The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American
Music, and National Identity, by Nadine Hubbs. Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 2004. [293p. ISBN: 0520241843, $50.00 (hardcover).]
The intersection of American musical idioms and queer identification
provides an uncommonly rich area for study, as is evident in The
Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music,
and National Identity by Nadine Hubbs. This is the first book to place
queerness centrally within the account of American musical life of
the twentieth century, following numerous other studies that discuss
the issue peripherally, or, more often than not, ignore it altogether.
- Hubbs has traced a circuitous path to what is her first published
book. Following her 1990 dissertation on alternatives to organicist
approaches to composition—including minimalism, indeterminacy,
and moment-form—and the influence of non-Western aesthetic models,
she has published essays on the sexual politics of Morrissey’s
music, pop-rock criticism, queer codes in disco, and lesbian-gay engagement
in classical music and opera. This previous research serves her well
here, inflecting her current study in terms of philosophical—and
at times musical—approach.
- The past decade has witnessed a burgeoning interest on the part of
scholars in exploring queer identity in their subjects, most notably:
Philip Brett, Gary Thomas, and Elizabeth Wood’s Queering the
Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (Routledge, 1994); Howard
Pollack’s work on Copland; David Metzer’s essays on Copland
and Blitzstein; and Anthony Tommasini’s biography of Thomson.
Hubbs’s book goes beyond these efforts, however. She perceptively
analyzes how Copland, Thomson, and the circle of composers associated
with them formed identities—both individually and collectively—vis-à-vis
American modernism and queer culture. A continuous thread throughout
the book is the complex relationship between music and homosexuality.
Hubbs also speaks to the reception of perceived queerness on the part
of critics, listeners, and other composers. Finally, Hubbs addresses
fundamental, sweeping implications, asking how this circle of gay composers
became the “architects of [America’s] national identity.”1
- The background to Hubbs’s subject involves the growing hostility
in the 1920s and 30s on the part of some radical modernists, prompted
by deep-seated anxiety revolving around modernism and gender ideology.
Virility and male sexuality became equated with modernist creative
force. Irving Weill wrote in a 1929 article for Modern Music that “one
begins to sense a distinctively American quality in some of the American
music that has been written recently. One senses in it a distinguishing
virility—the virility with which it so constantly seeks to express
its ideas and its feelings.”2 A distinct binary emerged, in which
the more traditional, tonal aesthetic became identified with emotions,
femininity, and mass culture, while experimental modernism, serialism,
and atonality were associated with masculinity, “brain music,” and
elite culture. Modernist critic, Paul Rosenfeld, for instance, attacked
Edward MacDowell’s thoroughly tonal and traditional music for
its sentimentality, and wrote that MacDowell himself “minces
and simpers, maidenly and ruffled. He is nothing if not a daughter
of the American Revolution.”3
- Hubbs builds on recent scholarship that has added the dimension of sexuality
to the dichotomy between experimentalism and the tonal tradition. K.
Robert Schwarz argues that “macho modernists” of the 1920s
and 30s felt threatened by the homosexuality of other composers, referring
to a letter to Carl Ruggles from Edgard Varèse, in which Varèse “suggested
in especially vicious terms that some nefarious gay cabal controlled
the new-music world.”4
the straight composers took what Susan McClary has called the “moral
high ground of modernism”5—“high ground” being
equated with avant-garde, experimental, and “ultra”-modernism—composers
such as Copland, Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein,
and Marc Blitzstein were achieving tremendous popular success in the
concert hall, writing what Schwartz calls the “tonal, lyrical,
more conservative music America wanted to hear.”6 Composer David
Diamond recalled: “The resentment was quite strong, especially
among people who wrote very difficult music... They simply felt that
homosexual and bisexual composers were the most successful, and they
were plainly jealous.”7 Hubbs propels the issue forward into the
1950s and 60s, exploring the links between anti-homosexuality and anti-communist
ideologies. The “homosexual-conspiracy theories” of the
Cold War-era were to have a “profound impact on the fate of American
- Though admittedly beyond the
scope of her current study, one of Hubbs’s
more tantalizing side notes is the Jewish identity of many of the composers
under discussion, particularly those composers influenced by jazz.
