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How One Man Built the Great American Orchestra

Theodore Thomas pic_745
Theodore Thomas pic_745

Theodore Thomas, who founded what would be known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and America’s great orchestral tradition.


The names inscribed on the façade of Chicago’s Orchestra Hall – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner – are familiar to every concertgoer. But another name that is proudly displayed not once, but twice alongside this pantheon of musical masters may be less familiar to you: Theodore Thomas.

Theodore Thomas founded what would later be known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and was its first music director. But he was much more than that. Called “the father of the American orchestra,” Thomas was a champion of American musical excellence and left an indelible mark on the formation of our country’s orchestral tradition.

“Talentless and Sluggish” Beginnings

Less than 200 years ago, the phrase “American musical excellence” would have been something of an oxymoron. After all, the United States was considered unlikely soil for the planting of a great orchestral tradition. Our nascent nation sought to establish its own cultural institutions, though was ideologically opposed to the aristocratic patronage of the arts that was so central to European music. The United States also needed trained musicians, and plenty immigrated from Europe to the U.S. for work.

Back in Europe, many were not just doubtful that America was capable of establishing its own orchestral tradition: they were contemptuous of it. Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick jabbed at the opportunism of musical émigrés when he characterized America as “the promised land, if not of music, at least of the musician.” Negative stereotypes of American orchestras persisted as late as 1909, when Gustav Mahler wrote about the New York Philharmonic to a friend: “My orchestra here is the true American orchestra: talentless and sluggish.”

The title of longest-running American orchestra goes to the New York Philharmonic – or, as it was known upon its founding in 1842, the New York Philharmonic Society. (As a point of reference, the Vienna Philharmonic began its first season the same year.) However, the Philharmonic did not fit the criteria of a “permanent” orchestra. It gave only a handful of performances each year and lacked a secure financial base. Nor were its musicians singularly dedicated to the orchestra. There are even reports of Philharmonic musicians missing performances, apparently because of more pressing commitments.

A Disgruntled Violinist Goes Rogue

One Philharmonic violinist was frustrated by this state of affairs. His name was Theodore Thomas, a German-born virtuoso dedicated to upholding excellent musicianship and artistic integrity. Like others in the Philharmonic, he wore other musical hats in order to earn income and formed his own touring Theodore Thomas Orchestra, which he conducted.

Thomas conducting at Steinway Hall, New York.

Thomas conducting at Steinway Hall, New York.

The Theodore Thomas Orchestra was truly a world-class ensemble, unanimously considered the finest orchestra in America. Anton Rubinstein once gushed about the ensemble in a letter to William Steinway:

I little thought to find in this new country the finest Orchestra in the world! Man for man, the orchestra of the Conservatoire of Paris is perhaps equal to them, but unfortunately they have not Theodore Thomas to direct.Anton Rubenstein

Such was the regard in which Thomas was held not only in America, but abroad. With every concert, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra generated demand anew for the establishment of permanent symphony orchestras in the United States.

Despite his eventual ascension to the directorship of the Philharmonic, Thomas wasn’t satisfied in New York. He’d built up the Philharmonic so it was stronger than ever before, but he couldn’t help but cast an envious eye to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a permanent orchestra that even had its very own permanent hall in which to perform.


The Chicago experiment

In 1889, Thomas was visited by Charles Norman Fay, a friend from Chicago. Because the Theodore Thomas Orchestra was especially well-received in Chicago, Fay asked Thomas if he woukd consider selecting Chicago as the location for establishing a permanent orchestra, since sponsorship was lacking in New York.

Thomas’s response was unforgettable: “I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra.” The men proceeded to make plans, and what would later become the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was conceived that very night.

The 1890-91 season was Thomas’s last in New York. He left with 13 musicians to establish the Chicago Orchestra, eventually composed of 86 men, 24 of whom were from Chicago. Thomas secured the Auditorium Theatre as a performance space and programmed a then-ambitious season of twenty concerts, all preceded by rehearsals that were to be open to the public.

Theodore Thomas conducting what would be later known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Theodore Thomas conducting what would be later known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra


Regardless of the expertise of the ensemble, both Fay and Thomas knew that the secret to the Chicago Orchestra’s longevity was proper financial support — something other orchestras in America lacked. Even before the orchestra began rehearsing, the Chicago Orchestra Association was established as a “corporation not for pecuniary benefit” that provided financial underwriting for the orchestra.

Though there was plenty of hype surrounding the Chicago Orchestra, Thomas and his colleagues were disappointed by an underwhelming first season. Some naysayers in the press even made calls to reduce the scope of the orchestra, essentially returning to the very same smaller, temporary models from which Thomas was so intent to distance himself. Luckily, the orchestra had the financial base to continue operations at the same level, and with time, the crowds began coming. Thomas’s esteem both at home and abroad brought in big-name soloists, and he established a series of “Popular Concerts” featuring accessible repertoire to draw new audiences into the concert hall.

