Their melodies have resonated throughout the ages, but their narratives have often remained unheard. Today, we pay homage to the remarkable LGBTQ+ composers who have shaped the course of classical music history.
From the 17th century onwards, queer composers have made indelible contributions to the genre, whether publicly open about their identities or concealed within the confines of societal norms. As we celebrate Pride Month in 2023, let us delve into their captivating stories.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Edward Benjamin Britten, an illustrious English composer, gifted the world with breathtaking operas, choral works, and songs. Many of these pieces were composed for his life partner, the distinguished tenor Sir Peter Pears.
Britten embarked on his musical journey at the tender age of nine when he penned an awe-inspiring oratorio. His education under the tutelage of esteemed mentors like Frank Bridge, John Ireland, and Arthur Benjamin, along with his own virtuosity as a pianist, laid the foundation for his trailblazing career.
His groundbreaking operas, including “Peter Grimes” (1945) and “The Turn of the Screw” (1954), as well as his renowned War Requiem, delved into contemporary issues surrounding psychology, post-war trauma, and Britten’s own homosexuality, which was considered illegal during his lifetime.
Together with Pears and librettist Eric Crozier, Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk. This festival not only became a platform for showcasing new works but also nurtured young talent. Britten’s legacy as an openly gay composer continues to inspire and pave the way for LGBTQ+ musicians.
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Ethel Smyth, an extraordinarily prolific composer, played a vital role in the women’s suffrage movement. Unabashed about her relationships with women, Smyth fearlessly broke societal barriers.
Born in South-East London, Smyth pursued her studies at the Leipzig Conservatory, where she crossed paths with luminaries such as Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann, and Brahms. Among her notable works are the opera “The Wreckers” and her Mass in D.
In 1911, Smyth composed “The March of the Women,” a song dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffrage movement, and rumored to be Smyth’s lover. This song became the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union, embodying women’s suffrage activism worldwide.
At the age of 71, Smyth unexpectedly fell in love with Virginia Woolf, a moment Woolf described as being “caught by a giant crab.” Their unconventional relationship was a profound experience for both, leaving an indelible mark on their lives.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Francis Poulenc, a pioneer among openly gay composers, fearlessly integrated his sexuality with his religious faith within his compositions.
His musical repertoire encompassed intimate chamber sonatas with enchanting melodies and delicate impressionist harmonies, such as the 1957 Flute Sonata, as well as larger works like his Piano Concerto and the epic one-act opera for soprano and orchestra, “La voix humaine.”
Scholars continue to ponder whether the diverse range of styles in Poulenc’s music mirrors an outward expression of an internal moral conflict. The inherent tension within his compositions adds depth and complexity to his artistic legacy.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Born in the small Russian town of Votkinsk, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky embarked on composition lessons with Anton Rubinstein in 1861. His magnificent ballets, including “Swan Lake,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” and “The Nutcracker,” along with his iconic 1812 Overture, have captivated audiences worldwide.
Tchaikovsky’s life took a tumultuous turn when he entered into a disastrous marriage with Antonina Miliukova in 1877, attempting suicide shortly thereafter. Homosexuality was considered illegal in Russia during that era, and Tchaikovsky’s marriage, intended to quell gossip about his love life, only intensified his personal misery and torment.
Tragically, Tchaikovsky’s affection for his own nephew, Vladimir Davydov, was cut short by Davydov’s untimely death from cholera in 1893. Alternative theories surrounding his demise continue to spark speculation about the nature of their relationship.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
The choral and operatic compositions of George Frideric Handel endure as some of the most influential pieces in the history of classical music. From the perennially beloved “Messiah” to the operas “Rinaldo” and “Agrippina,” Handel’s musical prowess transcends time. His orchestral, chamber and instrumental works further exemplify his extraordinary talent.
Born in Halle, Germany, Handel began his musical pursuits at a young age. Later, he found a second home in England, where his works found great admiration. Handel’s extensive travels through Italy and his immersion in London’s same-sex-friendly circles have fueled speculation about his homosexuality. In her book “Handel as Orpheus,” music historian Ellen Harris convincingly presents evidence of a homosexual subtext within Handel’s cantatas.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
Jean-Baptiste Lully, a celebrated operatic composer and violinist, thrived in the court of King Louis XIV. An ambitious figure in both court and operatic music, Lully exerted a profound influence on French opera during the 17th century.
Lully’s colorful private life included romantic entanglements with both men and women, a fact that did not escape the notice of the King. However, these affairs eventually led to Lully facing dire consequences.
Tragically, Lully’s life was cut short by a fatal infection in a wound on his foot, which he accidentally inflicted with his conducting stick. His legacy lives on as a testament to his unmatched talent and the complexities of his personal life.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
A contemporary of Lully and Handel, Arcangelo Corelli moved in the same sexually-fluid circles. He formed close associations with influential figures such as Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who was known for his same-sex desires.
As a Baroque composer and violinist, Corelli crafted enchanting chamber sonatas and concerti grossi. He cemented his place in history by refusing to play a section of Handel’s oratorio, “The Triumph Of Time And Truth,” as he believed the violin note exceeded the instrument’s appropriate range.
Frederick the Great (1712-1786)
King Frederick II of Prussia once lamented, “Fortune has it in for me; she is a woman, and I am not inclined that way,” following a bitter defeat in battle.
History recounts Frederick the Great’s early affairs with Peter Karl Christoph von Keith, a page boy in his father’s court, and his subsequent involvement with Hans Hermann von Katte, a lieutenant in the Prussian Army. Unfortunately, Frederick William I, his father, reacted harshly to these revelations and ordered the execution of von Katte.
Despite these personal hardships, Frederick the Great composed numerous concertos and sonatas. His talent as a flautist, honed under the tutelage of Johann Joachim Quantz, further showcased his musical prowess.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Hailing from New York, Aaron Copland emerged as one of the most esteemed composition students of Nadia Boulanger at the Paris Conservatoire. Boulanger’s roster of students, spanning the realms of composition, performance, and conducting, dominated 20th-century music, with luminaries such as Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, Daniel Barenboim, and John Eliot Gardiner.
While Copland remained a private individual, his intimate relationship with artist Prentiss Taylor, revealed through their correspondence, sheds light on his personal life. Copland also lived and traveled with other men, including photographer Victor Kraft and artist Alvin Ross, making no effort to conceal his homosexuality.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
In stark contrast to Copland, Samuel Barber did not shy away from openly embracing his homosexuality. He shared a life partnership with composer Gian Carlo Menotti, his mentor at the Curtis Institute.
Barber’s talent garnered him the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Music twice—first in 1958 for his opera “Vanessa” and again in 1963 for his Piano Concerto.
His deeply moving “Adagio for Strings” became one of the first works by an American composer to be championed by the legendary Arturo Toscanini. It remains an iconic piece and is famously featured in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film “Platoon.”
These composers, with their extraordinary talents and rich personal lives, have left an indelible mark on classical music history. Their stories, now unveiled, remind us of the invaluable contributions made by LGBTQ+ individuals within the realm of music and continue to inspire generations of musicians to come.