Review | The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity, by Nadine Hubbs

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).] By Melissa de Graaf

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

While 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 art” (159).

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.

Click to enlargeThis 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

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). Example 1: Click to enlargeThe 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).

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) andRodeo (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 musical life.

Melissa de Graaf
University of Miami


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.


  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.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  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, 1957), 143.
  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).