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Interpretations of Schubert's sexuality distort music


During a discussion about Schubert's homosexuality recently in New York City, the musicologist Susan McClary suggested ways in which the second movement of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony resembled contemporary gay literature.

Hearing that made me nostalgic for old-fashioned formalist criticism -- no muss, no fuss; just name the chords, describe the structure, and listen. Her suggestion, casually linking arts separated by more than 160 years and a chasm of ideologies, also made me feel sympathy for an audience member who later asked, with deadpan seriousness, whether members of the panel thought Schubert's being short and fat affected his music.

But there must be musical importance to Schubert's homosexuality (which I take as fact unless Maynard Solomon's persuasive 1989 paper on this issue in the journal 19th Century Music is seriously dented by scholars).

Once we accept that the style of even the most abstract composition is related to the personality and culture of its creator, how could homosexuality be unimportant?

Moreover, sexual desire is far from irrelevant to 19th-century repertory. In Schubert's case, it would seem inseparable from his work with lieder. His achievement was to articulate, using the simplest musical gestures, subtle aspects of sensibility and character.

His voices are nuanced and human; subterranean regions of feeling emerge through the surface of the melodic lines. Somewhere, in these songs, must be images of Schubert's own experiences of the world.

Even instrumental music can evoke yearning, drive, postponement and resolution. We can interpret these aspects of music by understanding the kinds of obstacles and transformations that take place and the kind of resolution that is offered.

(Chopin's Opus 27, No. 2, Nocturne, for example, does not create the same image of desire as does Schubert's B-flat Piano Sonata.) The music, of course, is universal in its impact -- Schubert would hardly be worth so much attention if it weren't. But it must also contain elements of its origins.

The problem is that it is difficult to go much further; we don't know enough. Direct evidence is also missing. Homosexuality would have been avoided in "plots" of Schubert's songs.

Even in our own time, it would behard to define similarities in music by Tippett, Copland, Britten, Rorem and Henze -- all openly homosexual composers.

So my problem with Ms. McClary isn't in the attempt to interpret; it's in the method and the results. Consider, for example, what she does with the work of another homosexual composer -- the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, which she examines in her book of feminist critical essays, "Feminine Endings."

This movement, she argues, begins with an introduction "bristling with military connotations" -- an "oppressively patriarchal backdrop." Then enters our "protagonist": a "hypersensitive, vulnerable, indecisive" theme. After an "attempted futile escape" from oppression, he encounters a second, "feminine" theme: it is "sultry, seductive and slinky." His existence is threatened. "An even more languid theme . . . toys with him, much like a spider with a trapped fly." He manages, with tremendous effort, to leave his "drugged state." But by movement's end, the protagonist is beaten; as he lies "in helpless exhaustion, the sluttish second theme re-enters . . . and toys with him, finally depleting him."

Here, Ms. McClary says, is "a composition by a man who was tormented by his situation within his homophobic society." She concludes: "What we have is a narrative in which the protagonist seems victimized both by patriarchal expectations and by sensual feminine entrapment."

Submerged in this account of sexism and homosexuality are hints of the music's character -- its uneasiness, its obsessiveness and its sense of futile opposition.

But in her eagerness to score political points, Ms. McClary turns everything literal and distorts the music's dream quality and alters its resonance. Rather than allow it to expand its meanings, she laces it up in a corset that distorts its shape and dimension. She is not alone; another critic intent on defining homosexual aspects of the second, "feminine" theme describes it as having the character of a drag queen.

This sort of criticism turns all music into program music the way criticism did a century ago, when dripping blood was heard in a Chopin prelude. One German scholar in the 1930s, Arnold Schering, argued that each of Beethoven's piano sonatas had a literary model, even including the setting of particular words.

The "Moonlight" was about "King Lear"; Opus 111 was "Henry VIII." Now Tchaikovsky's Fourth becomes "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Speaking about music always involves metaphor, and language will always touch on only a part of music's meaning. The challenge is to find the most resonant analyses and programs, not the most limited.

A few months ago I welcomed the new musicology for its willingness to explore ways of discussing music. But I also warned of its risks. Here they are, turned palpable. Wherever a pickpocket goes, says an old proverb, he sees pockets. Wherever this kind of analysis goes, it will see patriarchy; wherever it sees frustration, it will see a homosexual in a homophobic world; wherever it sees fragility, it will see a caricature of the feminine.

But where is the music's profound power? And where, in Schubert's case, is the short, fat man who wrote it?

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