Henry Cowell, like countless other critics of the time, regarded jazz
as “Negro music seen through the eyes of Jews.”8 Hubbs points
out that in pre-1945 America, Jewish was viewed as non-white, or at
least off-white. Her point would be strengthened by reference to the
frequent associations in the 1930s between blacks and Jews in left-wing
politics. Many of Hubbs’s subjects had leftist political tendencies,
if only briefly. Paul Bowles, for instance, was drawn to African American
music and themes, associating them with his own political beliefs.
His unfinished opera, Denmark Vesey, based on an infamous 1822 slave
uprising in South Carolina, is replete with Marxist imagery and influences.9
- Hubbs focuses on a more erotic fascination with blackness in a chapter
on Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s collaboration on Four
Saints in Three Acts. In her discussion of Thomson and his circle of
friends—including artist and writer Carl Van Vechten, and Four
Saints scenarist and painter, as well as Thomson’s life partner,
Maurice Grosser—she refers to their habit of seeking sexual freedom
in Harlem. Their ideas of a queer sexual freedom were projected onto
the black bodies of the performers, with the black body standing in,
symbolically, for a different kind of “otherness.”
- This fascination with the black body is clearly illustrated by a
photo of Four Saints’ dance master Frederick Ashton with three
of the black dancers from the original cast: Maxwell Baird, Floyd Miller,
and Billie Smith (32). In the photo, Ashton is the only one standing
in an upright position. He is attired in a formal suite and tie. His
hands caress the neck and shoulders of the black dancers, who recline
nude, seemingly awaiting his instructions.
This scene illustrates more than a mere fascination or identification
with the black body. There is an obvious power dynamic at work that
Hubbs does not explore. The white male dance master—his title
already significant in terms of power—exerts dominance and intellectual
superiority by his upright position and formal attire. By establishing
dominance over a more obvious “other,” he asserts his own
normality in a metaphoric minstrelsy.10
Click to enlarge
- Identification with the black body as “other” was only
one of many expressions of queerness in Four Saints. Hubbs explores
every aspect of the opera, its performance, and its reception, painstakingly
drawing out meanings and cultural attitudes heretofore unexpressed
and unanalyzed. She skillfully critiques Stein’s text as “queer
abstraction,” focusing on the evasion of identity and conventional
meaning, and the queer expressive potential of such evasion.
- Hubbs’s insightful analyses of selected musical moments are
a welcome inclusion in her discussion of the opera. Thomson’s
musical setting is a pastiche of musical idioms and influences, including
Anglican chant, baroque opera, the lyricism of Puccini, Protestant
hymnody, and nineteenth-century American popular song. Much of it exhibits
a gorgeousness that Hubbs equates with queer eroticism (33).
The skillful manipulations of musical-rhetorical conventions are designed to push
listeners’ emotional buttons and then leave them hanging. In
contrast, the two passages suggesting a sexual or romantic scene are
devoid of emotional contrivance, presenting, instead, a static, repetitive
neutrality. See Example 1, in which Saint Theresa’s purported
sexual ecstasy culminates on the line, “Having happily had it
with a spoon” (35).
Example 1: Click to enlarge
- Hubbs’s astute and perceptive discussion of the performance
and reception of Four Saints addresses the idea of the work as significant
nonsense, where “getting it” signified homosexuality or
queer identification. She notes that audience members, as well as collaborators
on the project—Grosser, Ashton, and set and costume designer,
Florine Stettheimer—interpreted the libretto in autobiographical
terms. Van Vechten echoed this idea, albeit in a homo-protective commentary.
