Jake Heggie: Is Tonal Music an Especially Gay Thing?

Some years ago I had a conversation with someone who was quite skeptical of the idea that there was any point in looking into the personal lives of composers, especially their sexual orientation. Can music itself be straight or gay? If Handel or Schubert were gay, is there anything gay about the music itself? At the time, I didn’t think there could be anything gay or straight about a piece of music itself, unless it had a specifically gay text.

But in the last couple of weeks I have found myself thinking about this question again. And while I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that there’s such a thing as a gay musical language, I find myself coming to think that there may well be more of a connection between sexual orientation and a composer’s choice of musical language than I had previous realized.

DePauw is having the openly gay Jake Heggie visit this week for our Music of the 21st Century festival. I’m performing in three works: two song cycles with chamber accompaniment, and the final two movements of Heggie’s cello concerto, Holy the Firm: Essay for Cello and Orchestra.

I’ve just fallen in love with his music.

To me, this is the sort of lyrical, imaginative, energetic, and emotionally meaningful music that can reinvigorate classical music and bring in new audiences. It was only in the 20th century that “new” music became such “box office poison,” and it was the atonal, ugly, and more academic music at that which was the problem. There were, actually, many 20th century composers who wrote emotionally meaningful and essentially tonal music whose music audiences did connect with: Rachmaninoff, Copland, Bernstein, Shostakovich, Bernstein, etc.

Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning Herald wrote and interesting article, “Gay Composers Gave America It’s Music,” which can be found here. His thesis is that much of the the accessible American music written in the 20th century was composed by gay men–and he has a good point. He develops an idea–which I’m not sure I entirely buy–that serialism became associated with heterosexual composers and tonal music with gay composers. But Copland, Bernstein, Rorem, Corigliano, and others–he’s got a point.

Like Jake, I am openly gay. Having been born in 1958 and lived through decades in which ours was the love that dared not speak its name, I still take delight in and feel affirmed by discovering other musicians who are “out and proud,” not closeted and ashamed.

I had found myself wondering, even before I found Cantrell’s article today, if gay composers aren’t atracted to tonal music in part because the ability of music to release and transform emotion, especially painful emotions, is so crucial to people who face misunderstanding and rejection, not just from society at large, but often from their own families.

And for men of my generation, who lived through the worst years of the AIDS crisis, there is all the grief and loss of that phenomenon as well. It was actually Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 “Of Rage and Remembrance” which was written in response to the AIDS crisis, that had me thinking along these lines. Rehearsing this morning, one of my colleagues didn’t understand why Heggie had chosen a text “In Praise of Songs that Die,” and set it with dramatic, almost terrifying music. I asked him to read the text to me, and it immediately struck me that Heggie must be using the “songs” as a metaphor for gay men who died of AIDS.

I’ll get the chance to ask Jake about this, and I look forward to doing so. I may be totally off base. Jake is writing a work in remembrance of the one million gay men killed by the Nazis, so it doesn’t seem like a crazy interpretation–and it is how I interpret the song.

But it was interesting that to me as a gay man, this interpretation seemed so obvious, while it hadn’t even occurred to my straight colleague, who’s almost 20 years younger than I am, anyway, and wouldn’t have had the same awareness of the horrifying years of the eighties and early nineties that I do.

How horrifying? Speaking on a personal lebel, as far as I can tell, every guy I had a serious romantic relationship with when I was in college is dead. Every single one. In this country, I think it is only gay men who have had this sort of thing happen to their community. Everyone loses people close to them, of course. But has any other group in post-WW II America had such a huge percentage of a generation killed off? (So how come I’m not dead? I think it is because just as the AIDS crisis was developing I had a renewed attack of internal homophobia and got married to a wonderful and stayed monagamously married through nearly all of the worst years, especially that time in which we didn’t know how the virus was transmitted.)

I go into all this to illustrate in part why music for gay men (and I’m not speaking about lesbians now not to ignore them but because I am trying to speak more from my own experience) can’t be just an intellectual exercise. It’s just too important, too central to our emotional lives.

And to be a gay man, you have to become honest about your own feelings. You can be a repressed homosexual cut off from his emotions, yes. But to be gay is to acknowledge and hopefully accept something about yourself that you may have been taught to believe is sick or perverted. When you open yourself up to those feelings, they have to be expressed. They often need to be escaped.

Music becomes a life saver. Music is there to transform an existence that must be transformed to be survived. When I have been most miserable, that’s when music has been most important to me.

So I can see how middle-class, heterosexual white guys could reject tonal music, write a lot of very cerebral dodecaphonic pieces, and have been quite comfortable with it. African-American culture gave us not serialism but the Blues and jazz and rock and roll. Music that means something. And if Cantrell is right, and it was the gay men who stuck with tonality, it makes sense to me.

OK, this is a lot of generalizations. And yes, John Cage was as gay as you can get and wrote music as untonal as anyone. But I do think think there is something to the idea that for people who suffer as individuals and as a group, the emotional nuances and the ability to exploit and resolve tension that exists in tonal music holds a special meaning.

While I am delighted to be a musician playing this wonderul music of Jake Heggie this week, I am perhaps even more delighted to have the privilege of being a gay man playing this extraordinary music by a composer who is an openly gay man.



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8 responses to “Jake Heggie: Is Tonal Music an Especially Gay Thing?

  1. I realize this is a rather old posting, but the question is interesting to me. I, too, am an openly gay composer who writes mostly tonal music, with a few exceptions, but I will have to read through this again to come to any real conclusions. Interestingly, Mr. Heggie and I apparently followed something of a similar path, in that around the same time (or not long after) he was writing “For a Look or a Touch” I, too, wrote a piece inspired by “Paragraph 175”, and even used a title that was in that piece, “Der Singende Wald.” I usually don’t like generalizations, but I’d be interested to know what Mr. Heggie had to say about your question.

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