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Gay days in Old Vienna?

Posted by Richard on UTC 2018-09-30 22:30.

There are some words and phrases in this article which you may prefer not to have to explain to an eight-year-old; the modern teenager will find them unexceptional; sensitive adults may need a cup of camomile tea handy.

No end to it

In 1989 an American musicologist, Maynard Solomon, published 'evidence' that Franz Schubert and an unspecified number of members of the famous 'circles of friends' around the composer were either homosexuals, bisexuals, and or part of a repressed homosexual subculture among young men in Vienna at the time. Solomon had been banging away at this theme since at least 1981, but the 1989 article seems to have caught the big surf Zeitgeist.

The 'evidence' cited in 1989 by Solomon was refuted utterly by the Schubert/Beethoven scholar Rita Steblin in 1993. Solomon's argumentation was based on misunderstandings and mistranslations of German texts, supported by misquotations, highly selective quoting and bizarre conclusions. There were, for example, instances in which Solomon would take a German word such as lustig, translate it as 'gay' and then imply that this 'gay' had the same meaning as the modern usage of 'gay'. Solomon tells us, for example, that in Zseliz, in 1818, Schubert writes of '[a] companion of the count, a gay old fellow'. When Schubert goes on to mention that he has a 'rival', Solomon announces without a blush that:

Schubert's 'rival' is usually read as his competitor for the favors of the chambermaid; but it seems equally likely that it is for those of the count's companion.

[Solomon 200]

Solomon also interprets poor Schubert's unpleasant dose of syphilis, which dogged his life from 1823 onwards, as a further sign of his homosexual leanings, since in Solomon's view the disease was passed around among the friends, many of whom were ill between 1823 and 1825. Many of them also felt it expedient on this account to leave Vienna.

The destruction of Solomon's 'evidence' made no difference. The Schubert-and-friends-were-gay bandwaggon had struck up this tune shortly after Solomon's paper appeared and nothing was going to silence it, not even the demise of the raddled old nag pulling it.

Some commentators respond with an apparently healthy 'so what?', but that response is, in practice, conditional upon the unconditional acceptance of the Schubert-was-gay theory. It also leaves a vacuum which is filled by those who shape their entire view of the composer and his music to the homosexuality theme.

Sissy Schubert

Other commentators regurgitate the 19th-century nonsense about Schubert's music being 'feminine' – particularly in comparison with the music of that big butch Beethoven. Throw in something about Schubert's 'feminine skull' and the twilight zone of biographical interpretation of music has been reached, a place where musicologists and phrenologists are as one. We thought this interpretative spook had been exorcised in the 1950s, but it is apparently still handy when the need arises.

It is true that many of Schubert's piano compositions require soft hands from the performer – but that is a matter of technique, not sexual orientation. Anyone who doubts this should listen to Anne Queffélec and Imogen Cooper machine-gunning their way through his Fantasie in F minor dedicated to Countess Caroline – the strongest men grow pale.

Worse is coming, unfortunately. I have seen recent essays which now modishly pull out the entire gender identity arsenal against poor Schubert. He really had little luck in his life or in his death – and so far the afterlife isn't going too well for the little one either.

I am not going to destroy Solomon's 'evidence' yet again. Steblin did this quite adequately and her counter-arguments have not been refuted. I don't mind thinking up better arguments to counter good arguments, but countering seemingly endless nonsense is extremely boring – for me and for the reader. We can state quite categorically that no documentary evidence has ever been found that Schubert was a homosexual, a bisexual or was even homosexually inclined. The trouble is that no one is listening.

Visiting that foreign country, the past

The fundamental problem with the thesis of homosexuality among Schubert and his friends is that all the pro-arguments presume to apply modern viewpoints to historical contexts. This never works – it simply cannot work. The 18th- and early 19th-century mind worked differently from ours.

