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Inside the Music

Pride Q&A with Musicologist Nadine Hubbs

A portrait of Nadine Hubbs, wearing a blue patterned button-up shirt against a blue backdrop.
Nadine Hubbs

On June 20-22, Thomas Søndergård and the Minnesota Orchestra present a series of season finale concerts (which you can attend with Choose Your Price tickets beginning at just $5). The program is close to Thomas’ heart, as it celebrates the rich contributions of LGBTQ+ composers Dame Ethel Smyth, Francis Poulenc and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky to history through their music.

Prior to the concerts on Thursday, June 20, and Friday June 21, Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Music Nadine Hubbs from the University of Michigan will present a free pre-concert lecture in the Target Atrium titled “How Gay Composers Created America’s Sound during the Most Homophobic Period in U.S. History.

In preparation for her lecture, she sat down with us to talk all things Pride, from its important historical beginnings and the significance of recognizing and honoring Queerness in classical music. 

As a music historian, what’s the significance of an American orchestra hosting a Pride concert in 2024? 

One point of significance I’m seeing in a 2024 Pride concert is how we’ve now lived with Pride for 50 years, since it started in 1970, the year after the Stonewall Revolt. This year in particular, I’m getting more invitations to Pride talks as a musicologist than any other year. Some of these have been in connection with my work on these classical composers—Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson and Leonard Bernstein and the other four I covered in my first book, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound. But it’s really interesting to me, especially in relation to [that] first book which will be 20-years-old later this year, that the classical music world is really now responding to that book.

You know, Minneapolis [and] St. Paul have a long reputation as a liberal, progressive community. The significance I see as a musicologist in [the Minnesota Orchestra] doing a Pride Concert: first of all, you have a new music director who is not just a gay man—we’ve seen them for some 80 years—but an out gay man who can celebrate Pride with his orchestra and for the Twin Cities audience. So that’s a new sort of watermark.

Tchaikovsky, Poulenc—Copland for that fact. These composers are well-known in concert halls across the world. Why is it important to frame these artists as Queer, and how might we hear these artists differently as a result? 

First of all, let me say how we will not hear them differently. In the early days of Queer musicology, there were some people who thought you could hear some essential difference in the music of a gay composer versus a straight composer. I never thought that or pursued it and I don’t believe it.

But in American classical musicit's true in European classical music as well: it's been very importantly shaped by Queer people as creators, composers, artists, instrumentalists and singers. So classical music has long been a hotbed of Queer activity.

In the 20th century, in the United States, classical music was a refuge for Queer people. And that’s true of musicians and audiences alike. Music is not typically representing imagery or words, though it can have texts, so it was a safe space for expression and venting feelings that in the 20th century were forbidden and criminalized and dangerous. So, it gave vent to deep expression for queer listeners and performers and even felt like a direct route to the soul. But they couldn’t arrest you for that expression. 

To be a homosexual in the 20th century was something that you thought about every waking moment.

And how can we not frame 20th century, or 19th century artists who were Queer if we want to know anything at all about who they were and the conditions under which they created?

Another reason it’s important to frame these great artists as Queer is, of course, to acknowledge and understand the great art—the beautiful music—that all of us got as a gift from these Queer creators.


What can we learn about Pride from these composers and how they chose to live their lives?  

You know in the early 20th century, one thing we can learn about Pride is that shame was classed. Aristocrats always did whatever the hell they wanted. In the aristocratic classes, [Queerness] was called “eccentricity,” and you could get away with it. Shame started at the middle class and went down, but posh people, even in the 20th century, could get away with what would be impossible scandals. Oscar Wilde thought he would get away with it. It surprised him that he got smacked down the way he did.

Ethel Smyth had very intimate friendships with other women, right out in the open and she was unabashed about it. She was a woman, she was a suffragist and an activist on behalf of first-wave feminism in the era when women were agitating for the vote. There were a lot of upper-class women involved in that movement and a lot of them were actually living lives apart from men in that era. It’s important for us to know that and not reinvent the wheel and think that feminism of more recent times is the first time anyone thought to do this. They didn’t tend to talk about what all was involved in their relationships, but they shared homes with other women.

