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TO COMPOSE, PERFORM, OR LEARN MUSIC is to immerse oneself in a giant belief system that changes only by small increments over time. For well over a century it has been a basic article of faith that music is insular, autonomous, sublim ely Absolute. Music does not belong to the humdrum world that encloses it; music is a universal language by virtue of being a universe unto itself. There is ideology here, but also pragmatism: Those who try to grasp music's meaning-in-the-world lean out d angerously over an abyss of speculation. In the words of musicologist Carolyn Abbate: "Interpreting music involves a terrible and unsafe leap between object and exegesis, from sound that seems to signify nothing (and is nonetheless splendid) to words that claim a discursive sense but are, by comparison, modest and often unlovely."
Musicology, a discipline of fairly recent vintage, has always been cautious in starting conversations over the gap between music and society. As late as 1985, in his highly influential book Contemplating Music (Harvard), Joseph Kerman bemoaned the absence of a musicology on a par with other cultural criticism. In the past decade, however, everything has changed. Richard Taruskin has declared music a participant in cultural, social, even political history; Maynard Solomon has pinned musical biograph y onto sexual and psychological issues; Lawrence Kramer has merged musicology with the matter and manner of literary criticism; and, most spectacularly, Susan McClary, a professor of musicology at UCLA, has delivered a manifesto-like program for feminist musical analysis, causing a stir not only in music departments but also in wider academic circles and even the mainstream cultural press. We've seen a proliferation of books entitled Music and Something Else: Music and Society, Music and Poetry, Music and Text, Music and Image, Music as Cultural Practice.
It's called the new musicology, and it shows no signs of flagging, despite stolid opposition from the musicological old guard. Recent emanations include the anthologies Musicology and Difference (Ruth A. Solie, ed., California, 1993) and Queerin g the Pitch (Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds., Routledge, 1994), along with an unending spate of articles, pro and con, in the adventurous historical and analytical journal 19th-Century Music. At its best, the work cuts th rough the formalist, positivist vocabulary that has clouded musicology for decades; at its worst, it seems merely to exchange one kind of ideological fog for another -- unhelpful theoretical generalities of the Absolute for unhelpful theoretical generalit ies of sexuality and gender. What is lost at both extremes is a sense of the singular compositional personality that makes music worth talking about in the first place.
THE TOPIC IS, as it has always been, Music and Meaning. The feminist musicologist Paula Higgins begins a cautious, reasoned critique of Susan McClary's work in 19th-Century Music with an epigraph from E. M. Forster's Howards En d -- the famous passage in which Helen Schlegel listens to the Scherzo of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and hears not notes but goblins, "walking quietly over the universe, from end to end." Higgins goes on to describe this scene as it was adapted in the recent Merchant Ivory film of the book: During a lecture on "Meaning in Music," a professor hails Beethoven's goblin, and a member of his audience plaintively asks: "Why a goblin? Why specifically a goblin?" Higgins sees McClary in the professor's stead and finds herself asking, "Why sex?"
Up until about the middle of the nineteenth century, no one thought to ask such questions. Music was considered symbolic and readable, loaded with associations. But the emergence of a repertory founded on music of the past rather than the present -- in pa rticular, the abstract, form-driven, Classical conceptions of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven -- seemed to dictate a new approach to the question of musical meaning, from which Musikwissenschaft, the science of musicology, was born. E.T.A. Hoffmann's "inner kingdom of tones," Eduard Hanslick's Brahmsian celebration of the "purely musical," Heinrich Schenker's theory of fundamental harmonic forms -- all gradually supplanted the highly subjective, rhapsodic, programmatic form of music appreciation that had previously held sway. The modernist aesthetic forged by twentieth-century composer-theorists implanted the Absolute firmly in the creative process. "Away with programs!" Gustav Mahler exclaimed at the turn of the century. "Music is powerless to expres s anything but itself," said Stravinsky, clinching the deal.
