Is anyone interested in the sex life of composers?

August 22, 1997

Biographers of Schubert have speculated about both the state of his mental health and his sexual orientation. He is thought to have died of syphillis, which would explain some evidence of mental instability towards the end of his short life.

Whether the illness was contracted from a man or a woman has fuelled a more recent debate among music scholars. Maynard Solomon argued that he was a homosexual, citing his failure to marry and the existence of a homosexual subculture in Vienna. Rita Steblin found it hard to believe he was not attracted to women. Brian Newbould has suggested he may have been bisexual. He was certainly sexually active and not averse to smoking and drinking. His friend, Josef Kenner, describes "how powerfully the craving for pleasure dragged his soul down to the slough of moral degradation".

Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Benjamin Britten, published five years ago, outraged some fans. Peter Pears, the tenor who was Britten's lover, questioned whether it was necessary to know quite so much about his private life. "He was a musical genius," he says. "Is one really interested in the sex life of the great musicians?" But Carpenter argues that the tensions which existed in Britten's emotional life informed his work. He shows Britten enjoying a stable, loving relationship with Pears but also finding inspiration in a succession of young boys.

The differing passive/active roles which each kind of relationship entailed came through in his music, says Carpenter.

Debate on Tchaikovsky this decade is centred on his death, closely linked to his sex life. The composer is now known to have been an active homosexual. The rumour is that rather than dying of cholera, as was traditionally believed, he took his own life in an effort to avoid a scandal.

This theory was advanced by Alexandra Orlova, a former researcher at the Tchaikovsky Archive in Klin, and the British biographer Anthony Holden. But more recently, Alexander Poznansky, a Russian historian at Yale, has rejected the idea, documenting the progress of Tchaikovsky's cholera and saying that as an established feature of Russian life homosexuality was hardly likely to produce a scandal serious enough for suicide.

The articles here are drawn from papers delivered at the 16th International Congress of the International Musicology Society, in London this week.

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