There have been certain marginal spaces where things like that could happen. One is the privileged classes, because most of us don’t really know what’s going on up there. Another was the margins of “Bohemianism,” like the characters in [Puccini’s] La bohème. Somebody’s an artist, somebody’s a writer. That was a space of Bohemianism. And they don’t show Queer life per se, but they show that you are granted a certain leeway.

And thats another reason that classical music, and among composers and artists in particular, was a safe space in the 20th century for Queer people, because the Bohemian margins were a place where artists had a kind of a bargain to do what you want to do.

In fact, one of the 20th century slang euphemisms for Queer was, “Oh, he is musical. He’s artistic.” And so the deal that was worked out between society and artists was: “You have marginal space. We understand y’all are wild and woolly. And you are artists, so you are eccentric. You are unusual. You’re outside the boundaries of everyday society. And in exchange, we won’t pay you much.”


But we’ll still take your art… 

“We’ll take your art, you’re never going to become rich, but you can do your weird things and have your weird laws.” 


You’re presenting a pre-concert lecture on how gay composers like Aaron Copland created what we call “America’s Sound,” especially in concert music of the 20th century. Can you give a small preview of your topic, and what’s one thing our audiences may be surprised to learn?

Copland became known as the “Dean of American Composers, and some would argue [he] is the most prominent composer ever in American history. His music enjoyed a revival during the American Bicentennial starting in 1976, and one thing that people might be surprised to know is that it had hit the skids before that. The Cold War was a very hard era for Queer people in America.

Historians have shown by now that beyond the Red Scare that everybody learned about in school, there was a Lavender Scare that was actually a bigger, harsher and much more important, oppressive force.

There were more people who lost their government jobs. People committed suicide under the Lavender Scare out of fear for being exposed.

Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the most patriotic, homespun [music], was censored from the second Eisenhower inauguration at the last minute. Copland was blacklisted. Other Queer associates of his were blacklisted. So if you look at the “greatest hits of Aaron Copland,” they come before that time. He didn’t compose much [after this time] and the works he did compose didn’t become as famous. He ended his career mostly guest conducting, when orchestras would play Appalachian Spring or Fanfare for the Common Man.


What does Pride mean to you?

Pride began [in 1970] under particular conditions of oppression where Queer people—poor and of color, particularly and gender non-conforming people—finally had enough, and they revolted. It was a landmark historical event in June of 1969, the night after Judy Garland’s funeral, when a bunch of mostly working class and poor people at the Stonewall Inn were raided by the cops and abused and mistreated and they finally said “we’ve had enough” and they revolted. And then people kept pushing and demanded change.

So that was an important historical moment to recognize how hard activists and allies worked to create change, and change did happen.

Its important to understand these composers as Queer because that is a historically specific label that was invented in a particular moment. And we all ought to know that because it can be un-invented.

It was the medicine and the new science of psychology in the 1860s that classified humans as “normal” and “abnormal.” That was the new, crucial scientific idea. That’s when they invented the “homosexual.” People, of course, had been doing things that we would now label as homosexual, forever, right? But medical science and psychology now had a new category.

But nevertheless, if we want to connect with some of the real meaning of Pride…the celebration began in New York City and it was a way to build the community and build the movement to try to make social change. It was a celebration of our community and our people the way that we celebrate. And it was a reminder of our collectivity, that when we band together, we can work together and fight together to create change. So, this year, in this time, it is very meaningful to me to not say that we’re all just “proud.” We are again facing repressive prospects—not just the dark possibilities that we hear from some politicians and leaders, though those are very troubling. But if we look at young people, and the news stories we’ve all read about bullying and kids even dying as a result of the repressive conditions that Queer people still live under, that’s nothing to be proud of. It’s something we should be ashamed of. And the shame that was projected onto Queer people is what the community was attempting to throw off when they titled the celebrations “Pride.”

I have hoped that when we understand that this whole concept of the “Queer” as a separate sort of human was invented—and not even all that long ago, in historical terms—then we can also envisage and imagine how to get past oppressive regimes that have been constructed in connection with this notion that Queer people occupied some other category apart from human.

Join Nadine Hubbs in celebrating all things Pride with Thomas Søndergård and the Minnesota Orchestra!

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