The first and still most influential counterattack against the Absolute came from Theodor Adorno. Adorno asserted a complex relation between music and society, one in which musical works were "internalizations of social forms." He traced general patterns in a composer's or a musical era's development that mirrored, often by inversion, patterns in society. In the nineteenth century, for example, he saw an increasingly desperate assertion of musical individuality through images of disintegration, leading of f from Beethoven's late style; this was a protest against the thickening conformities of the bourgeois totality. Adorno's call for a cross-cultural, socially informed reading of music has been echoed by a great many American musicologists, whether or not they acknowledge his influence.
In the preface to her landmark 1991 book Feminine Endings (University of Minnesota) McClary singles out Adorno as her guide in "getting beyond formalism" -- she cherishes him for the cold eye he cast on pieties of the musical canon, and for the oft en cavalier way he treated composers of untouchable renown. McClary mixes Adorno in with Michel Foucault, Catherine Clément, Antonio Gramsci, and Mikhail Bakhtin; the central theme emerging from this theoretical quodlibet is that music is a "social discourse," that it is "meaningful precisely insofar as at least some people believe that it is and act in accordance with that belief." McClary's is a modified poststructuralist position, somewhat akin to reader-response theory: Music does not exist in and of itself but rather as an ever-changing chimera in the minds of socially particularized listeners. And yet, with an awkwardness typical of those who blend the deconstructive methods of relativism and the political certainties of essentialism, McClary also declares gender to be an unambiguous and intrinsic presence in the very musical fabric whose aesthetic independence she denies.
The task McClary sets herself -- establishing the presence of gender in music -- is not an easy one. In opera, at least, a category like "the feminine" is readily identifiable in both dramatic and musical terms, but in instrumental music identifying gende r is much more difficult. McClary claims that the contrast of first and second theme in Classical sonata form was, from the outset, a contrast of masculine and feminine; the eventual "victory" of the first theme's tonic key area in the recapitulation was a display of patriarchal dominance. She concludes that the dramatic and dynamic expansion of sonata form undertaken by Beethoven -- and it is at Beethoven that this argument is mainly targeted -- exhibits an obsessive hostility toward the femininity of th e second theme. In the Eroica, she hears in the attenuation and/or obliteration of successive secondary motifs the thrashing of a misogynistic temperament. Wherever extremes of dissonance or simply of dynamic levels recur in Beethoven, McClary sees the same symptoms: the Eroica displays "extraordinary violence" throughout, and the Ninth Symphony is guilty of "murderous rage."
This style of analysis, widespread a hundred years ago, is for many musicologists a nightmare come back to life. Charles Rosen, for one, tried to put to rest the masculine/feminine dichotomy in his authoritative The Classical Style (Viking, 1971): "There were, of course, no rules about second subjects in the late eighteenth century, nor were second subjects even necessary, but when they occur in Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, they are usually more intense [my italics] than the first subject." The typing of second subjects as "relaxed" or "soft" took place only later in the nineteenth century, when Classical form had become an archaic structure. Beethoven was no more suppressing feminine voices than was Haydn, who basically invented the form i n the first place. By deriving significance from the absence of the "feminine" second theme, McClary is judging Beethoven by the rules of a typology invented after his death.
It is also important to keep in mind which Beethoven we are talking about. The heroic manner shows up only in a handful of Beethoven's works -- the Third and Fifth symphonies, the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas, the Emperor Concer to, Fidelio, and a few of the dramatic overtures and minor incidental works. The comparative rarity of sustained shows of force in Beethoven's oeuvre argues against a reading based on anything so deep-rooted as masculine identity. It argues instea d for the political-historical reading with which we have long been familiar: Beethoven choosing for a time to engage with the revolutionary energies of the Napoleonic era. From these few works, as the late German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus argued, a myth of Beethoven arose that overwhelmed the vast expressive range of his output. Whether she knows it or not, this myth is what McClary has in mind: "Beethoven" the cultural image, the bust on the piano, the "V"-for-Victory composer who underscored the propa ganda of Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill. It is an entity worthy of study, but should not be confused with Beethoven himself.
