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The Buffet Of Life: An Essay on the Possible Sexuality of Franz Schubert

January 29, 2014

 

Maynard Soloman's article "Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini" discusses the possibility of Schubert being a homosexual by looking at diary entries and letters exchanged between Schubert and his closest male friends including Franz von Schober and Johann Mayrhofer. Many of the letters that Solomon discusses show a feeling of compassion and love between the men involved. One example includes a piece composed by Mayrhofer for Schubert entitled “An Franz” and contained the lyrics “Thou lov’st me! Deeply have I felt it, Thou faithful youth, so gentle and fair; Then let us steel ourselves, already united, In noble, youthful valor” (p.199). Also discussed are the parties that Schubert would attend with his male friends. Solomon includes an invitation that is filled with sexual innuendos from a character named Nina that promises a fun night of entertainment including “peacocks”, a term used for young men dressed in women’s clothing pretending to be women (p.201). Solomon cites Schubert-related memoirs from close friends like Eduard von Bauernfeld stating controversial quotations like “Schubert is out of sorts (he needs ‘young peacocks’, like Benvenuto Cellini)” (p.201). Also discussed is Schubert’s battle with syphilis, and how the men of Schubert’s circle kept in touch with letters of encouragement and updates on his health. Solomon also references the women that Schubert liked in his early years including Therese Grob, a lady he courted from 1814-1816, and the Countess Karoline Esterházy whose love was unrequited. Solomon also states that Schubert never wanted marriage and ultimately refused it. Near the article’s end, Solomon quotes a 19-year-old Schubert from his diary saying “Take people as they are, not as they should be” (205), and alludes to the idea that Schubert is speaking out about homosexuality.  Through letters, events, diaries, and memoirs of Schubert’s close circle of friends, Maynard Solomon makes a very credible argument that the men of Schubert’s circle group all had affection for one another, and believes that it is because of his sexuality that he felt alienated, melancholy, alone, and “enslaved by passions mauvaises” (p.193), as quoted by Alexandre Oulibicheff in his Beethoven monograph in 1857. 

 

“The Peacock’s Tale: Schubert’s Sexuality Revisited” by Rita Steblin, “seeks to reopen the topic of Schubert’s sexuality by investigating Solomon’s interpretation of the documents and sources he cites” (p.5). Steblin exclaims that Solomon’s work from 1989 is outdated, and that new documents have surfaced regarding the issue. Steblin’s intentions are “to come closer to the truth...by interpreting more of the historical context of Schubert’s time” (p.6). Steblin does this by adding background context to several diary entries that Solomon used, and claims that Solomon misinterpreted several situations. Steblin also analyzes the original German entry and concludes that Solomon misinterprets several of the meanings behind the words, thus skewing the entry to benefit his argument (p.6). Steblin believes that Schubert wanted marriage, but couldn’t because of a new law that required a minimum amount of steady finances in order to marry. Steblin also argues that Schober was a womanizer, heterosexual, and lazy, which can be a reason for Solomon’s Keener quote that states Schober as being a bad moral influence on Schubert. The end of Steblin’s article is rather abrupt and has a hostile tone to it, but summarizes her main points from the article:

 

In summary, it should be apparent that in light of a historically critical examination the evidence Solomon has marshaled to make his case becomes highly questionable. To put it bluntly, there is no evidence that Schubert or the members of his circle were homosexuals. Solomon has mistranslated several key documents, quoted selected passages out of context, and misrepresented the cultural and artistic context of society in Biedermeier Vienna. It does not speak well of our critical faculties that we are blind to the deficiencies of his argument. Schubert deserves better (p.27).

 

Robert Winter’s “Whose Schubert?” article is a reinforcement of what Solomon’s article promotes. It begins by stating that there often wasn’t a lot of written Schubert material, and that his life was very different from other composers such as Beethoven and Mozart, for Schubert “stood alone in his magic circle, undisturbed by prosaic family affairs” (p.96). Winter credits Solomon for being an excellent music writer, and boasts that it was Solomon’s article that finally gave way for debate on the topic of Schubert. Consequently, Winter points out several flaws in Steblin’s paper. For instance she rules out an article that Solomon used on the grounds that it uses 20th century sources, which were “irrelevant” at the time, yet references the medical value of peacock meat from a book published in 1989 (p.100). Winter concludes that Steblin exudes a “refusal to allow for anything other than literal, one-dimensional readings” (p.100). Winter believes that the tone of Steblin’s article:

 

...resonates with the desire to protect the otherworldly resting place in which we have embalmed the composer. Her world is a black-and-white fantasy land that admits of no ambiguity, no irony, no double entendre. Because the only kind of evidence apparently acceptable to her ... ...is precisely what Schubert’s world would not have allowed, she runs no risk of having to address seriously any of Solomon’s evidence (p.99).