Thomas did what he could to bring music to the masses, but he was also unerringly dogmatic. He refused to program operatic crowd-pleasers, insisting that “a symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community, not opera.” No longer was symphonic literature to be second to opera. Thomas’s conviction that symphony orchestras deserved to stand alongside opera as institutions of their own was singular in both the U.S. and Europe.

Under Thomas’s disciplined baton, the Chicago Orchestra achieved the accolades his Theodore Thomas Orchestra had years before, with the added assurance of a permanent home in Chicago. By the estimation of many, there was “no better orchestra in America or Europe.” When Richard Strauss conducted the orchestra in 1904, the conductor-composer is reported to have said,

I came here in the pleasant expectation of finding a superior orchestra, but you have far surpassed my expectations. I can say to you that I am delighted to know you as an orchestra of artists in whom beauty of tone, technical perfection, and discipline are found in the highest degree.Richard Strauss

At Thomas’s urging, construction on the Chicago Orchestra’s new home, Orchestra Hall, was completed later the same year. Sadly, the maestro only lived to lead two weeks of subscription concerts in the hall he’d always wanted, succumbing to pneumonia on January 4, 1905.

Thomas’s Legacy

The effects of Thomas’s efforts were almost immediate. Other orchestras followed the model established by the Chicago Orchestra Association, shifting from cooperative ownership amongst orchestra musicians to a system of financial underwriting by a board of directors. More than that, Thomas helped put American orchestras on the map. No longer were they the laughingstock of Europe, but a paradigm of musical excellence that proved the worth of the symphony orchestra as a cultural institution. Though he was not the first to lead a permanent American orchestra, few can deny that he was the first to perfect it.

The next time a concert brings you to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, take a moment to marvel at the facade. The hall for which he so tirelessly advocated stands as a testament to a true musical pioneer, one who did more to establish America’s orchestral tradition than any man before or since.

Countertenor David Daniels on Finding His Voice, Finding Himself, and Being Married by Justice Ginsburg


David Daniels is “the most acclaimed countertenor of the day, perhaps the best ever,” to use the words of the New York Times. Though many know him best for portraying some of opera’s greatest heroes from Julius Caesar to Orpheus, he is also passionate about civil rights. Daniels spoke with WFMT from Edingburgh, where he is gearing up for a recital at the Queen’s Hall. He just arrived after performing in Thomas Adès’ opera The Tempest at the Wiener Staatsoper. He hit his last performances in Vienna on a high note knowing that the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling for marriage equality throughout the entire United States. Daniels and his husband William Scott Walters were recently married by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The acclaimed countertenor spoke about finding his voice, finding himself, and the importance of using art to create dialogues around social justice.

And, Daniels has offered WFMT listeners the exclusive opportunity to hear an excerpt from the new American opera Oscar, which was created for him and tells about the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. So be sure to tune in to WFMT to hear Daniels in this new opera by composer Theodore Morrison and librettist John Cox.


Tell us about finding your voice as countertenor.

I was a boy soprano growing up, and I did lots of professional work as a singer – as a boy soprano. When my voice changed, one never went to college as a countertenor—it was just unheard of in the United States. So I did what everybody does, and began to try to sing as a baritone, and then eventually as a tenor. But it just was never natural; I never lost the ability to sing in this head-voice, the countertenor voice, and it was always my most natural sound. So after years of struggling through college, I finally approached my teacher at that time, George Shirley, about it. He said, “Why would you want to sing any other way?” after hearing me sing, and that’s when I started pursuing the countertenor voice, back in March of 1992.

I’m sure it was interesting finding your own range as a singer at the same time that you were growing up and discovering things about yourself. What was it like growing up in South as a gay man?

Well, you know, I was very fortunate. I think we all as gay men struggle no matter where we grow up, because of how we’re taught and how people talk about the gay community. I mean, I think it’s going to continue to get better for the youth because of what’s going on and because of the steps the Supreme Court has taken about marriage equality. I can only hope that there’ll be less suicide and teen suicide. But for me personally, I was very lucky that I had two parents who were both performers and teachers. I just never grew up in that kind of [negative] situation. Although, you know, it was still tough coming out and telling people, certainly. But I always had parents that loved me unconditionally. So I was a very lucky boy.

Though many performers are gay, it’s not something that is talked about very openly. But you have always been outspoken about your sexuality.