McClary claims that this heroic Beethoven provided "the model for German manhood" in the nineteenth century. But is that what force in music does? Did men leave the auditorium with a spring in their step, ready to conquer the world? Or did they bec ome curiously passive, ready to be conquered? There is evidence for both in the history of German manhood. To put it in more pointed terms: Does a listener identify with "assaultive pelvic pounding" -- participate in it? Or does she -- or he -- receive it, possibly enjoy it? In Queering the Pitch, lesbian-feminist musicologist Suzanne Cusick parts ways with McClary in calling music "the lover, the active force which generates pleasure." Adorno naturally took a darker view of musical force, b ut he argued similarly that Beethoven gave audiences the critically enlarging experience of being dominated, of submitting. What McClary has called the rape sequence in Beethoven's Ninth was for Adorno a dispassionate "this is how it is" that induces a re velatory tremor (Erschütterung) in the listener: "By being shaken up the ego becomes aware of its limits and finitude." You could just as well argue that Beethoven led to aristocratic decadence as to bourgeois athleticism.
JOHANNES BRAHMS, WHO ENDED his career with modestly proportioned chamber works, piano miniatures, and the extraordinarily nonheroic Fourth Symphony, shows one such alternative outcome for Beethovenian influence. Even McClary, in her essa y in Musicology and Difference on Brahms's Third Symphony, seems ready to admit that a German male heterosexual composer would not necessarily recapitulate the agenda of the patriarchy. She plausibly proposes that Brahms's Third Symphony is a criti que of the Beethovenian heroic model. But her argument again founders on arbitrary interpolations of gender. This time she hears the second theme of the first movement as not only feminine but also exotic -- a picture of Oriental sensuality -- taking off from an analysis of the Third Symphony by the late-nineteenth-century critic Hermann Kretzschmar, who once called the first movement's second theme a "Delilah-figure." McClary admits that we may not hear the theme as exotic today -- to me it sounds like t ypical rustic folk material, reminiscent of Beethoven's Pastorale dances -- but to her, Kretzschmar's remark is evidence that audiences heard exoticism at the time. This is an especially absurd instance of the goblin syndrome exposed in Howards End: If one listener heard goblins a hundred years ago, then everyone heard goblins, and we have to hear goblins too. Empirical data in musicology cannot depend on the metaphorical whimsies of nineteenth-century commentators.
One wonders, finally, how McClary would resolve the contradictory images of masculinity posed by Yankee eccentric Charles Ives. In his free-form writings on music, Ives unleashed spectacularly outré misogynistic and homophobic language, reviewing t he entire history of music in terms worthy of Beavis and Butt-head: "nice little easy sugar plum sounds" (Haydn); "one just naturally thinks of him with a skirt on" (Chopin); "soft-bodied sensualist," "pussy," "woman posing as a man" (all Wagner); "yellow sap flowing from a stomach that had never had an idea" (Sibelius). And yet his music sounds nothing like the posturing of a hypermasculinist. Ordered force gives way to sprawling noise; linear development is swamped in atmosphere, heterogeneous events, s onic collage. There are occasions when he masses sound to produce an effect of pure force, but more often he deliberately sabotages conventional Beethovenian climaxes, as in the extraordinary nonending to The Housatonic at Stockbridge.
In Musicology and Difference Ives is treated with more subtlety than one might have expected. Music historian Judith Tick places him and his vocabulary in the context of turn-of-the-century America -- a society that treated music as a ladies' art. More interestingly, she points out the fascinating conjunction of his contempt for feminine musical values and his assault on musical patriarchs; one was used as a weapon against the other. And she grants that his music "transcends its own prescriptions." If there is a general relation between masculinity and music, then, it might just as likely be one of inversion as of imitation. The Romantic individualism of which Ives was a splendid culmination indeed took flight from a hardening social consensus, as Adorno saw, but perhaps the escape did not always fail.
ASSERTIONS AND SUBVERSIONS of masculinity in music lead naturally to a consideration of music and homosexuality. Here the difficulties for McClary-style analysis are extreme: Before anyone can embark on a search for gay voices in music, researchers must confront the mysteries of pre-modern sexual identity and try to figure out who was gay and who wasn't. The spurious layers of myth and rumor shrouding the lives of the great composers make it imperative that scholars engage with the facts of the historical and biographical record. But Queering the Pitch begins with a distressing announcement: "It is for our authors less interesting to assert that Handel or Schubert was 'gay' than to reveal the homophobia, as well as the patheticall y limited terms, of a scholarly inquiry terrified that either might have been, or to examine and attempt to revalue models of musical difference that these composers represent and to which we can relate." This would seem to endorse the latest and possibly least appealing trend in academia, which is to find academia itself a subject of surpassing interest.
