Queer composers have been creating music throughout history. Archaic Greek poet Sappho, for instance, was penning homoerotic song lyrics on the island of Lesbos as early as the 7th century BC. In many cases, though, the politics of culture and time may have prevented them from being completely open about their identities—and musicologists have for years pondered and debated over the sexual orientation of some of classical music history’s biggest names.
June marks Pride Month, with the Nashville Pride Festival slated for this weekend. While we honor composers past and present who, for whatever reason, were or are not openly out, here are some contemporary composers whose sexual and gender identities have directly intersected with their work as musicians.
Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)
At the same time she was studying composition, exploring electroacoustic improvisation, and founding the San Francisco Tape Music Center, Pauline Oliveros was regularly challenging long-held masculinized structures in music. With her concept of Deep Listening (which also spawned an album, a performance ensemble and a namesake institute, now run by her spouse and long-time collaborator, IONE), Oliveros sought to move beyond the hierarchical listening conventions—melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.—and explore a more inclusive and meditative way of hearing all environmental sounds.
In the early 1970s she co-created the performance art piece Postcard Theatre, which centered around five postcards, with the most memorable titled “Beethoven was a Lesbian.” In it, Oliveros is pictured reading a book in a garden, her expression a frown that’s mirrored by a bust of the famously sullen composer looming over her shoulder.
Of course, Beethoven was not a lesbian, and Oliveros admired him as a composer. Postcard Theatre was instead about using imagined alternative histories to confront the lack of female representation in classical music and the gendered, tragic genius that Beethoven and other towering male composers represent.
Wendy Carlos (b. 1939)
While Carlos doesn’t necessarily compose music about her experience as a trans woman, her early success, in part, allowed her the courage to come out in the 1970s amidst a burgeoning gay and transgender rights movement.
Carlos, who’s earned three Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States, caught the attention of the music world with her debut album, Switched-On Bach. The album, which became the best-selling classical album up to that time, featured the works of Johann Sebastian played on an instrument that had yet to breakthrough to the mainstream, and one that Carlos helped develop with Robert Moog: the Moog synthesizer. Carlos went on to provide original scoring for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Disney’s Tron.
Julius Eastman (1940-1990)
While familiar names like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley are now tied to the legacy of 20th century minimalism, one of the style’s pioneers was nearly forgotten until recently. Julius Eastman found a measure of success as a singer, using his rich and resonant voice in performances with the likes of Pierre Boulez and Meredith Monk; but it is his compositional output that now fuels the resurgence of interest in his work.
As a black, gay composer in 1970s New York, Eastman spoke to issues of both race and sexuality with his music, many of them with confrontational titles. In “Gay Guerilla,” he appropriates the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” dismantling it into a minimalist gay anthem. His penchant for provocation once even rustled the feathers of notoriously out-there composer John Cage, when Eastman invited a young man onstage and undressed him during a rendition of Cage’s “Song Books.”
Eastman’s brazenness was reflected in both his music and his personal life, for better and for worse, respectively. Drug and alcohol use contributed to his inability to hold an academic position, and many of his scores were lost when he was evicted from his East Village apartment after failing to pay rent. He died homeless, an obituary finally appearing in the Village Voice some eight months later.
Nico Muhly (b. 1981)
One of the most sought-after composers of the last decade, Nico Muhly’s music has appeared in some of the world’s most famous concert halls. And while he’s known for a repertoire that spans a variety of styles and genres, he is particularly drawn to vocal music; to operatic work and the darker, gritty stories that tend to inhabit it.
His 2015 oratorio Sentences took on the story of Alan Turing, the neurodiverse mathematician who cracked the German Enigma code during WWII. Turing, who is now considered a pioneer of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, was later prosecuted for homosexuality and died of a suspected cyanide poisoning suicide.
But Muhly, who is open about his own sexuality and struggles with mental health, is quick to dismiss direct links between his personal life and the stories he orchestrates on stage. He joked with The Guardian ahead of the Sentences premiere that “No one wants a gay martyr oratorio. Like, I already did that, it’s so 2011– like a chunky heel.”
David Del Tredici (b. 1937)
Del Tredici, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who turned 81 this year, has never been one to shy away from exploring themes of sexuality in his music — and his public persona. He once notoriously arrived at a string of Carnegie Hall concerts accompanied by his boyfriend, who was clad in a leather leash and spiked dog collar. He currently has an entire list of pieces categorized on his website as “gay works,” which, according to his website biography, is a body of music that “celebrates his own gay sexuality.”
One of those works is Gay Life, a 2001 commission from the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. The piece, scored for voice and orchestra, sets poetry from Allen Ginsberg and Paul Monette, among others. Del Tredici says the music came to him “in a burst—a burst, really, of gay pride.”
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Britten is just one in a list of gay composers whose work was influenced by creative collaborations with long-term romantic partners (see also: John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, Virgil Thomson and Maurice Grosser…)
It was tenor Peter Pears who was Britten’s creative muse, collaborator and partner for nearly 60 years, though publicly they were not a couple. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 would eventually decriminalize homosexual acts between men in England and Wales, but only just a decade before Britten’s death.
The composer no doubt had complex feelings regarding his sexuality and his attraction to men (and, as has been increasingly and uncomfortably discussed in music circles, his fascination with adolescent boys). Aspects of this turmoil certainly infused some of his music. Consider the opera Death in Venice, adapted from Thomas Mann’s novella. In it, the lead character, originally voiced by Pears, travels to Venice and finds himself infatuated with a beautiful boy. And while the two characters never have any kind of relationship, this ruinous, inward fascination is mirrored physically as the lead character succumbs to a cholera outbreak that sweeps the city.
John Corigliano (b. 1938)
Corigliano’s first few Grammy Awards (he now has five, in addition to an Oscar and Pulitzer Prize) came in 1991 for his first symphony, a piece written during his stint as the first composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
In the symphony’s program notes, Corigliano explains that he felt moved to compose the work after losing many friends and colleagues to the AIDS epidemic. A visit to “The Quilt,” which commemorates those who have died from AIDS with interwoven fabric panels, prompted the composer to want to memorialize his friends with music with a “quilt-like interweaving of motivic melodies.”
As an additional commission from the gay men’s choruses of Seattle, New York and San Francisco, Corigliano also reimagined the symphony’s third movement for community performance with a piece titled “Of Rage and Remembrance.”