- Olin Downes,
prominent music critic for the New York Times, “got
it” too, but did not approve. The work was “far from an
innocent or naïve creation,” Downes wrote, presenting rather “a
specimen of an affected and decadent phase of the literature of the
whites.”11 More might be made of Downes’s comments within
the context of his anti-Neoclassicism diatribes as a whole. He frequently
applied terms such as “decadent,” “unfertile,” and “degenerate” to
Stravinsky’s later works. L’Histoire du soldat was “a
degenerate and eviscerated product.”12 Prokofiev’s second
piano concerto lacked “fertility.”13 Without mentioning names,
Downes bewailed the “neo-classicism of the bright boys”—the
assimilation of “dilletantism” and “sterile and escapist
affectations” by a number of young American composers “whose
instincts should serve them better.”14 His—and other’s—peculiarly
gendered-language begs further inquiry and commentary.
- Perhaps the most significant,
and sweeping, assertion in Hubbs’s
study is the equating of queerness with national identity, with Copland
as the “father” and Thomson as the “mother” of
American music. Hubbs convincingly argues that queerness and national
identity are not mutually exclusive, but rather function symbiotically.
Absent from her discussion of this topic is the long-standing—though
often subvert—archetype of the queer cowboy. This archetype becomes
particularly relevant in the case of Copland, with his “sound
of the American prairie” in works like Billy the Kid (1938) and
Rodeo (1942). In Queer Cowboys and Other Erotic Male Friendships in
Nineteenth-Century American Literature (2005), Chris Packard shows
that nineteenth-century fiction, photographs, illustrations, and song
lyrics clearly depict the sometimes erotic, often intimate camaraderie
which were key aspects of western life.15 The archetype crossed over
onto the popular concert stage with the advent of The Village People
in 1977. And Ang Lee’s recent film Brokeback Mountain, a love
story about the secret relationship between two cowboys, is only the
latest, most explicit, in a long line of screen depictions of the psychosexual
tensions of cowboy life, including such films as The Outlaw (1943)
and Red River (1948).16
- Hubbs posits that her discussion of queerness and national identity
challenges conventional wisdom separating the two, and she convincingly
argues their intersection. Perhaps she could consider a slightly altered
premise—that the mythologized “west” has never been
the heterocentric domain it is assumed to have been. What’s more,
the myth itself—as presented in film, television, and popular
fiction—has often embraced a more fluid definition of sexuality.
The shortcomings of Hubbs’s study tend to fall along the area
delineated above: One is left wanting more, particularly since Hubbs’s
content is so perceptive, intriguing, and valuable. Certain topics
beg to be explored more broadly: the queer cowboy archetype mentioned
above, Jewish identity and its intersections with American-ness and
modernism, and Nadia Boulanger’s sexual identity and its possible
impact on the Copland/Thomson circle, an issue that seems crucial to
our understanding of this circle’s queer lineage. This present
study is a bit on the short side, with the narrative text coming in
at less than two hundred pages. Perhaps a small extension of the length
would allow for development of these intriguing issues, ones which
Hubbs is uniquely equipped to explore.
- The positive aspects and contributions far outweigh the book’s
shortcomings, however. Hubbs’s work enriches and complicates
our understanding of the symbiotic relationship between gay artists
and American culture—how gay composers produced that culture,
yet simultaneously reflected it. In a clearly and sensitively laid
out account, Hubbs engages the reader while breaking important new
ground. She synthesizes the most innovative, forward-looking critiques
on gender, modernism, and cultural identities as expounded by scholars
such as Susan McClary, Catherine Parsons Smith, Judith Tick, and Carol
Oja. In the end, she more than achieves her objective: to show how
a group of gay, urban, composers came to symbolize and shape American
Melissa de Graaf
University of Miami
1. Nadine Hubbs, The
Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American
Music, and National Identity
(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 4.
2. Irving Weill, “The American
Scene Changes,” Modern Music 6/4 (1929): 3–9, quoted in Catherine Parsons Smith,
“‘A Distinguishing Virility’: Feminism and Modernism in American Art music,” in
Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, eds. Susan C.
Cook and Judy S. Tsou (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 94.
3. Paul Rosenfeld, An
Hour With American Music (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1929), 46.
4. K. Robert Schwarz, “Composers’ Closets:
Open for All to See,” New York Times (19 Jun 1994): H24.