Fortunately, despite the manifesto of irrelevance at the outset, some of the essays manage to address the historical subject at hand. Gary Thomas's "Was George Frideric Handel Gay?" presents a man who had no readily verifiable involvements with women and who moved in all-male circles with a homoerotic tinge. Even though it eventually loses itself in the construction of a "homotextual Handel" and various circumambient concepts, it does crucial spadework in the biographical area. Philip Brett considers the fascinating balance of openness and secrecy, eminence and marginality, eroticism and despair in Benjamin Britten's music and career, and quite plausibly draws a connection between musical exoticism in Britten's later music and the composer's recurring dra matizations of erotic relationships between men and boys. In particular the Balinese gamelan or an imitation of it is used to depict both the sinister threat to boyish innocence (The Turn of the Screw) and the allure of innocence itself (Death in Venic e). With Britten, of course, Brett has the unique luxury of a gay composer who consistently addresses homosexuality as a dramatic subject.
BETWEEN HANDEL AND BRITTEN lies the great expanse of Classicism and Romanticism, with its soaring ideals of the Absolute and attendant bachelor lifestyles. One cannot dive into nineteenth-century music without a subtle appreciation of th e variabilities to which sexual identity was subject in German Romantic settings. Major literary figures like Winckelmann, Goethe, Schiller, and Jean Paul had elevated a passionate and sensual friendship between men to the level of love between men and wo men; the Greek models for this cult of friendship encouraged outbursts of homoerotic vocabulary that may or may not have been rooted in physical experience. Reading the florid correspondence between Wagner and Ludwig II, for example, one might assume that Wagner was gay and Ludwig wasn't; the reverse, of course, is true. This confused culture of pretend-homosexuality echoed the great cult of Genius, which rendered the figure of the artist androgynous, omnivorous, and/or asexual. Bachelorhood seems almost inherent in the musical discipline of this period and for a century or more afterward. Brett perceptively compares notions of homosexuality with "musicality," noting that the second can be a closeted code word for the first. But a renunciation of sexualit y is independent of orientation, and it may be something more than repression. "The only love affair I ever had was with my music," said Ravel. Why might this not be true?
And what of Franz Schubert, who, to paraphrase composer Michael Tippett's eulogy for Britten, might have been the most purely musical person anyone has ever known? Maynard Solomon put forward the claim for a homosexual Schubert in a much-discussed article for 19th-Century Music entitled "Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini." He took note of contemporary insinuations about Schubert's off-center sexuality ("double nature," "dominating aversion to the daughters of Eve"), the composer' s acerbic commentary on the institution of marriage, and the seemingly homoerotic tendencies of his male friends. The dramatist Eduard Bauernfeld wrote in his diary of 1826: "Schubert is out of sorts (he needs 'young peacocks,' like Benv. Cellini)." Refer ences to game birds in the Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini are, indisputably, code for young men Cellini has seduced.
The challenge, again, is seeing through the homoerotic fog of a Hellenic/Romantic culture to the facts of sexual identity. With "young peacocks," Bauernfeld might have been referring metaphorically to any young persons, male or female, of potential benefi t to Schubert. And, strange as it may seem to today's polarized sensibilities, Bauernfeld could have used a homosexual metaphor for a heterosexual act. Still, I'm fairly sure Solomon is onto something. In another 19th-Century Music article ("Political Cri mes and Liberty, or Why Would Schubert Eat a Peacock?"), Kristina Muxfeldt has shown that the semiclandestine groups to which Schubert belonged were certainly concerned with freedom from religious and political conformism. Schubert himself was once accost ed during a police raid on an all-male gathering suspected of unnamed moral and political transgressions.
