement that same pattern of chance expressed through the dancers' improvisations.

Lou Harrison, a student of Cage, was especially interested in Asian music. With his life partner, William Colvig, he designed an American gamelan that was inspired by Mexican and Navajo music as well as East Asian music. The author of three symphonies, Harrison was also active in the movements for ecology, peace, and gay rights. His opera Young Caesar (1971) explores the protagonist's attraction to men. In 1995, Harrison's "Parade for MTT" welcomed the openly gay conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (b. 1944), a champion of twentieth-century American music, as musical director of the San Francisco Symphony.

Harry Partch liked people to believe he was a self-taught composer and former hobo, but he knew Harrison and was aware of musical currents in California. Partch took experimentation to new heights: among other things, he invented a 43-note scale and instruments containing forty-four strings, glass rods, and percussion created from such items as hubcaps, liquor bottles, glass jars, and airplane fuel tanks. Much of Partch's work deals with loners or the western American desert: for example, in Barstow (1941), which he called a "Hobo Concerto," he sets eight pieces of hitchhiker graffiti from that California town to music. Oedipus (1951) and Delusion of the Fury (1966) are large-scale masterpieces that employ instrumental music, song, dance, and theater.

Contributions by Lesbian Composers

American lesbian composers are not as well known as their male counterparts are—with three exceptions. Mrs.H. H. A. Beach (b. Amy Maria Cheney, 1867–1944) was a child prodigy pianist. Her family moved in the highest circles of Boston society, and she became acquainted with leading composers and conductors on her trips to Europe, especially Germany. At the age of 18, she married a man twenty-five years her senior (using his initials for concert programs, becoming known as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach throughout the world) and did not remarry after his death in 1910. Of her approximately 150 compositions, the early Grand Mass (1892) and Gaelic Symphony (1896) are still occasionally performed, but her later works repeated rather than developed her early successes, and are almost never played in concert.

Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932) began as a composer, accordianist, and college professor in California, but gave all that up in the early 1980s. She then explored and set up workshops on the practice of Deep Listening (careful attention to all of the sounds produced in an environment). In 1985, she established the Pauline Oliveros Foundation, devoted to creating a worldwide community of creative artists in various media, using the latest technology to exchange their creations. Her work stresses collaboration and improvisation. She has also written extensively on the need to appreciate and develop women composers. In 1994 she composed Epigraphs in the Time of AIDS.

Diamanda Galás's (b. 1955) combination of original and adapted music and performance art is perhaps the most searing critique of homophobia and the First World's inadequate response to AIDS to date. Her electronically modified voice, encompassing several octaves and ranging from the nearly inaudible to intolerable screeching, has been deployed in the Plague Mass (1990), a setting of the traditional requiem interspersed with other poems; Vena Cava (1993), which depicts the isolation of a person dying from AIDS; and other works written after the death of her brother, playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás (1954–1986). Mixing classical, jazz, spiritual, folk, and rock music, she sometimes appears half-naked in the form of an AIDS virus covered in blood. Her works that do not deal with AIDS denounce genocide, torture, and the oppression of women.

Performers, Musical Groups, and Choruses

Unlike composers, prominent performers have usually concealed their homosexuality. Much of the criticism received from the press by Bernstein's predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, the gifted Dmitri Mitropoulos (1896–1960), may have stemmed from his homosexuality. Thomas Schippers (1930–1977) conducted the premier of Barber's Antony and Cleopatra to open the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966 and was a successful conductor of opera and also the Cincinnati Symphony. James Levine, conductor and general music director of the Metropolitan Opera since 1974, has been discreet about his sexuality following early allegations about improprieties with underage boys. Lesbian conductors include Kary Gardner (b. 1941), who founded the short-lived New England Women's Symphony in the late 1970s, and the Jewish Dutch refugee Frieda Belinfante (1905–1995), founder of the Orange County, California, Symphony Orchestra. It is hard to locate well-known "out" classical singers and instrumentalists; among the former are soprano Patricia Racette and countertenor Brian Asawa, among the latter is the pianist Van Cliburn. For countertenor David Daniels, being gay is "a huge part of me" that "affects my singing," and he has criticized the "conservative" opera queens who "love the voices and the costumes but they're not willing to stand anything different….There's a lot of negativity from the gay community because I'm open, and proud, and honest" (Kettle, "Get Back in the Closet").

Despite the reluctance of celebrity musicians, LGBT people throughout the nation (and world) have been forming musical groups, especially choruses, since the 1970s. Lesbian musical groups came first. The Anna Crusis Women's Choir, begun in Philadelphia in 1975, is the oldest member of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA), which now numbers more than 170 choruses, with some eight thousand members. The Gotham Male (later Gay Men's) Chorus in New York (founded 1977) and San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (founded 1978), one of several gay musical organizations founded by John Reed Sims (1947–1984), soon followed. Beginning in 1982, when fourteen choruses performed concomitantly with the Gay Games in San Francisco, similar festivals have been held annually.

GALA choruses frequently perform benefits for people with AIDS, sometimes commisioning new works and drawing support from famous singers and instrumentalists, who perform with them. David Del Tredici (b. 1937) and John Corigliano (b. 1938) are two leading composers who have made AIDS their subject. A student of Copland best known for compositions based on Alice in Wonderland, Del Tredici has set to music poems by gay writers Paul Monette, Allen Ginsberg, and Alfred Corn (Dracula, 1999). Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony gave the first performance of his cantata Gay Life in 2001. Corigliano's First Symphony (1990), commissioned by Sir George Solti and the Chicago Symphony, was dedicated to the memory of people with AIDS. He adapted the third movement into the choral work "Of Rage and Remembrance," which mentions the names of his deceased friends, for the gay male choruses of Chicago, New York, and Seattle. Perhaps most moving is the AIDS Quilt Songbook (1992), which was conceived by baritone Will Parker (1943–1993) as an ongoing, collaborative effort—a musical version of the physical AIDS quilt. Different songwriters and poets contributed to the first version, which has since been performed in its entirety or with some songs omitted and new ones added. As it grows, it reflects the democratic governance of LGBT chorus organizations and the community of LGBT performers without which modern American classical music would hardly exist.


Brett, Philip, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Hadleigh, Boze. Sing Out! Gays and Lesbians in the Music World. New York: Barricade Books, 1998.

Kettle, Marvin, "Get Back in the Closet." The Guardian, 23 August 2001. Interview with David Daniels. Available at

Nicholls, David, ed. The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium. Sydney: Harwood Academic Press, 1997.

Rosenstiel, Léonie. Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music. New York: Norton, 1982.

Schwartz, K. Robert. "Composers' Closets Open for All to See." New York Times, 19 June 1994, Section H, pp. 1–2.

——. "Cracking the Classical Closet." The Advocate no. 784 (11 May 1999): 48–49.

Ward, Keith. "Musical Responses to HIV and AIDS." In Perspectives on American Music since 1950. Edited by James Heintze. New York: Garland, 1999.

William Pencak

see alsobarber, samuel, and gian carlo menotti; barney, natalie; bernstein, leonard; cage, john; choruses and bands; copland, aaron; oliveros, pauline; stein, gertrude, and alice b. toklas; thomson, virgil.

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