In his 1997 biography of Franz Schubert, late Austrian musicologist Ernst Hilmar points a microscope at the minutiae of the composer’s travels. If you have ever found yourself desperate to know the route Schubert took on his first journey from Vienna to visit a noble family in Želiezovce in the spring of 1818, Hilmar has the answer: Hlohovec via Hainburg and Preßburg. Hilmar can tell you how much money Schubert earned from teaching when he got there (200 Gulden), and the rooms Schubert stayed in during his second visit to Želiezovce in May 1824 (first in the eastern part of the castle, later on the ground floor). “For people who live in these communities or who like to learn train schedules and telephone books by heart,” wrote a reviewer of the book on Amazon, “this stuff is probably interesting.”
Eight years earlier, American musicologist Maynard Solomon had kicked off an international debate with his article “Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini,” which proposed that Schubert and some of friends might have been gay. The most revealing part of Hilmar’s adventurously-titled Franz Schubert is the paragraph he dedicates to the controversy. In it, he argues that gay or straight—“peacock” or pigeon—Schubert’s sexuality was irrelevant for his art:
In recent times, however, one has brought the “young peacocks” in connection with the supposed homosexual tendencies of the composer, which guaranteed attention in various media… The discussion, which originated in the U.S., did not even begin to satisfactorily argue to what extent homophile tendencies could be relevant for a musical oeuvre. Nevertheless, this thesis attracted a growing number of followers, who did not bother with the fact that such vague statements, based at times on incorrect translations and furthermore not corroborated by the sources, raise questions about the preservation of privacy. Even if [Schubert’s friend Moritz von] Schwind, who tended toward an exaggerated manner of speaking, occasionally used an “erotic” vocabulary toward [Schubert’s other friend Franz von] Schober, this cannot be considered satisfactory evidence for homosexual contacts within the circle of friends.
I first read this passage around 2014, and it still leaves me breathless. Schubert created one of history’s most searing depictions of sexual and romantic rejection in “Die Winterreise.” He composed one of its most perfectly sensual melodies in the String Quintet in C Major. Schubert was part of a tight-knit group of men who favored music, satire, “an exaggerated manner of speaking,” and an “‘erotic’ vocabulary,” who held frequent private meetings in the capital of a thoroughly repressed society. Even his slightest minuets are suffused with a subtle, ironic melancholy. The beeps on the gaydar are damn close together. Instead of listening, Hilmar threw the device out.
Hilmar is a particularly dated example of this kind of thinking. But the idea that sexuality is irrelevant to the creation of classical music remains widespread in Europe. In a 1997 response to Solomon’s article, musicologist Rita Steblin wrote that the idea Schubert was gay was “only reflective of our own narcissistic society and [does] little to enlighten us about the composer and his era.” In 2016, I interviewed composer Georg Friedrich Haas about his new dominant-submissive relationship with Mollena Williams-Haas and the connection between his kink and his music. “Let the tolerant couple do what they want in private, but does it really have to be shared so obtrusively in public?” wondered German music critic Manuel Brug in Die Welt. “Their coming-out makes me feel embarrassed for them.” A few years later, I had coffee with a veteran European administrator of contemporary music. I said I hoped to learn the sexuality of an important, dead 20th century composer for an article in VAN. Why does it matter? the administrator asked me. Would he write different notes if he was gay? Does f-sharp have a sexuality?
In 2019, I began work on my first book, a biography of the composer Gérard Grisey, who died 25 years ago this month. (It was published in August by the University of Rochester Press.) Grisey had impeccable modernist credentials—not the most notoriously sexy genre—yet I soon realized his oeuvre could be understood as one massive fusion between sound and sexuality. Researching Grisey’s life served as a four-year rebuttal to the notion that musical creation and sexual expression belong apart; one heard, the other silent. Looking back, that’s probably why I wrote the book in the first place.
Grisey was born in 1946 in the eastern French town of Belfort. Though his parents were only nominally Catholic, as a teenager he became deeply religious. (Almost annoyingly so: his soul did a lot of yearning in those years.) Grisey was a sensitive youth, drawn to writers like Paul Claudel, composers like Bach and Ravel, and the beauty of the surrounding countryside. He was also horny. Faced with the intensity of his desire for girls on the one side, and the sternness of his beliefs in “purity” on the other, he composed. He fantasized that he and his first girlfriend, a schoolmate named Bernadette, would sublimate their love through music. (They didn’t.)