SOLOMON SHIES AWAY FROM from musical analysis in his article, saying that "we may never uncover traces of Schubert's character in his music." Such is, of course, not the view of McClary, who contributed an essay entitled "Constructions o f Subjectivity in Schubert's Music" to Queering the Pitch. In the Unfinished Symphony, she hears a "remarkable difference in . . . musical procedures" that can be linked to biographical evidence of Schubert's sexuality. She notes the free-roaming m odulations, the lack of reinforcement of the tonic key-area, and the general languid ease of the Unfinished's Andante, then concludes: "Schubert tends to disdain goal-oriented desire per se for the sake of a sustained image of pleasure and an open, flexible sense of self -- both of which are quite alien to the constructions of masculinity then being adopted as natural, and also to the premises of musical form as they were commonly construed at the time." As for the first movement, McClary discovers in it a "tragic vision of the world in which the self and its pleasures are mutilated by an uncomprehending and hostile society" -- a vision she considers typically homosexual. Because of his unconventional vision, she claims, Schubert languished in obsc urity while Beethoven became the great model for nineteenth-century Romantics.
This narrative misrepresents not only Schubert's music but also the nineteenth-century history that followed in its wake. To my ears, Schubert's most startling achievement in both movements of the Unfinished is to create a continuous yet highly variegated landscape of sound through which melodic figures move. By turns serene and savage, Schubert's musical fabric encompasses a vast range of subjective experiences, of which McClary's "open, flexible sense of self" is only one of many. As for Schubert's supp osed invisibility in the nineteenth century, anyone who has heard a few notes of Schumann or Brahms (or Bruckner or Mahler) knows otherwise. Precisely because Schubert's output was so fragmentary, composers felt free to take from it at will.
THE CASE OF TCHAIKOVSKY ought to be easier. Here is a man who, unlike Schubert, left unambiguous evidence of his homosexuality, and who himself drew connections between his compositions and the tempests of his personal life (most notably in the private narrative of "inexorable Fate" attached to his Fourth Symphony, written around the time of his disastrous attempt at marriage). The music itself, with its neatly schematized effusions, all but begs for biographical interpretation. McClary' s reading of the Fourth Symphony in Feminine Endings follows the usual pattern: seeing a homosexual protagonist in the "hypersensitive, vulnerable, indecisive" first theme; an illicit, feminized object of desire in the second theme; and societal co ndemnation in the movement's military leitmotif. "This is a composition," she concludes, "by a man who was tormented by his situation within his homophobic society."
And yet, once again, things are not so simple. First, as Alexander Poznansky shows in his recent revisionist biography, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (Schirmer, 1991), nineteenth-century Russia was not an unambiguously homophobic milieu, especially in the upper-class circles in which Tchaikovsky moved. Russian high society was fully aware of its favorite composer's sexual inclinations; there was disapproving talk, but no direct censure. Poznansky paints a portrait of a man generally at e ase with his impractical attachments to adolescents and young men. Furthermore, there is no reason to connect the Fourth's second theme to a fatally seductive female presence, since the symphony was written before the marital misadventure with Antonina Mi lyukova. The crisis of that marriage and other quasi-heteroerotic relationships turned precisely on Tchaikovsky's idealized, nonsensual regard for women. One could argue just as well that the symphony's exuberant finale hints at Tchaikovsky's optimistic e xpectations for marriage early in 1877.
And why should the Fourth Symphony be a narrative of homosexual despair when the Pathétique, composed in happier times, is several degrees more despairing? Poznansky speculates that the Pathétique's final movement might be a re flection of the tragedy of unrequited love, but there is nothing specifically gay about such an emotion. Like almost any other Romantic of the nineteenth century -- homosexual, heterosexual, or whatever -- Tchaikovsky idealized sexuality into grand Platon ic love, with physical desire grating grimly underneath. The unembarrassed pathos of his music describes, in very general terms, the heartbreak of that unrealistic emotional regime. His remark to a female admirer gives the best formulation of the Fourth S ymphony's tragic content: "There is an inexplicable law of fate, whereby a person who is strongly loved, no matter how kind and gentle he may be at heart, cannot but tyrannize and torment a little the one who loves." Tchaikovsky found himself on both ends of this relation -- in love with young men, beloved of women -- and he found a way of translating its attendant universal emotions into his music, which continues to strike home with audiences.
