The Outsiders

tchaikowsky and his nephew 'Bob' DavydovThere have been fewer postings than usual on the ‘Forbidden Music’ page as my day-job has kicked back in and I’ve raced from recording Mahler IX with Fabio Luisi in Vienna, to Offenbach with Sir Mark Elder in London, returning to Vienna on Saturday to record Tchaikovsky VI with Philipp Jordan. Somehow, an additional chamber music recording has also been wedged into whatever free afternoons and evenings remain by members of the Vienna Philharmonic. Not only have I not had time to write on the site, I have not had time to sit back and ruminate about ‘Forbidden Music’ – except for one thought that occasionally crosses my mind. Perhaps as over the past weeks I’ve moved from recording composers banned for being non-Aryan (Mahler and Offenbach) to Tchaikovsky, it offers an occasion to speculate about the similarities one finds in ‘outside’ minorities and the role this has on creativity.
Nobody would dispute that the outsider looking inside will have interesting, creative and original things to say. I’m of an age that remembers the refreshing humour of Bill Cosby, an Afro-American comedian whose view of the world as a Black American looking inside a White American’s world probably did more to relieve racial tensions than anything else in the 1960s and ‘70s. And comedy is a convenient unit by which to measure general creativity and the outsider. The process is fairly consistent: Outsiders are initially shunned by whatever dominant religion holds sway over the greater slice of society. Religious shunning then moves into mainstream politics from whence it moves inevitably towards official, sanctioned and tacitly encouraged persecution. In this context, I don’t wish to bring any element of equivalency into play. Blacks and homosexuals did not suffer the industrial-scale, state imposed murder of Jews under the III Reich. Nevertheless, tacitly encouraged persecution was a characteristic of all Abrahamic-Christian cultures. At some point, something so horrible happens that a dialectical change in social opinion trumps the august views of religious-leaders and state. The Holocaust certainly made the Catholic church’s official anti-Semitism look decidedly un-Christian. People who had never given a second thought to Jews, who may never have met nor had dealings with Jews, suddenly became interested in them. And if there were many Jewish comedians before the Holocaust, nothing made every American wish to be a ‘little bit’ Jewish like the humour of Jackie Mason or Woody Allen from the 1960a onwards. These personalities with their cross-wired views of life neutralised anti-Semitism leaving suspicions of ‘world domination’ to only the most neurotic, paranoid and unstable. The horrifying lynching and mendacious discrimination against Black Americans created an awareness of Afro-American culture that opened the door to Bill Cosby. ‘Just like us, only funnier!’ would be the result. This was the intended reaction and inevitably led towards the first steps of tenuous acceptance.
Homosexuals are going through a similar process – and indeed, I recall reading an article in an American news magazine some 10 years ago that stated ‘Gays are the new Jews in Hollywood’. The demystification, disgust and fear of homosexuals are slowly giving way to the view of ‘just like us’. The ‘only funnier’ bit, however, has too often been at the expense of men dressing and acting like women. Why is this funnier than women dressing and acting as men? Nobody can deny that ‘Some Like it Hot’ and ‘La Cage aux folles’ are hilarious though the reasons for such jollity ask deeper questions about our attitudes towards our own society and its definitions of gender. At some point, this ‘humour’ will be seen with the same toe-curling squeamishness as today we view the black-faced, eye-rolling gollywog – one hopes. The next stage of trying to persuade the religious, the generally bigoted and the sexually fearful that ‘gays are just like us’ was to present gay men as the best friends of straight women. In other words, to present gay men as just another girl – only not dressed up like Tony Curtis in ‘Some like it Hot’. Again the question needs to be asked if a film presenting the lesbian best friend of a male boxer or footballer could be marketed as ingratiating social comedy. So homosexuals still have a way to go, though their journey towards acceptance is surprisingly similar to that of Jews: legislation (in some countries) makes discrimination illegal, followed by the accordance of full civil liberties and rights, followed by a period of minorities becoming more conventional than general society. How many straight friends offer a kindly smirk that ‘the only people getting married these days are the gays’? Seen in this light, it seems to recall the very conventionality of Jewish composers from about 1870 onwards. It became the object of Wagner’s disdain though few have pointed out that after Wagner’s death in 1883, German opera continued to be just as stiflingly conventional as before. It was more than a generation before Austro-German composers started to build and expand on the Wagner model.
