The creative arts-theatre, dance, literature, painting-have certainly had a rich and varied history of queer contributors, and classical music is no exception.
Leonard Bernstein either worked closely with, or performed the compositions of, all of the following gay musicians.
While there is no doubt about the sexuality of some of these great men of music, they were out to varying degrees-and it is still not certain Schubert was gay. In any case…
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
While personally disliking Barber as a man (he felt Barber was too conservative musically and too sexually flamboyant), Bernstein often performed his music with the New York Philharmonic.
Barber was a neo-Romantic but also peppered his music with contemporary, dissonant touches.
His most famous piece is Adagio for Strings, which was broadcast on radio after the announcement of Franklin D Roosevelt’s death and is routinely used now for sad occasions.
Also recommended: Violin Concerto (Bernstein conducting with Isaac Stern, soloist, on Sony is excellent), and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a beautiful piece for chamber orchestra and soprano.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
The son of immigrant Jewish parents from Poland and Lithuania, Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York.
A true musical pioneer, he has become one of the most famous and influential of all serious North American composers. He used everything from jazz, pop, old western songs, 12-tone and latin rhythms as source material.
Everyone has heard his Fanfare for the Common Man, music from the ballet Rodeo (“Hoedown”) has been used in commercials, and he scored many films including The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men.
Also recommended: Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, El Salon Mexico and the Third Symphony. Recordings conducted by Bernstein or Copland are particularly good.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Unfortunately he lived in a time not very kind to homosexuality. He suffered from depression, married a woman to try to live the straight life and was quite tormented by his sexuality.
He also wrote some of the most glorious music ever, and along with Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, is a name known even to those who hate classical music. He wrote lush, melodic music with daring (for its time) harmonies.
As romantic as a Hallmark card, Tchaikovsky is the composer of the famous Romeo and Juliet love scene music used mostly now to poke fun at star-crossed lovers in countless cartoons and TV shows. And, of course, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
But for the best (and most tragic and profound) Tchaikovsky, go to the symphonies, particularly the Fourth, Fifth and his last, the Sixth (“Pathetique”). His concertos for violin and piano are also fantastic. Bernstein did a great job with this stuff, as it suited his mercurial, over-the-top sensibilities.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Certainly not a household name, but he belonged to a group of influential French composers named Les Six (along with Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric and others).
He was born in Paris to a wealthy family. His biggest contribution is to the French art song; he also wrote exquisite choral music (Gloria) and charming solo piano music including Trois mouvements perpetuels and Eight Nocturnes.
His early music is witty and rather light but after a close friend died in the ’30s, his music became darker. Poulenc’s masters were Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky. He despised both Beethoven and Wagner.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
While the jury is still out on whether Schubert was gay, there certainly has been tons of speculation about this “wanderer” and “eternal bachelor” who died at age 31 of syphilis. Canadian queer Sky Gilbert even wrote the play Schubert Lied in 1998 to up the ante. Gay or not, this Austrian wrote hundreds of songs, quartets, sonatas and impromptus that continue to live on through recitals, concerts and music teachers. He died penniless, never achieving fame during his lifetime. Recommended: Trout Quintet, “Wanderer” Fantasy, Symphony No 9 (“The Great”), Death and the Maiden quartet and the sublime Sonata in B Flat.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Born in Paris, he was a child prodigy who bragged he had the ability to “produce music as an apple tree produces apples.”
Incredibly intelligent, he was also an astronomer, amateur archeologist, linguist, and was interested in the occult.
His musical output was quite large and includes operas (Samson et Delilah), five piano concertos (No 2 is the best), five symphonies, songs, cello and violin concertos and shorter pieces such as Introduction and Rondo capriccioso.
He is probably best known for the children’s piece Carnival of the Animals. One critic has described his music as “bad music which is very well-written.”