Was Schubert Gay?

February 21, 1992

Franz Schubert was one of the great classic composers whose music remains much-beloved. One researcher now suggests that he also may have been a homosexual. Does this matter as we appreciate his "Unfinished Symphony"? Should it?

Susan McClary, a feminist musicologist at the University of Minnesota, raises that question in her recent book, "Feminine Endings." She argues that Schubert's sexual orientation can be traced note for note in the structure of his symphonies, chamber music and songs.

This is a dubious enterprise, not only because it reduces great works of art to the one-dimensionality of a political tract but also because it invites invidious comparisons between the content of an artist's work and his or her life.

Recently, for example, the Israel Philharmonic ignited a political firestorm over planned performances of works by Richard Wagner, whose virulent anti-Semitism was a precursor of Hitler's racist extremism. Wagner's art and abhorrent racial theories are so closely associated in the minds of many Israelis that they simply cannot abide his music. No one should presume to tell them they ought to separate Wagner the man from Wagner the composer. On the other hand, no one, to our knowledge, opposed Wagner on the grounds his anti-Semitism resided in the literal notes he composed.

Yet Ms. McClary's theory seems to imply that if one can read in the music notes that Schubert was gay, one can also deduce that Mendelssohn and Mahler, for example, were Jewish simply by examining their scores. Certainly the Nazis thought so, for they banned both composers.

Ms. McClary's approach runs the risk of unlatching a similar Pandora's box even though, ironically, she is a feminist anti-gay-basher who obviously has benefited from the multi-cultural trend in academia that embraces cultural, racial and gender diversity. The positive aspect of multi-culturalism is that it has broken the tradition of white male hegemony in the study of art and culture. The negative aspect is that it has made this breakthrough only by relentlessly pinning new cultural, racial and gender labels on those whom it studies.

As one uneasy observer at a recent seminar asked only half in jest: If Schubert's homosexuality can be read in his music, does the music also reveal that the composer was short and fat?

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