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The Old Queer Musicology: Strategies from the Early Twentieth Century by Kristin Franseen

Updated: 4 days ago

What does it mean to do queer musicology? In the introduction to a memorial volume of Philip Brett’s articles and essays on Benjamin Britten, Susan McClary noted that the title of the pioneering anthology Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (which Brett coedited with Elizabeth Wood and Gary Thomas) “contains several Brettisms, including…the implication in the subtitle that there was an old gay and lesbian musicology—as of course there was, even if it dared not speak its name” (2006). My dissertation research, which I recently completed at McGill University, was in part an exploration of McClary’s and Brett’s implications in suggesting an older form of musicology that took sexuality and gender as facets of musical experiences.

This exploration led me to questions about the state of the field that are far older than they might seem. The three people at the center of my dissertation—the philosopher and horror writer Vernon Lee (pseud. Violet Paget), the biographer and poet Rosa Newmarch, and the music critic-turned-amateur sexologist Edward Prime-Stevenson—all loved music and attempted to find ways to express what they heard and researched through writing. Their writings demonstrate complicated relationships with the process of musicological research. Many of these still resonate today—including the role of scholars outside the academy, the availability and interpretation of sources, and the scholar’s personal investment in their choice of topic. In undertaking this research, however, I was also curious to learn how Lee, Newmarch, and Prime-Stevenson found their scholarly pathways in the absence of a defined queer musicological community. What were their sources? How did they interact with more “mainstream” music histories and biographies? Who were their intended audiences (real or imagined)? And, perhaps more speculatively, what might we learn from them today?

1. Vernon Lee, Ghost-Hunting, and the Castrati

This is a portrait of Carlo Broschi (better known as Farinelli), painted by Corrado Giaquinto around 1755. It highlights Farinelli’s fame and diplomatic successes—he wears a brocade coat and a sword and stands before the images of his patrons, the King and Queen of Spain. He is noticeably not on the operatic stage—only the keyboard to his left and the angels surrounding the royal couple hint at his musical acclaim, and only his physical stature and the relative size of his head compared to the rest of his body hint at his status as a castrato.

When young Vernon Lee looked at this painting, she did not see an ageing diplomat or a historical curiosity. She saw a ghost, whose lost sonic and gendered possibilities presented tantalizing possibilities for her understanding of music history. Near the beginning of the section on music in her Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), Lee takes the reader on a tour of a gallery of Baroque musical portraits:

There is sadness in the dignified, thoughtful composers, looking as if the world still rang with the sound of their music—music not heard for a century; there is sadness in the dandified singers, whose names have long been forgotten, but whose eyes are upturned and whose lips are parted, as if they still thrilled and delighted those that have been dead a hundred years: it is a world of feeling extinct and genius forgotten, a world separated from ours by a strange indefinable gulf.

This indefinable gulf obsessed the young Lee, especially as it came to opera. As a member of an eccentric English family living largely in Italy, she sought out elderly composers and singing teachers (many of them castrati) whom she viewed as likely to help her bridge that gap, remarking in a later edition of Eighteenth Century that she was initially nervous to actually listen to Baroque opera, lest the music itself turn out not to live up to her lofty, nearly supernatural expectations.

While recent scholarship cautions against anachronistic readings of potential gendered or sexual otherness in music history (Freitas 2009, Pennington 2013, Solie 2013, Feldman 2015), the castrato was a topic of much anxiety for many nineteenth-century commentators, who found their foreign status, violent origins, “artificial” vocality, and alleged sex appeal all equally suspect. This is demonstrated in both early nineteenth-century caricatures of castrati and writings later in the century on masculinity in music. While Lee treats the question of castrati’s sexuality obliquely, she seeks to reclaim the powers attributed to their voice not as the subject of humor or disgust, but as a bridge between the past and present. The short story “A Wicked Voice” (1890) follows a narrator, the composer Magnus, who is in some ways an anti-Vernon Lee—he is male, a devotee of Wagner (whom Lee detested), and (perhaps worst of all) he mocks the vocal music of the past as dated and degenerate. Yet, as the story progresses, he finds himself increasingly haunted by sounds he can’t explain. While the gender-ambiguous castrato Zaffirino is technically the villain of the story—he, his song, or both seem to possess Magnus by the end of the story—Lee’s sympathies are clearly with him. Whereas Magnus rants against the evils of singers, Lee dedicated the story to the amateur singer and musical festival organizer Mary Wakefield. And the description of the castrato’s voice as disputed “whether [it] belonged to a man or to a woman” is similar to Lee’s description of her pen name. For Lee, the many forms of ambiguity and otherworldly possibility embodied by the castrato—gender fluidity, musical impact on the emotions, and a lost historical art—were more appealing than frightening.