After one of the first times Grisey had sex with the woman who later became his wife, they lay in bed together, and he listened to the short-long rhythm of her heartbeat, later putting that primal bounce into many of his pieces. As he developed the spectral style, he became preoccupied by the perceptual capacities of others. He wanted to know how he could make listeners feel certain sensations, how he could engage them in a dramaturgy of tension, release, and rest. “Partiels,” probably his most immediately recognizable work, follows that exact structure. Grisey knew he couldn’t cross that soft but impenetrable barrier between people, but he wanted to get as close to it as he could—to press his lips against the gauze.
The 1984 vocal piece “Les Chants de l’Amour” includes sexual sighs and “erotic panting.” Around that time, Grisey wrote, “Music has at least this in common with Love: through it, the human being discovers and understands Time.” Few experiences distort regular chronometry quite as much as making love and hearing music. When Grisey was high from the process of composing, he was at his most seductive. His wife and later girlfriends noticed; they minded, but they also knew those energies couldn’t live without each other. “If you touch your truth very acutely, you have so much energy. You don’t know what to do with it, you have to use it,” said France Detry, a girlfriend of Grisey’s. “But you don’t know how. Gérard was a very seductive person who loved women. It was easy for him to use his energy [on seduction]. And that calmed him down.”
Grisey didn’t write f-sharp because he was straight. But he inscribed heartbeat rhythms in “Prologue” because he loved Jocelyne Grisey and her heartbeat moved him. He wrote the playful love duet at the end of “Les Chants de l’Amour” because he was in Berkeley, and Detry was in Belgium, and he wanted her to feel “a thousand shivers near your earlobes.” He orchestrated a love song by Hugo Wolf, with string harmonics representing glistening, tenuous stars, so Mireille Deguy could sing his version; miss him; want him. The saddest music Grisey ever wrote, the final movement of the Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, depicts Gilgamesh after the flood, a man alone.
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Many people who knew Grisey are still alive. That’s obviously not the case for Schubert, meaning we’ll probably never know his sexuality for sure. (To be certain, you’d have to get in a time machine, clamber into bed with him, whip out your notebook, and ask intrusive questions. Ja, Franz, I can see you’re in bed with a woman, but what gender of person are you picturing?) Explorations of music and sexuality will rarely lead us to the kind of neat analysis beloved of some musicologists, a kind of analysis Grisey once compared to the examination and classification of insects. Research into sexuality and art leads to what Hilmar called “vague statements” because sexuality and art are vague forces. The most profound forces tend to be.
I think my interview partners for The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey were frank with me about his sexuality because they knew how important it was for his art. It may also have played a role that he was straight. Commenters generally censure work on sex and sexuality in music most loudly when that research involves queer or nontraditional relationships. Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena, Gustav and Alma, Ludwig and Immortal—few critics or musicologists, even in Europe, would argue these relationships were irrelevant for Bach, Mahler, and van Beethoven’s art. Things are already murkier when it comes to George and Fryderyk. After appealing to us to respect the privacy of one of the greatest artists to ever live, a man who had already been dead 169 years (nice), Hilmar proceeds to “defend” Schubert from association with homosexuality by noting that he was friends with some glamorous, charismatic, artistic women. The gaydar is getting louder; the beeping is coming from inside the house.
Not every biography, not all musicological work must make sexuality an important component. I know it was essential to Grisey’s music from my research. Because I’m a human with ears, I suspect it was essential to Schubert’s work too. Another thing these men have in common is that they both created incredible work, which means we care about their lives. As the pianist Graham Johnson told me, “If you are very fond of a person and interested in him or her—where would the art of artistic biography be if we’re not curious in following up the lives of the people?”
Every biographer has to decide for herself how and where to draw the zigzagging line between public-private and private-private lives. For my part, and despite my constitutional nosiness, I was less interested in what Grisey did in bed than in what he did in bed meant to him. How did sex and love shape Grisey’s idea of himself as a man and artist? How did the vague force of his sexuality inform his manipulation of concrete musical currents? Did he see composition as seduction? Can sound simulate erotic touch?
If you think those questions are irrelevant—to Grisey and to Schubert—I have a train schedule to sell you. ¶
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