Beginning with the “open secret” of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears's relationship and continuing through debates over Handel's and Schubert's sexuality and analyses of Ethel Smyth's memoirs, biography has played a central role in the development of queer musicology. At the same time, life-writing's focus on extramusical details and engagement with difficult-to-substantiate anecdotes and rumors often seem suspect to scholars. In the case of early-twentieth-century music research, however, these very gaps and ambiguities paradoxically offered some authors and readers at the time rare spaces for approaching questions of sexuality in music. Issues of subjectivity in instrumental music aligned well with rumors about autobiographical confession within Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) for those who knew how to listen and read between the lines. This article considers the different ways in which the framing of biographical anecdotes and gossip in scholarship by music critic-turned-amateur sexologist Edward Prime-Stevenson and Tchaikovsky scholar Rosa Newmarch allowed for queer readings of symphonic music. It evaluates Prime-Stevenson's discussions of musical biography and interpretation in The Intersexes (1908/9) and Newmarch's Tchaikovsky: His Life and Works (1900), translation of Modest Tchaikovsky's biography, and article on the composer in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians to explore how they addressed potentially taboo topics, engaged with formal and informal sources of biographical knowledge (including one another's work), and found their scholarly voices in the absence of academic frameworks for addressing gender and sexuality. While their overt goals were quite different—Newmarch sought to dismiss “sensationalist” rumors about Tchaikovsky's death for a broad readership, while Prime-Stevenson used queer musical gossip as a primary source in his self-published history of homosexuality—both grappled with questions of what can and cannot be read into a composer's life and works and how to relate to possible queer meanings in symphonic music. The very aspects of biography that place it in a precarious position as scholarship ultimately reveal a great deal about the history of musicology and those who write it.
Queering Musical Biography in the Writings of Edward Prime-Stevenson and Rosa Newmarch
Kristin M. Franseen is a contract instructor at Carleton University and has also taught at the University of Ottawa and McGill University. She earned her PhD in musicology from McGill University in 2019. Her dissertation, supervised by Lloyd Whitesell, is entitled “Ghosts in the Archives: The Queer Knowledge and Public Musicology of Vernon Lee, Rosa Newmarch, and Edward Prime-Stevenson.” She has presented her work at meetings of the American Musicological Society, the SociÃ©tÃ© quÃ©bÃ©coise de recherche en musique (SQRM), and the Society for American Music, as well as at themed conferences on public music discourse, word and music studies, LGBTQ approaches to music research, suffrage and the arts, and historical crime fiction. Her research has been published in Music & Letters, Keyboard Perspectives, and the Cahiers de la SQRM. Her other interests include anecdote and gossip in composer biographies and biographical fiction, depictions of female philosophers in eighteenth-century opera buffa, and the early development and promotion of the metronome.
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Kristin M. Franseen; Queering Musical Biography in the Writings of Edward Prime-Stevenson and Rosa Newmarch. 19th-Century Music 1 November 2020; 44 (2): 100–118. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2020.44.2.100
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