2. Rosa Newmarch, Tchaikovsky, and the Art of Detection

While Lee read, interviewed, and listened to her primary sources with a quasi-paranormal fascination, Rosa Newmarch’s biographical and analytical writings are in many ways more conventionally musicological. Following early training in the visual arts, Newmarch developed an interest in languages and a fascination with composer biography. One of her favorite composers was clearly Tchaikovsky, the subject of several of her books, translations, articles (including a lengthy new article in Grove II), and poetry. In choosing to write on the recently deceased Russian composer during the 1890s and 1900s, Newmarch grappled with a number of popular rumors attached to his marriage, the composition of his Symphony No. 6 (the Pathétique), and death. While Newmarch does not overtly mention his homosexuality—as Malcom Hamrick Brown observes, such a topic would have been taboo for a married, middle-class Englishwoman to discuss openly—her writings contain loaded references to rumors of suicide (which she discounts) and the autobiographical possibilities of the Pathétique (about which she is skeptical). In her commentaries on Tchaikovsky’s music, Newmarch prefers to stick to documented facts and material from published (and publishable) primary sources: letters, accounts by those who knew Tchaikovsky, and the composer’s own writings. Yet, at the end of her 1900 biography, Newmarch appears to acknowledge the limitations placed on full access to the Tchaikovsky archive:

When the authorised life and correspondence of the composer appears, his relatives may possibly clear up the mystery which surrounds it. On the other hand, it is more than probable that they will not take the public into their confidence upon a subject about which Tchaikovsky himself preserved an almost unbroken reticence.

3. Edward Prime-Stevenson, Nostalgia, and Time Travel

Although Edward Prime-Stevenson acknowledges Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality in the section on music in his The Intersexes, a monumental history of homosexuality self-published under the pseudonym Xavier Mayne around 1909, he is far more interested in putting forth a kind of queer symphonic experience that might seem unlikely to the 21st-century reader:

Composers present homosexual types; during either all their lives, or portion of them. The supreme secret of the noble-natured and moral Beethoven seems to have been an idealized homosexualism. In Beethoven's sad latest days, can be traced a real passion for that unworthy nephew Carl; who, it is said, once sought to extort money from Beethoven, on threats to disclose an [sic] homosexual relationship! Beethoven's beautiful sonata, Opus 111, is often called among German and Austrian Uranians, “The Uranian Sonata”, from some legendary “in-reading” of the work. The death of the brilliant and unhappy Russian composer Tschaikowsky has been affirmed (if denied with equal conviction) as a suicide, not a sudden illness, in consequence of terror of a scandal that hung over him—a relative being spoken of as the persecutor. Some homosexual hearers of Tschaikowsky's last (and most elegiac) symphony, known as the “Pathetic” claim to find in it such revelations of a sentimental-sexual kind that they have nicknamed the work the “Pathic” Symphony.1 Brahms and the colossal Bruckner have been characterized as “the ultimate voices in a homosexual message by symphonic music”; even if one sub-consciously uttered.

By conflating Tchaikovsky’s biography (and biographical gossip) with Beethoven’s and looking for hidden meanings in Brahms and Bruckner, Prime-Stevenson made an unusual claim for a kind of queer musicality—“the ultimate voices in a homosexual message by symphonic music”—at the heart of the German canon. Prime-Stevenson was not alone in finding the potential for queer musical meanings in Beethoven’s piano sonatas—Edward Carpenter and E.M. Forster, both amateur pianists, wrote analyses of the sonatas that were to some degree tied into their respective views on masculinity and sexuality.

Conclusions: Musicologists as People

All three of my subjects found ways to find meaning in an eclectic range of sources—paintings, novels, poetry, anecdotes (sometimes of dubious veracity), and personal speculation—to work around both current cultural taboos and gaps in the archival record. They all also showed interest in the power of creative work to depict emotions and desires that could not necessarily be expressed in nonfiction. As scholars (and fans) focused almost entirely on Western opera and symphonic music of the 18th and 19th centuries, they showed similar biases of scope, genre, and interpretation.