 

Winter concludes that it is good for Solomon to ponder the issue of sexuality, as it makes other musicologists wonder what else has been overlooked. However, the debate on Schubert’s sexuality should not be about placing stereotypes based on the appropriate sexual preference, but rather about dropping all stereotypes and liberating Schubert, and experiencing his art for what it is (p.101).

 

Kofi Agawu’s “Schubert’s Sexuality: A Prescription for Analysis?” begins by asking: “What can Schubert’s sexuality have to do with the analysis of his music?” (p.79). Agawu calls Solomon’s article a “compelling story” (p.79) ending with Schubert probably being homosexual (p.79), but Agawu argues that Solomon’s articles have since been considered “fact” not because of additional documentation of the subject, but because “such a revelation promised a much needed change of critical perspective” (p.79). Agawu suggests that if sexuality is to be taken as an underlying influence in the creation of Schubert’s music, then a relevant demonstration must be shown. For example, if Schubert could not express his sexuality and had to keep it bottled up under pressure, then emotional tension would definitely affect creativity in an unusual way. However this repression can happen through other religious, political, economical, and social means, and this should also be discussed. If the link between homosexuality and the creative process says little toward a uniquely different writing style or technique, then it is useful to take sexuality into consideration. But if there is little proof of variations in certain styles likes rondos and sonata form, then the sexuality of the composer is “of little or no relevance to an understanding of the creative process” (p.80). Agawu concludes by hoping that a sound understanding of sexuality could possibly provide analytical and critical opportunities, but the hard work still lies ahead. Perhaps Schubert’s music is foundationally homosexual and that this condition is everywhere, or perhaps even if Schubert had been a homosexual man, he might not have composed as one (p.82). Whatever the case, it’s unknown.

 

The article I chose to counter Solomon’s article appeared in the Musical Times book. It’s called “Schubert’s Pepi: His love affair with the chambermaid Josepha Pocklhofer and her Surprising Fate”, by none other than Rita Steblin. She talks about a chambermaid named Josepha “Pepi” Pocklhofer that predates the similar story of Countess Karoline Esterházy. Like Karoline, Pepi was from a wealthy family and also received several pieces of music from Schubert that were dedicated to her. Pepi also ended up marrying someone else, as Schubert’s love was also unrequited. The article includes detailed backgrounds on Pepi’s will, family history, and family events. There are also several paragraphs that are taken directly out of the Peacock Revisited article. This article seemed very similar to Steblin’s previous work, with just a few adjustments and additions.

 

Personally I identified with Agawu’s article the most. Although I find Solomon’s article to be somewhat convincing, for me the benefit of knowing an artist’s sexuality often borders on the line of irrelevancy. Sexual preferences will often distract an audience from the artist’s work, as it allows people to attach opinion and prejudice onto music when it’s not necessary. If their sexuality shows an influence in the creation process of the music, it is definitely worth noting, but regardless, the music should be taken for what it is and not necessarily who it’s by. But as Agawu points out, is there really such a thing as a “gay” rondo? In terms of Steblin and her articles, I feel like she has some very valid points and counter-arguments, but doesn’t consider all possibilities. As Winter alludes, her views are very black and white, often controversial, and sometimes don’t fit the situation, regardless of the considered time period. Her Pepi article, to me, was just an extension of her Peacock Revisited paper, and seemed like the Countess Karoline situation with just a different name, as the two scenarios were eerily similar. For myself, I am left on the fence, partially because of its lack of relevancy. For the most part, many secretive facts are already exposed about the major composers. For example, we know that Mozart made poop jokes, while Beethoven was often constipated. Through letters we know the pain and agony Tchaikovsky felt with his homosexual tendencies. However nothing is really known about Schubert aside from him being a shy man with child-like innocence. Surely with the amount of friends that Schubert had in his circle would evidence appear of his sexuality, unless there was a matter of protection against his reputation, but the odds slim to none. In terms of music, I find it is often life events that inspire composers to write i.e. the death of a loved one, a failure of sorts, or a new love. Being homosexual is a constant thing, and seems less likely to be the inspiration for a piece unless it is this behaviour that sparks some sort of life event i.e. a failed marriage. There is often a connection between a composer’s last piece and the story of life. Tchaikovsky’s Symphonie Pathetique is riddled with sorrow and angst and weeps in pain. In his final days he was a very unhappy man due to a failed love life in which he blamed his homosexuality for. However Schubert wrote his last piece when he was surrounded by friends and family. It is also interesting to note that this theory is a recent development, and is brought forth in a time where homosexuality is more acceptable and near the forefront of people’s minds. Perhaps he was bisexual: perhaps he was just a confused and curious artist, like many of them are, and tried both dishes from life’s buffet. Regardless of Schubert’s actual sexuality, the entire topic derives from interpretation. Unless evidence appears in favour of Schubert’s sexuality that leaves no room for interpretation, or more importantly, has a valid connection to his music making, his sexuality and the possible connection to his music will remain unknown.

 

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