THE LIKES OF TCHAIKOVSKY, Schubert, Britten, and Handel (if Gary Thomas's speculation is correct) certainly do not present a united front of homosexual musical style. The variety increases if one looks at other figures from musical histo ry known or presumed to be gay. Where do we put the lyric ironies of Poulenc and the later Saint-Saëns? Or the austere passions of Mussorgsky (if Richard Taruskin is right about him)? Or the self-consciously Beethovenian strivings of Michael Tippett and turn-of-the-century British composer Ethel Smyth (to make an unlikely pair)? Or the various dialects of the seemingly innumerable gay American composers -- Charles Griffes, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, John Cage, David Diamond, Lou Ha rrison, Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, and John Corigliano, to name just a few? How can all these voices, these separate selves, possibly be contained in one definition of homosexual music?
What McClary sees as an across-the-board difference in the procedures of homosexual and heterosexual composers becomes even more elusive when one takes into account heterosexual composers who seem to write something resembling "homosexual music." How, for example, does one treat Wagner, whose pseudohomoerotic Parsifal magnificently exemplifies all of the teeming confusion Eve Sedgwick found in nineteenth-century homosocial desire? And what about the presumably heterosexual Hugo Wolf, whose setting of Goethe's homoerotic "Ganymede" is noticeably more erotic than Schubert's, as Lawrence Kramer observes in Music as Cultural Practice, 1800-1900 (California, 1990)? Or, even more deliciously perplexing, Richard Strauss, who set to music several po ems by the radical German gay activist John Henry Mackay and then turned his attention to Oscar Wilde's Salome? Strauss defeats all of McClary's certainties -- a bourgeois family man who cultivated inversions of gender in his music, who repeatedly parodied masculine posturings (Don Juan, Don Quixote, even Ein Heldenleben), who showed astonishing sympathy for the female voice and the female persona. The high point of Musicology and Difference is Carolyn Abbate's essay on Salo me, which does not dwell on Strauss's alleged misogyny and instead celebrates the "envoicing" of Salome's lawless desire.
McClary and some of the other Queering the Pitch authors seem incapable of imagining homosexual selves outside a defining regime of oppression. It's a flaw of contemporary gay studies that has been exposed on several occasions by Sedgwick, most not ably in her critique of various gay-studies approaches to Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest ("Tales of the Avunculate," in Tendencies): "Each of these readings traces and affirms the gay possibility to Wilde's writing by identifying it -- feature by feature, as if from a Most Wanted poster -- with the perfect fulfillment of a modernist or postmodern project of meaning-destabilization and identity-destabilization." Eager to destabilize the musical canon, McClary has, similarly, reasserted a great many of the stereotypes by which gay men have been haunted in recent times, merely reversing their negative signs. For me, discovering the possible homosexuality of a favorite composer such as Schubert or Mussorgsky is rather like being told that s ome attractive Hollywood actor is gay -- I'm glad to know, but I'm not sure how to make practical use of the information.
FOR ONE WHO STYLES herself as the first feminist musicologist, McClary spends a surprising amount of time talking about men. To return to Paula Higgins's critique: "Were I permitted but a single question about McClary's book, I would ask : Where are the women in this 'feminist' criticism of music? With the exception of opera characters and a handful of late-twentieth-century composer/artists, actual musical women -- composers, musicians, musicologists, and critics -- are as invisib le here as in any sexist text McClary would inveigh against." McClary anticipated such criticism by dismissing extant feminist work as parochial: "The feminist work that is produced tends to operate within a marginalized ghetto that adds fragments of info rmation concerning women to the already existing canon but that does not tamper with the outlines of the canon itself." But to this Higgins replies: "Her alleged alienation from the field has given her a myopic view of what her musicological colleagues ha ve been doing in the past decade or so. As one critic asked, Where has she been?"
