June is Pride month and we thought this was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate some of the amazing LGBTQ+ composers of classical music!
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
After dancing with King Louis XIV in 1653’s Ballet royal de la nuit, Jean-Baptiste Lully was appointed the court’s royal composer, kick starting a very charmed career. The operatic composer and violinist dominated French opera in the 17th century. However, Lully’s lack of discretion contributed to his ultimate downfall. The King could not turn a blind eye to Lully’s brazen liaisons with both men and women. Lully’s affair with a certain handsome music page named Brunet eventually leaked to the general public. The fact he literally sang about it in the streets of Paris might have had something to do with it. Lully died relatively young, succumbing to a fatal infection from a wound on his foot, inflicted by his own conducting stick. By this time Lully had fallen out of the King’s favour.
Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759)
Where would classical music be without Handel’s choral and operatic compositions – from Messiah, to his operas Rinaldo and Agrippina – not to mention his orchestral, chamber and instrumental works? Handel was an intensely private man, and never married. When King George II himself inquired about the composer’s love life, Handel dismissed him by insisting he had no time for anything but music. However, we do know that Handel socialized in circles in which homosexuality was an open secret, from the Italian and German courts to his artistic circles in London. Handel expert Dr. Ellen Harris wrote about his private life in Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, which explores themes of sexuality in his works and remains the authoritative book on the subject.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Like many gay men during this time, marriage was a convenient way to hide their true selves. In 1875, a 40-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns surprised friends and family when he hastily married Marie-Laure Truffot, the sister of one of his pupils. The marriage was not a happy one. After the deaths of their two young children, Saint-Saëns walked out on Truffot and never remarried. Despite this painful chapter in his life, he remained social and outgoing, hosting lavish parties—where he supposedly liked to perform in drag.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Born in Votkinsk, a small town in the Russian Empire, Tchaikovsky began composition lessons with Anton Rubinstein in 1861. His great works include his ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, and of course his mega hit, the 1812 Overture. Though the composer wrote about his sexuality at length in his letters to his brother Modest (also gay), Tchaikovsky’s immense fame and the fact it was illegal in Russia to be gay, prevented him from living openly with a male partner. In order to stop people gossiping about his love life, he too entered into what would be a disastrous marriage to one Antonina Miliukova. In fact he was so unhappy he attempted suicide. Perhaps the closest Tchaikovsky came to publicly revealing his orientation was with his Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique. He dedicated the work to his lover Vladimir Davydov (who also happened to be his nephew). Tragically, Tchaikovsky’s life was cut short by cholera in 1893.
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Ethel Smyth was a prolific composer and an active member of the women’s suffrage movement. Born in South-East London, Smyth studied at the Leipzig Conservatory where she met composers like Edvard Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Her best known works are the opera The Wreckers and her Mass in D. Smyth’s 1911 song, ‘The March of the Women’, was dedicated to movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst – documented to have been a lover of Smyth’s. It became the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union and women’s suffrage activism around the world. Unlike the male composers before her, she made no secret of her relationships with women. When Smyth was 71 years old, she met and fell in love with Virginia Woolf (who would have been in her 40s at the time). Smyth once wrote to her friend, librettist Henry Bennet Brewster, “I wonder why it is so much easier for me to love my own sex passionately than yours. I can’t make it out for I am a very healthy-minded person.”
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
As well as being one of the first openly gay composers, Francis Poulenc was a lifelong Catholic. The composer of a large catalogue of religious music, Poulenc’s compositions spanned everything from intimate chamber sonatas and delicate impressionist harmonies, to his Piano Concerto and epic one-act opera for soprano and orchestra, La voix humaine. Although he fathered a daughter, Poulenc’s longest romantic relationships were with men. In fact he left behind more information about his gay relationships than his heterosexual ones. A copy of his Concert champêtre bears the following inscription to his then-partner Richard Chanlaire: “You have changed my life, you are the sunshine of my thirty years, a reason for living and for working.”
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Although he never spoke on the subject, Aaron Copland never really hid his sexuality or his relationships either. Most of which were with talented young men who ran in his cultural circle. Nor did his homosexuality interfere with his success as a composer, although it may have contributed to his blacklisting during the McCarthy era in the US. At one point, Leonard Bernstein pressured his mentor and friend to publicly come out. Copland wryly responded, “I think I’ll leave that to you, boy.”
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Samuel Barber made no effort to keep his homosexuality out of explicit view. His life partner was composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who he studied with at the Curtis Institute. It was a long and beautiful partnership. Menotti provided libretti for Barber’s operas Vanessa and A Hand of Bridge, and between them, the men would win four Pulitzer Prizes. They would be together for nearly thirty years in a house they called Capricorn (also the name of Barber’s concerto for oboe, trumpet, flute, and strings). Later in life, their relationship ended, contributing to Barber’s eventual creative drought and depression. Barber’s Adagio for Strings was one of the first works by an American composer to be championed by the great Arturo Toscanini, and featured famously in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Platoon.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Edward Benjamin Britten is one of the finest composers of English operas, choral works, and songs, many of which he wrote for his life partner, tenor Sir Peter Pears. Britten was introduced to Pears through a mutual friend. When that friend died in a plane crash in 1937, both men volunteered to help move his possessions. That project would be the first of many between the two, marking the beginning of a professional and personal relationship that would last more than 40 years. Pears became the foremost interpreter and champion of Britten’s vocal music. Of their relationship, Pears’ niece, Sue Phipps, said: “They made a conscious decision to neither flout it nor ignore it.”
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Leonard Bernstein also studied at the Curtis Institute with Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. Knowing that conservative orchestra boards would never tolerate having an openly gay music director, in 1951 Bernstein married Chilean stage and television actress Felicia Montealegre. Though he adored his wife and children—and was devastated by Felicia’s death in 1978—he carried on a string of affairs with men that only became less discreet as he grew older. Bernstein’s West Side Story collaborator Arthur Laurents put it simply: “He was a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”
Jennifer Higdon (1962 – )
A professor at the Curtis Institute of Music, Jennifer Higdon is recognized as one of the classical world’s most celebrated contemporary composers. She won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and a 2009 Grammy Award for her Percussion Concerto. Her first opera, Cold Mountain, received its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in August 2015. She married long time partner Cheryl Lawson in August 2014, whom she met in band class in high school. Conductor Marin Alsop officiated their wedding.
Nico Muhly (1981 – )
Nico Muhly is a genre-bending composer whose 2015 opera, Sentences, centres on the life of Alan Turing, who cracked the German Enigma code during the second world war but was later prosecuted for homosexuality. Muhly, however, made it clear he had no intention of making the connection between the fact he is a troubled gay composer writing about the life of a troubled gay mathematician. “No one wants a gay martyr oratorio,” says the composer. “Like, I already did that, it’s so 2011– like a chunky heel.” His 2011 opera Two Boys explores the world of online relationships and chatrooms, and was billed as “a cautionary tale of the dark side of the internet.”