This brings me to the subject of Tchaikovsky. He lived in a world that was very far from the acceptance that we start to see in some societies today. His death, as today’s historians now agree, was nothing less than an ‘honour killing’ by suicide. It was thus not dissimilar to the suicide of Alan Turing more than a half century later, or the slower death inflicted on Oscar Wilde. In all cases, these sensitive geniuses went to their graves convinced that somehow society was right and that they were, despite their gifts, nature’s deformities. Religious leaders led the lynch mob, though perhaps the most fascinating similarity between the persecution of gays and Jews is the fact that the terms ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘homosexual’ were concepts that did not exist until the latter decades of the 19th century. This isn’t to say that hatred and distrust of such minorities did not exist, but it was not until the affluence of the ‘industrial age’ that ‘scientific’ terms were conceived. It became easier to base an historic religious prejudice using rational non-religious terminology. Too little is made of the ‘scientific’ basis for anti-Semitism or indeed the discrimination against all non-European races. Too little has been made for the ‘scientific’ basis of eugenics. And very little is being made of the scientific basis for discrimination against homosexuals in more recent times. As with Jews, homosexuality was seen as anathema to the religious majority, but became rationally detestable once accorded the dignity of a scientific classification. It’s not as if homosexuals did not exist avant le mot. One of the more intriguing things about the plays of Schiller is the obvious homosexual in nearly every one of his works. The character can be noble and self-sacrificing as with Rodrigo in ‘Don Carlos’, or a heroine as in his utterly unhistorical ‘Maid of Orleans’; and there is even the inevitably slimy and scheming figure as with ‘Wurm’ in ‘Cabal and Love’. All of these conspicuously gay characters are placed in heterosexual contexts and it’s fascinating to see how Schiller manipulates them accordingly. He offers a view of homosexuality before anyone really knew what to call it and it is surprisingly un-judgemental.
As with Turing and Wilde, Tchaikovsky’s genius takes one’s breath away. It is not just his originality and ability to see (or hear) beyond accepted convention (at least in his best works), but his pure technical ability to write counterpoint, orchestrate and conceive in his inner-ear sounds and melodies that had never been heard before. Every bar of his VI Symphony is full of melodic and rhythmic polyphony. Cross rhythms and syncopations drive the emotional energy forward with a brilliance no other composer of his generation seems to have matched.  Yet the moment his social deviations became apparent, no degree of genius could save him. That today, the world’s great religions continue to promote prejudice against homosexual men and women needs to be seen in the wider context of how religion and science have interacted to purge society of what darker forces have decreed ‘undesirable’. As with Jews, and non-European races, every conceivable metaphor concerning the image or scent of human excrement is employed to stir up revulsion and hatred. Religion, and its presumption of its own infallibility, has not been more guilty than the same arrogance of science, which too often has jumped on board to deliver justification to what was hardly more than unfounded superstition. Today, science has wrenched from religion the halo of infallibility yet its role in justifying hatred, murder and prejudice has been equal. We can start to see it again in endless reports that inform us that we are neither more nor less than what our genes have predetermined. At some point, human decency and common sense needs to cast a cautious, sceptical eye over all such pronouncements. I’m perfectly happy to accept that science can also supply the answers that discredit hatred and bigotry – indeed, we have science to thank that we no longer burn left-handed people at the stake or force left-handed children into right-handedness. But if the presumption of religious infallibility comes from whichever version of God is put forward by whichever dominant religion, scientific infallibility needs to be judged on the basis of who paid for the research – and on what basis the research was even carried out.