Most recent feminist musicology has been taken up with the recovery of female voices that have been hidden, and with exploring the circumstances that made (and make) their emergence so difficult. Fanny Mendelssohn was discouraged from composition by her b rother Felix, but she produced ambitious works all the same. Clara Schumann maintained her independence as a professional musician, but her compositional work was nonetheless confined mostly to miniatures. Alma Schindler wrote hauntingly lovely Lieder bef ore her husband, Mahler, ordered her to cease composing. In an important essay in Musicology and Difference, Nancy Reich shows how nineteenth-century musical institutions kept the aspirations of women in check: Music was considered a "womanly" art, and women were expected to study it as a matter of course, but the conservatories did not admit them into the more advanced composition classes or encourage them to pursue studies for more than a couple of years.
In some ways, the music world is still a very male domain. The Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera House, remains adamant in its exclusion of women. That it also remains, by general consensus, the world's finest orchestra is a tes timonial not to the abilities of male musicians but to the unsettling symbiosis of high musical accomplishment and conservative, authoritarian states of mind. There is a certain kind of musical fanaticism that seems habitually male -- how else to explain that 92 percent of those who read Gramophone, the British record-review journal, are men? On the other hand, the ranks of women classical composers have increased enormously in the past few decades. American orchestral programs in particular are we ll stocked with the music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Barbara Kolb, Joan Tower, and Libby Larsen, to name a few. Most musicologists have taken little notice, though, due to a long-standing unwillingness to engage with the music of living composers and thereb y to run the risk of producing mere journalism.
Higgins's discontent notwithstanding, it is one of McClary's great achievements to break this impasse and to consider the achievements of four living women composers. McClary even goes so far as to look at popular music, concluding Feminine Endings with an encomium to Madonna. Still, having opened the field, she immediately narrows it by imposing strict ideological requirements. Women composers must not reproduce the narratives associated with male composers; therefore, the conventional tonal syste m, with its rapacious tension and release, is out of the question. So are various forms of modernism, which she dismisses as Oedipal counternarratives to tonality. Of her approved quartet of Janika Vandervelde, Laurie Anderson, Diamanda Galas, and Madonna , only Vandervelde can be said to participate in the historical, notational culture of classical music; her Genesis II passes muster only because it tells an explicitly feminist-critical story of gentle, nonteleological "clockwork" music being inte rrupted by violent masculine gestures. But is this, finally, a female narrative that can be distinguished from the male? Or, like almost anything you try in music nowadays, has it already been done? The Unanswered Question of Ives, of all people, f ollows a pattern rather similar to that of Vandervelde's piece. Male composers, having had the field to themselves for so long, have run the gamut of technical possibilities. They have epitomized masculine expression, if one wishes to hear it as such, and they have parodied, inverted, confused, and renounced it.
The possibility of female voices in music lies rather in the emergence of distinct compositional personalities who are women, who make music recognizably their own. All theoretical thrashings aside, male composers have had to pass the same test. And we ar e living in the century in which several such voices have gloriously emerged. I think at once of the music of Ruth Crawford, one of the giants of the early American experimental period. Tick, the author of a forthcoming Crawford biography, notes the rhaps odic, soloistic strain that shines through even her most complex creations. I certainly would not call this a feminine trait -- it can also be found in Scriabin and Berg, who influenced her greatly -- but it is a quality that sets her music apart from, an d far above, most of the postwar Serialist compositions that she is said to have heralded. I also think of Sofia Gubaidulina, the most unfailingly mesmerizing of contemporary composers, who habitually manipulates diverse twentieth-century stylistic altern atives as a pathway toward mystical repose. Her orchestral "counternarratives" -- notably, the violin concerto Offertorium and the Symphony in Twelve Movements -- are comparable with those McClary ascribes to Vandervelde, except that Gubaidu lina is building on her modernist heritage rather than self-consciously critiquing it.