Other than being an openly gay singer, I’ve not been on any sort of national platform about my sexuality, other than it’s just who I am.  My work has been done behind the scenes with gay youth who have come to me and thanked me for being so openly “out,” and things that aren’t necessarily talked about in the press. It’s rewarding to know that a young gay man can write me and say, “You have showed me what I didn’t know was possible: that you could be married, you could be happy, you could be successful, you could be loved—and you could be gay.” And to hear that from a 16 year old that’s really struggling where he lives with his family? That means the world to me. I feel so much love. It’s my little role that I play in all of this,

Onstage, you’ve recently played a literal role that gives voice to someone who was persecuted for his sexuality. Can you tell us about creating the role of Oscar Wilde in Oscar?

Nine years ago when we started talking about an opera with Theo Morrison and John Cox—Theo Morrison being the composer, John Cox being the librettist—I wanted to do something that could affect people: a political issue, something that was relevant. And Oscar Wilde made sense to me, the more I read about him, the more I knew about him. I mean, I knew his writings, I knew what had happened, but I didn’t know the extent to which he was persecuted. And so this was just something that I knew was going to be an important story to tell the world, and to remind the world that this happened to this man.

Can you tell us what you learned about yourself as you were exploring Oscar Wilde for this role?

That’s an interesting question… What I learned while I was rehearsing Oscar is that there was a lot of pent-up emotion—even though I’ve been openly gay, even though I have a partner, even though I was out to my parents and there was no rejection from my family. I think as a young gay man, you always are aware of discrimination, and to be telling this story in rehearsals with all of my cast and all of us there together in love, telling the story of this man, it just brought all of this emotion out. And I don’t know if it’s one single thing: I think it could be sadness from being bullied, from being beaten up, from watching friends take their own life. It’s just a combination of so many things that just washed over us, and I was really surprised at the intensity of it all.

Oscar seems like it was a real healing experience.

It was a healing experience in Santa Fe, where the opera premiered, and it continued at Opera Philadelphia, we it was revived just months ago. Opera Philadelphia was less dramatically emotional for us in the rehearsal period, because we had all been there and done that. But I think that because it was less intense, it was a more intense performance from all of us, and a better telling of the story, because it was less about emotion and more about being the character. It’s hard to explain.

Our listeners are very lucky! They get to hear an exclusive clip from the opera of you singing one of Oscar’s arias. Can you tell us about it?

In the aria “My Sweet Rose,” Oscar Wilde has decided to stay in London to go on trial for “gross indecency.” I think that he probably did not think that he would be charged with it, but in the end, as we know, he was. Some of the text of the aria is taken from Oscar Wilde’s actual letters, which are quite moving expressions of his love for Bosie, which is of course what put him in jail in the first place. Telling Oscar Wilde’s story was so important to all of us. We wanted to explore themes that are very relevant today, and we believe that this one is. As a gay man myself, the experience of creating the role of Oscar was a very emotional journey: There were many tears shed in rehearsals every day. I personally have experienced some discrimination in my own life, and even been the victim of physical violence because of my sexuality. But I am a proud gay man, and I am very proud that our country is taking steps in the right direction to provide equal rights for everybody.

Between the two performances, something very exciting and emotional in your life happened: You were married. Can you tell us about your wedding and if you had different feelings performing the role before and after your marriage?

I think performing Oscar the first time in Santa Fe is really what prompted me to look into proposing to my husband Scott, because it just seemed right. You know, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a huge advocate for Oscar and talked about in interviews. She came to the performances in Santa Fe and we were able to meet her and take photos with her. So it all just made sense: I think Prop 8 failed at that time, states started to make marriage legal, and it just all seemed right. So, yeah, we got married between the two runs of Oscar, and fortunately, Justice Ginsberg married us in D.C., which was such an honor. I still look back to that day and can’t really believe it! I asked her, and she said if I could come to Washington, D.C., she would be happy to do it. And on June 21st, 2014, we got married.

So you just celebrated your first anniversary. Congratulations!

We did, thank you! I had a performance that night at the Vienna State Opera, so we didn’t really get to celebrate. I said to Scott, my husband, “What better way to celebrate than to listen to me sing?

Then, just a few days later, of course, Ruth Bader Ginsberg helped make marriage equality a reality. What was it like hearing that news as an American in Vienna?

It was amazing because we could stream American CNN through the computer in our place in Vienna. So we just sat all afternoon in Vienna, waiting, waiting, waiting. Then finally, it was announced, and we were both in tears and just sort of sat and held each other and watched it, as the rest of our country and the world did, as well. It was a little sad being out of the country; we would have loved to be with our friends there in Atlanta, Georgia, because of course that was one of the states that was not going to allow it until the Supreme Court came and made it right. But it was an incredible day for all of us: for all humanity, not just the gay community.

QUIZ: What American Composer Are You?


Our Country, ‘Tis of Thee: How Marian Anderson Broke Boundaries for Singers of Color



Younger generations of Americans take it for granted that the United States has been legally desegregated. But, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, segregation was the norm, including in concert halls across America.

