For decades, writer Edmund White has been a definitive voice in gay literature, especially in the United States. He’s written over 30 books, mostly on themes of same-sex desire; they are also are riddled with references to his own passions for art and music. Of particular interest are the frank discussions about psycho-sexual tensions with White’s father and how music offered a bridge to this otherwise distant parent.
In conversation, Ed’s sweet demeanor sits uneasily with provocative assertions about culture and anecdotes about gay sex. We talked at his kitchen table, in view of books piled against one wall, and CDs along another two.
VAN: I suppose what’s most conspicuous about your apartment is the enormous stacks of CDs. You’re an audiophile, clearly.
Edmund White: Yes, I love music. When I was about 13, I wanted to be a composer. I even wrote the beginning of an opera. A friend of mine had a father who was on faculty at Northwestern, and so I took it to him. He proceeded to play it for me, adding lots of glissandi and doubling of chords to my primitive little score. He didn’t discourage me.
So what happened?
I studied piano for ten years or so, but really wasn’t getting anywhere. I was too lazy and had no discipline.
No discipline? It seems like you came up with some.
Part of the problem was that I didn’t want to do something I wasn’t already good at. Classical music is something you have to learn and practice, even when putting out horrible sounds. The violin doesn’t sound any good until you’ve been playing for a few years.
I did sing. But my real passion has always been listening.
What is it you listen to?
A lot of different things. I recently broke up with a lover who was a harpsichordist, and I think he was appalled that I liked so much music. He liked baroque music and was a real snob about it. The fact that I liked Vivaldi but also Sibelius really irritated him, as if there were pitfalls in my taste.
He had really strong opinions about music. He hated Cecilia Bartoli with a passion for instance. I suppose I daren’t say more.
Did his (does anyone’s) taste in music reveal anything about their pathology or personality?
He loved math, and so I think he loved the structure and organization of baroque music.
So where does your more eclectic taste come from?
My father and I had very little in common with the exception that we both liked listening to music. He was this super macho cowboy type from Texas, who looked and acted like John Wayne. But he had one exception, in that he loved classical music. He was a patron of the symphony in Cincinnati, he collected ’78s of everything from Stravinsky, Mahler, and Brahms. Those were his three favorites.
He worked all night and slept all day. When he worked, he’d play classical music in his study which we could hear pretty much all through the house. I’d sit for hours on his couch and listen to all of it.
Was it a bonding experience?
He never wanted to discuss it, and there were points of divergence. He hated opera for instance, but I always loved it. I’ll never forget going to the opera down at the zoo in Cincinnati—a convenient location for productions of “Aida” for when they needed to drag out all the sleepy animals for the ”Triumphal March.“ I was a supernumerary in some productions, and I remember me, a little white boy, being dressed up in blackface to sharpen the swords in “Turandot.”
I also saw some major disasters when I was a supernumerary. Toscanini’s girlfriend Herva Nelli (who wasn’t especially talented, but pretty) was in town. At that time in the 1950s, “Turandot” wasn’t particularly well known to Americans. You’ll recall Turandot herself only has one big scene, “In questa reggia,” and she totally screwed it up. She sang the wrong words to the right melody, and proceeded to burst into tears and run off the stage. And nobody in Cincinnati noticed. The critics thought it was part of the performance.
But you knew the difference?
Yes, I was a little nerd. I used to go down to the public library and lug home these enormous ‘78’s, listen to things like Wagner, but also strange things like [Frederick] Delius’s “A Mass of Life”—things that people didn’t much know, and still don’t know. As a result, I don’t think I ever developed a really concentrated taste.
Is there anything you’ve come to have more or less affinity for over time?
I never liked Schumann. I was having dinner in Rome in 1970 with a movie director and he had a record on, which I took an instant dislike to. I said to him, “Oh, this must be Schumann,” and it was! Now I love Schumann. I’m not sure what my problem was, but things change. After all, when you’re young, you like things like Korngold, but as you age you start to realize it’s movie music. The Violin Concerto sounds like great movie music, but it still sounds like movie music.
Is there anything you still don’t like?
Telemann. I find it very boring. It’s like wallpaper. It’s not like Corelli, which I love.
What about performers?
Because I’m so old, I sometimes like my favorite composers in strange forms. There was a record when I was young of Schwarzkopf singing baroque duets with Irmgard Seefried, but in the way that they did it in the 1950s. To this day, I find it absolutely beautiful. But a real musician like my harpsichordist ex-lover couldn’t see the point of it at all.
Is it because you’re used to it? Or is it because you’ve got memories attached to these recordings or performing styles?
Yes, I mean, again, it’s to do with my father. As I said, we had little in common except music. And being a little gay boy, I was in love with my father (I guess like a lot of gay boys). Growing up, listening to music was a passage to him, emotionally.
Is it still?
Yes. When I listen to Brahms’ Intermezzi, I think of him.
Of course, Brahms…
…was a little gay himself…
…or, he had a life marred by struggles with repression.