McClary wishes to hail a music in which female (and other) voices ring forth directly and unashamedly. Her bias toward the popular is shared by her husband, Robert Walser, who recently published an extraordinary volume, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan/New England, 1993). Walser celebrates heavy-metal artists as voices who echo the dynamic, virtuosic gestures of classical tradition (Eddie Van Halen's intricate guitar cadenzas, for example) but then open themselves to rituals of "bodily pleasure and communality." McClary goes further than Walser and declares the symphonies of Beethoven to be more violent, bar for bar, than heavy metal is. This is an intense idealization of contemporary popular music that in the end is no different from the ideology of Western tradition that she so decisively rejects. Are we seriously to believe that Axl Rose is innocent of malevolent cultural influence while Ludwig van Beethoven, dead these many years, commits acts t antamount to rape?
AN UNSENTIMENTAL SURVEY of the contemporary pop scene would show instead how little things have changed. Music is still the scene of immense ambiguities. Consider the music and theatrics of (Steven Patrick) Morrissey, formerly of the Eng lish band The Smiths, who has attracted a devoted youth following by cultivating an aura of sexual ambiguity. Describing himself as celibate and yet advertising unmistakable homoerotic urges, Morrissey has discovered the power of the same open secret of h omosexuality that sustained Britten. In an intricate manipulation of formalist aesthetics, Morrissey recently analyzed his song "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" for an MTV interview: "Well, it could be just about a game of chess. But it isn't. S exuality is an old, boring issue. It's tedious. What is it, really? What does it matter?"
The intersection of music and sexuality remains no less congested than the intersection of music and reality itself -- indeed, more so, since we perpetually think we know more about sexuality than we do. To speak of a gendered or sexual expression in musi c -- in the actual fabric of music -- is at once to be too specific and too vague. One wants to shout, à la Mahler: Away with generalities! And yet formalisms of one kind or another will persist, not because any one masculine voice is attempting to overawe the others, but precisely because so many multiplicitous voices are trying to speak the same language. The generalities that will be useful are the neutral, negotiable ones upon which we can agree. Which is why the asexual Absolute remains in for ce.
In a society of proliferating subcultures, classical tradition has been struggling desperately to make itself heard and understood. Lawrence Kramer argues that the new musicology's interdisciplinary methodologies have a role to play in rescuing tradition: "The 'classical' canon, even a canon no longer limited to the works of white males, is sure to become increasingly marginal unless we can link it to our most vital interests. We can no longer do that as formalists at a time when ideologies of unity are c ollapsing and the demands of difference and diversity are rightly being heard on all sides." McClary, I assume, would argue similarly that her readings of Beethoven and Brahms provide a fresh, scintillating approach to composers whose relevance to today's youth is far from clear. But I worry about the habits of listening that McClary's method encourages. It keeps the music at bay, taking note only of a few extreme surface effects -- fortissimi in particular. There is some possible use in comparing Beethov en's heroic mode with John Williams's Indiana Jones music, but the principal burden of an introductory music course should be to establish the vast difference between the two, not to exaggerate the superficial similarities. Feminine Endings is a fa scinating, provocative book, but the news that it has become very popular in introductory classes makes me uneasy.
We must be careful in handling these masterworks of the past, which are so terribly powerful but also so terribly fragile. Ned Rorem famously says that he feels he has suffered less as a homosexual than as an artist (he repeats the statement in an intervi ew reprinted in Queering the Pitch). In a popular culture that tolerates classical music only in maimed fragments (think of the cretinous "Opera Man" sketch on Saturday Night Live, or Hannibal Lecter listening to the Goldberg Variations I> in Silence of the Lambs), Rorem's words ring true. There is value in drawing connections between music and Kramer's "vital interests," but there is also a danger: An explicitly political understanding of music will divide audiences along politic al lines and ultimately narrow music's appeal. One man's vital interest is another woman's trash.
I think people are drawn to classical music not because they expect to find in it a reflection of contemporary social concerns, but because they wish to discover something outside ordinary experience -- something grand and powerful, something remote and b eautiful. Those who have worked in music professionally for a long time must never forget, must never grow bored with that first remarkable instant of discovery, when a young person listening to Beethoven's Eroica or Schubert's Unfinished su ddenly hears it no longer as old people's background music but as a voice from the deep past speaking in the emotional present. It doesn't happen outside music -- not in quite that way.
Alex Ross contributes classical music reviews to The New York Times and Fanfare magazine, and has written for The New Republic and The New Yorker.
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