8. Quoted in Hubbs, 85.
9. See Melissa J. de Graaf, “Romantic
Savage: Representations of Race in Paul Bowles’s Denmark Vesey,” in Operatic
Blackness: Representing Sound and Image on Stage, eds. Naomi André,
Karen Bryan, and Eric Saylor (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
10. “Metaphoric minstrelsy” was not an uncommon
technique among marginalized groups. This type of affirmation of westernness, or whiteness,
is analogous to Irish American immigrants’ attempts to establish and confirm whiteness by
“performing blackness” via blackface minstrelsy. By exerting a similar type of power by
appropriation, they distinguished themselves from a racially and socially “inferior” group.
See David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working
Class (New York: Verso, 1991), as quoted in Ronald Radano, “Introduction: Music and Race,
Their Past, Their Presence,” in Music and the Racial Imagination, eds. Ronald Radano
and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 20. Another example is Helen
Tamiris’s all-white, female, Jewish dance troupe who, in 1937, performed the Broadway hit, How
Long Bretheren, accompanied by the all-black Negro Art Singers. For a discussion of the performances
and their reception, see Susan Manning, “Black Voices, White Bodies: The Performance of Race and
Gender in How Long Bretheren,” American Quarterly 50/1 (March 1998): 24–46.
11. Quoted in Hubbs, 20–21.
12. Olin Downes, Olin Downes on Music: A Selection from
His Writings during the Half-Century 1906 to 1955, ed. Irene Downes (New York: Simon and Schuster,
13. Ibid., 158.
14. Olin Downes, “Neo-Classicism: Questions of True Meaning of
this Style—Prokofieff’s Position,” New York Times (8 Feb 1942): X7.
15. Chris Packard, Queer Cowboys and Other Erotic Male
Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
16. Other films portraying the encrypted western-style homoeroticism
include The Big Sky (1952), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys
(1969). See Robert Lang, Masculine Interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood Films (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2002) and Mark Finch, “Rio Limpo: ‘Lonesome Cowboys’ and Gay Cinema,” in Andy Warhol Film Factory,
ed. Michael O’Pray (London: BFI Publications, 1989). There is also an intriguing connection between Jewish identity
and the cowboy persona, as exemplified in American musical theater. See Andrea Most, Making Americans: Jews and
the Broadway Musical (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
de Graaf, Melissa J. “Romantic Savage: Representations of Race in
Paul Bowles’s Denmark Vesey.” In Operatic Blackness: Representing
Sound and Image on Stage. Eds. Naomi André, Karen Bryan, and Eric
Saylor. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
Downes, Olin. “Neo-Classicism: Questions of True Meaning of this Style—Prokofieff’s
Position.” New York Times (8 Feb 1942). X7.
Olin Downes on Music: A Selection from His Writings during the Half-Century
1906 to 1955. Ed. Irene Downes. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.
Finch, Mark. “Rio Limpo: ‘Lonesome Cowboys’ and Gay
Cinema.” In Andy Warhol Film Factory. Ed. Michael O’Pray. London:
BFI Publications, 1989.
Lang, Robert. Masculine Interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood Films. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2002.
Manning, Susan. “Black Voices, White Bodies: The Performance of Race
and Gender in How Long Bretheren.” American Quarterly 50/1 (March 1998). 24-46.
Most, Andrea. Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Packard, Chris. Queer Cowboys and Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century
American Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Radano, Ronald. “Introduction: Music and Race, Their Past, Their Presence.” In
Music and the Racial Imagination. Eds. Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American
Working Class. New York: Verso, 1991.
Rosenfeld, Paul. An Hour With American Music. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1929.
Schwarz, K. Robert. “Composers’ Closets: Open for All to See.” New
York Times (19 Jun 1994). H24.
Smith, Catherine Parsons. “‘A Distinguishing Virility’:
Feminism and Modernism in American Art music.” In Cecilia Reclaimed:
Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music. Eds. Susan C. Cook and Judy S.
Tsou. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Weill, Irving. “The American Scene Changes.” Modern Music 6/4 (1929). 3-9.