Wednesday, May 04, 2011

On Hearing Sexual Overtones

"Constructions of Subjectivity in Franz Schubert's Music" first appeared as a paper delivered at the American Musicological Society in 1990 and then in a revised version as a symposium presentation during the 1992 Schubertiade Festival in New York City. At the time McClary was influenced by Maynard Solomon's allegations of Schubert's homosexuality in his 1989 paper "Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini." McClary's paper explored the relevance of Solomon's research to what she termed the uninhibited, "hedonistic" luxuriance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. The symposium paper elicited in some mild controversy.  Following evidence that Solomon's conclusions may have been flawed and largely based on his own psychoanalytic reading of a dream narrative Schubert set down in 1822, McClary revised the paper again. Its definitive version was printed in the 1994 edition of the book Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, Gary Thomas.


According to McClary, Schubert, in the second movement of his Unfinished Symphony, forgoes the usual narrative of the sonata form by "wandering" from one key area to another in a manner which does not consolidate the tonic, but without causing its violent reaffirmation:

"What is remarkable about this movement is that Schubert conceives of and executes a musical narrative that does not enact the more standard model in which a self strives to define identity through the consolidation of ego boundaries . . . in a Beethovian world such a passage would sound vulnerable, its tonal identity not safely anchored; and its ambiguity would probably precipitate a crisis, thereby justifying the violence needed to put things right again."

While maintaining that attempting to read Schubert's sexuality from his music would be essentialism, she proposes that it may be possible to notice intentional ways in which Schubert composed in order to express his "difference" as a part of himself at a time when "the self" was becoming prominent in the arts. Schubert's music and often the man himself and the subjectivity he presented have been criticized as effeminate, especially in comparison to Beethoven, the model and aggressive master of the sonata form (Sir George Grove, after Schumann: "compared with Beethoven, Schubert is as a woman to a man"; Carl Dahlhaus: "weak" and "involuntary").  However, McClary notes:

"what is at issue is not Schubert's deviance from a "straight" norm, but rather his particular constructions of subjectivity, especially as they contrast with many of those posed by his peers."

Some of the ideas about composition as subjective narrative proposed in "Constructions" were developed by McClary in her 1997 article, "The Impromptu that trod on a loaf", which applies this analysis to Schubert's Impromptu Op. 90, Number 2. "Constructions of Subjectivity in Franz Schubert's Music" and the ideas in it continue to be discussed, sometimes critically.  However, the article influenced a number of queer theorists,  and in 2003 was described by the musicologist, Lawrence Kramer, as still an important paper in the field.  The paper, and the reactions to it are also discussed in Mark Lindsey Mitchell's Virtuosi: A Defense and a (sometimes Erotic) Celebration of Great Pianists.

1 comment:

Gary Freedman said...

"Although Freedman may have honestly believed that everything that happened to him had sexual overtones, the nature of the evidence precludes a finding that the Department’s contrary conclusion was in any way arbitrary or capricious." Brief of Appellee District of Columbia, Freedman v. D.C. Dept. Human Rights, D.C.C.A. no. 96-CV-96 (Sept. 1, 1998).

I hear sexual overtones in the music of Franz Schubert. I continue to be mentally ill and disabled under the criteria established by the District of Columbia.