Brahms always fell in love with respectable women, but only had sex with prostitutes. As a young man in Hamburg, he played the piano in bordellos, where the prostitutes would play with his tiny penis to amuse the customers. There’s a fascinating book, The Unknown Brahms, written by a friend of Brahms soon after his death, which includes all sorts of strange details about his life. [Musicologists like Styra Avins dispute such details of Brahms’s biography.–Ed.]
And poor Brahms, I think he was a tiny bit gay. Later in life, he met a beautifully handsome male clarinetist whom he called Fräulein Klarinette, for whom he wrote Op. 120.
You’ve now touched on the Intermezzi (Op. 117, 118, 119,) and the Clarinet Sonatas (Op. 120., Nos. 1 and 2). Is there something that particularly appeals to you about Brahms’s late style?
Yes, there’s a sweet melancholy you could say. It’s not anguished in the way that Beethoven’s late piano sonatas are. But that can make them sound trivial, which they aren’t in the least.
Is this sweet melancholy something particularly gay?
It’s hard to say. Would you say something like that comes out in Tchaikovsky, who was bona fide gay? I suppose it could be seen in all the tenor roles Britten wrote for Peter Pears, but only because we know the nature of their relationship before we listen. People have even talked about Britten’s all male cast in “Billy Budd,” but Janáček’s “From the House of the Dead” is an all-male opera and he was heterosexual.
Somewhere in my writing, I said that “music is a universal language, but as to what it’s saying, no two people will agree.”
Were there pieces of music like this that you and your father agreed or disagreed on?
I liked slightly more modern music than he did. Although he liked Stravinsky and Hindemith, which was unusual for a Midwestern businessman. I don’t remember him particularly liking Schoenberg, but that could just be because there weren’t that many recordings of “Pierrot Lunaire” floating around the American Midwest in the 1950s.
You’ve talked about classical music almost solely from the vantage point of the listener at home. Did you and your father go to concerts?
Yes. When I was a little child we went to the Cincinnati Symphony live to hear Eugene Goossens, that is, before he was ridden out of town after law enforcement found gay porn in his suitcase, and in particular to the Friday afternoon rehearsals. As I got a little older, we’d then go to the Saturday night performances.
Is concert-going important to you?
Not fanatically. My ex loved going to concerts so I’d go with him to Carnegie Hall. But for me, it’s a bit like icon worship to go to a concert hall. If you’ve got a good sound system at home, I think the experience is better.
Then again, I write to music, which is unusual. Most writers would find it a distraction. My friend Virgil Thomson used to tell me that music helped him focus more, because he had to focus on rejecting the world of sound so intently that it would remove anything else hovering over his thoughts.
Do you keep the company of musicians?
I knew Virgil quite well. He’s the one that told me that all organists in America are gay. I’m not sure if it’s true.
How does music figure in your writing?
When I’m organizing a scene and trying to organize how to draw it to a conclusion, I often have a musical solution in my mind. It sounds very vague. Take Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” which has that incredibly long coda, in contrast to any number of pieces of his music which end abruptly. I’ve surrendered to both temptations in my writing. Usually, I prefer the abrupt ending. Oftentimes an editor will say, “This is too abrupt, you need to add more stuff.” And I always think of Stravinsky. It’s striking, of course, but don’t we want to be striking as writers?
The boldness of music encouraged me to be bolder as a writer. I suppose in choosing gay subject matter, I’ve always been bold, but my actual writing at the beginning was more conventional. I think with age my writing hasn’t become avant-garde, but it’s become stronger. When I listen to something like “Don Carlo” by Verdi or “The Rite of Spring,” I think, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of strength in my writing?” The more I listen to classical music, [the more] I feel the pulls towards ever more sentimentality on the one hand or grandeur on the other. I think these are certainly possibilities in literature, but people are too shy to explore them—especially younger writers who are too timid for fear of looking foolish. If you go over the top in your writing, it might really be what’s called for. But it also opens you up to lots of teasing from critics.
Are there other pieces of music that showed you these kinds of possibilities?
When I lived in Paris, I was friends with Milan Kundera, whose father had been a musician working for Janáček. One day I went over to Kundera’s apartment, where he put on a record of Janáček’s Second String Quartet, which was about an unrequited love affair of Janáček’s. It was curious, because the music didn’t have exact repetitions: like life, which is more episodic or vague in elements of recurrence. But I remember listening to the piece and Kundera narrating the story to me as it was playing, and hearing the work’s narrative qualities: seeing a woman from afar, seeing her step onto the train…
What music would you pair your writing with?
Once I was doing a reading, and I was asked what music should be played between segments. I chose Brahms’s Op. 120, though I’m not sure ordinary people like it. It’s too dynamically extreme.
Is your writing dynamically extreme?
The sign of a great piece of writing is putting your hand down after three words, not being able to guess what the fourth one will be. There should be lots of little surprises and firecrackers. Prose is a very tedious medium, so I try to make it a little more shocking. Or more musical. ¶
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