We occasionally quote on this website L.P. Hartley's (1895-1972) justly famous opening sentence of his 1953 book The Go-Between: 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there'. At a minimum the traveller needs to pack the right clothes and take a good guidebook – but particularly learn the language and leave the parochial assumptions at home. Solomon backpacked into Biedermeier Vienna as though it were Orange County.

The abstract way of stating this is that reality is socially constructed. Our reality contains all the artefacts of our shared culture. A large proportion of those artefacts consists of the language that we use and the words and their shared meanings that the language contains. That whole cultural superstructure rests on the base of technological and economic change. One cannot apply 'now' to 'then'.

We might read a Jane Austen novel very slowly and with a substantial amount of careful reflection, and imagine that we understand it. We almost certainly don't, not fully – the nuances are all lost to us. The specialist historian of that period may have a deep understanding of the property and class relationships of the time, but could never hope to approach the nuanced understanding of Austen's contemporary readership. The modern reader 'gets' Mr Collins – to use the modern argot – at least in some measure; the readers of the early 19th century 'got' him completely – they had probably known a dozen like him.

The situation for Jane Austen would be much worse if by some magical time travel she were to be confronted with the astonishing range of modern writing and genres: she would be completely baffled. We don't have to travel back across centuries in order to come up against this problem. Putting it rather pretentiously: the social and cultural reality in which we live is already markedly different to that of the time when I went to school – and massively different to Schubert's time in the first quarter of the 19th century.

If I write the word 'homosexual' now, whether as adjective or noun, the reader infers that I mean a particular personality type or a person with that personality type. Some readers may also infer from my use of this word that I may have a hostile attitude to homosexuality, having chosen not to use one of the friendlier, self-defined words such as 'gay'. This is not the case – I am just trying to use terminology that is as neutral as possible.

All this inferring is a social phenomenon that is embedded in the modern age we are living in. Sixty years ago 'gay' meant something akin to 'jolly'; I can't remember ever hearing or using the word 'homosexuality'; 'gender' was an incomprehensible and terrifying, exam-losing aspect of foreign languages. 'Homosexual' was an adjective applied to acts of darkness performed by foreign men – unmanly 'men' who would have been quite incapable of keeping an English Rose happy.

Solomon's paper would have been completely incomprehensible to the boys' school me of the 1950s, because he is using the mental constructs from the USA of the late 1980s. Heaven knows what the thorny English Roses of the nearby girls' school would have made of it.

There can be no doubt that Schubert and his friends would be even more baffled by such a dose of modern reality construction than the 1950s schoolboy. For them there was no 'homosexuality' or personality type 'homosexual' – the words and the concepts we moderns attach to them simply did not exist. There were words and phrases for acts that we might now classify as characteristically 'homosexual', but these always related to socially disapproved acts and not some personality type.

This is a huge topic, so I am going to attempt just three aspects of it: the historical changes in the language and conception of homosexuality in the German speaking countries; a case study of sodomite taunting; the innocence of Biedermeier behaviour and the associated language of joy.

My insouciantly wielded broad brush will only serve to irritate our more fastidious readers, but if you want precision there are plenty of young doctoral students around these days who could pick up my balls and run with them.


Chapters


Sources

All sources are in German, unless otherwise noted. All translations ©FoS.

Dok Deutsch, Otto Erich, ed. Schubert: Die Dokumente Seines Lebens. Erw. Nachdruck der 2. Aufl. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1996. [DE]
Dürhammer Dürhammer, Ilija. Schuberts literarische Heimat: Dichtung und Literatur-Rezeption der Schubert-Freunde, Wien, Böhlau Verlag, 1999.
Heine Heine, Heinrich. Reisebilder. Dritter Theil. Die Bäder von Lukka, Capitel XI, 1830.
Solomon Solomon, Maynard. 'Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini' in 19th-Century Music, vol. 12, no. 3, 1989, p. 193-206. [EN]
Steblin Steblin, Rita. 'The Peacock's Tale: Schubert's Sexuality Reconsidered' in 19th Century Music, vol. 17 no. 1, 1993, p. 5–33. [EN]