Recomposing History

by Theo Golden, Music Editor and Sam Rees

On 13th September 2019, Sam Smith came out as non-binary. The responses were mostly positive, and I am delighted that Smith can live as their most authentic self, despite their spotlight in the public eye. However, Smith is just the latest addition to the queer musical story-line. You may not realize it, but the western musical cannon is littered with LGBTQ+ composers.

Examples can be found as far back as Jean-Baptiste de Lully, who was King Louis XIV’s court composer. Despite his exalted position, he engaged in several affairs with men and women, but in 1685 scandal broke out about his liaisons with a page named “Brunet”. This heavily contributed to his fall from the King’s favor, but Lully’s nonchalant approach to his sexuality has made him a bisexual icon.

For me, the most interesting figures are Francis Poulenc, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten and Ethel Smyth, because of their use of music in the face of prejudice and discrimination.

Poulenc – a Parisian of his time

“I have no qualms, why should you?”

Poulenc was an openly homosexual man, after the decriminalisation of homosexual activity in France. However, this came into conflict particularly early on in his life, with his devout Catholicism. He is reported to have said: “You know that I am as sincere in my faith, without any messianic screamings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality”. In other words, “I have no qualms, why should you?”

Poulenc, in his Sinfonietta, uses fragrant “camp” musical gestures, which would suggest that it is a celebration of homosexuality, unashamedly revelling in and foregrounding the music as “camp”. The most remarkable part of Poulenc’s story is that he survived the Nazi occupation of France. Some argue that this was because he was actually a supporter of Vichy France, but I find this hard to fathom, particularly because of his “Figure Humaine” (1945), which takes poems with lots of resistance subtext by Éluard.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky via Wikimedia Commons

Tchaikovsky- a troubled journey

Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky’s life is a much sadder case. He was deeply closeted about his sexuality, and for years details of it had been censored in Russia. The Tchaikovsky Papers: Unlocking the Family Archive, edited by Marina Kostalevsky, shows Tchaikovsky’s struggles with his identity but also his compositions. It has long been understood in the West, but as Kostalevsky told The Guardian “it is still a subject of heated and often ugly public debate” in Russia. His Sixth Symphony is often regarded as his “coming out” work because of its dedication to a supposed lover.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is similarly infused with his sexuality. The first theme can be said to represent a projection of his inner desire to express his sexuality and the horn-call may represent his sexual repression.

Benjamin Britten by Hans Wild

Britten (and Pears)

Britten is now well-known as a homosexual figure, despite his apparent discretion. Britten’s most famous relationship was with the tenor Peter Pears. The partnership is said to have lasted from 1939 right to Britten’s death in 1976. Britten’s stunning Canticle I: ‘My Beloved is Mine’, composed in 1947, was performed by Pears. Using Francis Quarles’ poetry, it uses the line “I my best beloved’s am – so he is mine”. This explicit reference of love cannot be lost on anyone, and it is especially important when one considers that same-sex relationships were illegal at this time. In Donald Mitchell’s 1980 biography of Britten, Pears said it wasn’t “the story of one man. It’s a life of the two of us.” In fact, after Britten’s death, Pears received a letter of condolence from the Queen.

It is not “the story of one man. It’s a life of the two of us.”

Peter pears on Britten


Last, but in no way least, is Dame Ethel Smyth. A fervent suffragette, she wrote ‘The March of the Women’, arguably the movement’s anthem. She lived under Queen Victoria, who did not even wish to acknowledge the existence of lesbian relationships. Smyth is well known to have fallen in love with prolific women of her generation like Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf.

Ethyl Smyth by JSSGallery

These icons from years gone by act as a precedent for all musicians. They allow our contemporaries to perform as their authentic selves, and with the confidence of those who trailblazed before them.

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