This “old” queer musicology, with its reliance on musical codes, reading between the lines of biography, and shared musical experiences, re-inscribed many of the broader shortcomings of the field. As Brett’s analysis (2002) of Edward Dent demonstrates, the institutionalization of musicology in British and North American academia directly positioned itself in opposition to those modes of scholarship deemed suspiciously unscientific and feminine, eventually producing “an academic discipline that had taken itself too seriously and had mistakenly excluded the real musical concerns as well as living personalities of the people within it.”

Those “living personalities” include musicologists ourselves. We still struggle with how to situate both ourselves and our subjects as people—within our work, within and beyond the academy, within the broader public life of the arts. If there is one overarching theme that links Lee’s, Newmarch’s, and Prime-Stevenson's work beyond the eclectic use and interpretation of sources, it is an abiding concern with what music could mean to those who perform, create, hear, and study it. In that, they are not so different from us after all.

1 The nickname is a joke about sexual passivity. Although some of Prime-Stevenson’s claims about queer musical in-jokes are difficult to trace, this one is documented. A remarkably similar exchange about the “Pathetic”/“Pathic” occurs between the protagonist and his university friend Risley in E.M. Forster’s Maurice (begun 1913).

Selected Bibliography

Brett, Philip. “Musicality, Essentialism, and the Closet.” In Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, 9-26. New York: Routledge, 1994.

—-. “Musicology and Sexuality: The Example of Edward J. Dent.” In Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, ed. Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell, 177-188. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Brown, Malcolm Hamrick. “Tchaikovsky and his Music in Anglo-American Criticism, 1890s-1950s.” In Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, ed. Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell, 134-149. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Bullock, Philip Ross. “Čajkovskij and the Language of Same-Sex Desire.” Jahrbuch Musik und Gender 10: Musik und Homosexualitat—Homosexualitat und Musik, ed. Kadja Gronke and Michael Zywietz, 49-59. Hildesheim: Olms, 2017.

–––. Rosa Newmarch and Russian Music in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century England. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.

Carpenter, Edward. “Beethoven and his Earlier Sonatas.” In Angel’s Wings: Essays on Art and its Connection to Life, 140-175. London: Sonnenschein and Co., 1898.

–––. The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women. London: Allen & Unwin, 1908.

–––. My Days and Dreams: Being Autobiographical Notes. New York: Scribner, 1916.

Feldman, Martha. The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

Fillion, Michelle. Difficult Rhythm: Music and the Word in E.M. Forster. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Forster, E.M. Maurice. New York: Norton, 1971.

Franseen, Kristin. “‘Onward to the End of the Nineteenth Century’: Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Queer Musicological Nostalgia.” Music & Letters (2020):

Freitas, Roger. Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage, and the Life of Atto Melani. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Lee, Vernon [Violet Paget]. Hauntings: Fantastic Stories. 2nd edition. London: Lane, 1906.

–––. Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. London: Satchell, 1880.

–––. Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. 2nd edition. Chicago: McClurg, 1908.

Maxwell, Catherine. “Sappho, Mary Wakefield, and Vernon Lee’s ‘A Wicked Voice,’” Modern Language Review 102, no. 4 (2007): 960-974.

Mayne, Xavier [Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson]. The Intersexes: A History of Simisexualism as a Problem in Social Life. Rome, Florence, or Naples: Privately Printed, ca. 1908-1909.

McClary, Susan. “Introduction: Remembering Philip Brett.” In Philip Brett, Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays, ed. George Haggerty, 1-10. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Newmarch, Rosa, ed. and trans. The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. By Modest Tchaikovsky. London: Lane, 1906.

–––. Tchaikovsky: His Life and Works; with extracts from his writings, and the diary of his tour abroad in 1888. London: Richards, 1900.

–––. “Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich.” Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. V: T-Z and Appendix. Ed. J.A. Fuller Maitland, 33-49. New York: Macmillan, 1910.

Pennington, Stephan. “A Meditation on the Relationship between Gender Variance and Sexual Variance.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 66, no. 3 (2013): 857-861.

Pulham, Patricia. Art and the Transitional Object in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Tales. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008.

Wilper, James. “Translation and the Construction of a ‘Uranian’ Identity: Edward Prime-Stevenson’s [Xavier Mayne’s] The Intersexes (1908).” In Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters across the Modern World, ed. Heike Bauer, 216-232. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.


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