Contralto Marian Anderson (1897 – 1993) broke many boundaries for people of color throughout her career.  Most famously, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let Anderson sing for an integrated audience in DAR’s Constitution Hall, in Washington D.C.

As a reaction to the poor treatment Anderson received, thousands of DAR members resigned, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote in protest:

I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.Eleanor Roosevelt

In lieu of the originally scheduled concert at Constitution Hall, Anderson performed an open-air concert, fittingly, in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. The concert, arranged by President Roosevelt, Walter White (NAACP executive secretary), and Sol Hurok (Anderson’s manager), was attended by over 75,000 people and heard by millions in a radio broadcast.


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The Lincoln Memorial concert was a triumphant moment for Anderson. Unfortunately, however, the DAR is not the only organization that discriminated against her because of the color of her skin. 

Anderson, a Philadelphia native, was turned away from the Philadelphia Music Academy because she was black. In spite of obstacles obtaining a musical education, she studied music privately, and gained attention after winning singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic.

She made her European debut at Wigmore Hall, London in 1930, and spend the remainder of the 1930s touring throughout Europe, where she was met with acceptance and praise. Curiously, she did not experience the same prejudice in Europe as she did in America.

Jean Sibelius, after Anderson’s 1933 visit to his home in Helsinki, said, “My ceiling is much too low for your voice.” Subsequently, Sibelius and Anderson became good friends and frequent collaborators. Arturo Toscanini, the Italian conductor, commented during her 1935 Salzburg tour: “A voice like hers is heard once in a hundred years.”

Anderson returned to the U.S. in the 1930s where she received high praise, though she still encountered prejudice as a black musician. When Anderson was turned away from hotels in New York and New Jersey, physicist Albert Einstein opened his home to her.

Violinist Isaac Stern once commented, in reference to discrimination Anderson suffered:

On a daily basis taking a train, getting a car, finding a place to practice, everybody takes these things for granted when one travels today. Then you could take nothing for granted, except that you’d be shunted to a third or fourth class accommodation and some of your personal needs would not be taken care of very quickly.Isaac Stern

Anderson’s historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a concert heard round the world. She famously performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” with lyrics by Samuel Francis Smith set to the tune of “God Save the Queen.” The words “sweet land of liberty” were pregnant with meaning when Anderson sang them in 1939 since, of course, she and other Americans of color did not share the same liberties as white Americans.

In the years following and prior to this performance, Anderson was a trail blazer, both as a musician, and as a black woman. In 1928, she was the first black woman to perform at Carnegie Hall. In 1955, she became the first black singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera as a regular company member.

We honor her contributions in many ways, including the annually given Marian Anderson Award, which celebrates critically acclaimed artists – individuals who have used their talents for personal artistic expression and whose body of work has contributed to our society in a singular manner.

This past week has been historic for the United States of America. However, we should not think that because United States has been legally desegregated, that segregation does not still exist. We can honor Anderson’s legacy by ensuring that “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” truly is “our country.”

15 Queer Composers You Should Know



June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. We celebrate the music of LGBTQ composers all year long since it’s hard to escape a concert season without hearing works by Handel, Tchaikovsky, Britten, and others. But we wanted to recognize a few notable figures, past and present, who do did not or do not identify as heterosexual.

Some of the composers mentioned below were open about their alternative sexuality or gender expression, while others were forced to conceal it. What’s important is that all of these composers lived interesting, full lives, and made (or are making!) a lasting impact on the history of music.

Check out this list of 15 composers, arranged chronologically, and let us know who your favorite queer composers are in the comments below.



Jean-Baptiste de Lully

(November 28, 1632 – d. March 22, 1687)

After dancing with King Louis XIV in 1653’s Ballet royal de la nuit, Lully was engaged as the court’s royal composer, essentially granting him a monopoly over new music and kickstarting what would be a charmed career. However, Lully’s lack of discretion contributed to his downfall: the King could not turn a blind eye to Lully’s brazen liaisons with both men and women. Lully’s affair with a handsome music page named Brunet eventually leaked to the general public, who literally sang about it in the streets of Paris. By the time Lully died, he’d fallen from the King’s favor.

Listen to “Enfin, il est en ma puissance” from Lully’s Armide (Les Arts Florissants dir. William Christie).


Georg Friedrich Handel

(February 23, 1685 – d. April 14, 1759)

An intensely private man, Handel never married. He once dismissed King George II’s inquiries about his love life by insisting that he had no time for anything but music. However, what is undeniable is that Handel socialized in circles in which homosexuality was an open secret, from the Italian and German courts to his artistic cadres in London. Handel expert Dr. Ellen Harris wrote about his private life in Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, which explores themes of sexuality in his works and remains the authoritative book on the subject.

Listen to Handel’s Apollo e Dafne (HWV 122) (Musica ad Rhenum, dir. Jed Wentz).


Camille Saint-Saëns

(October 9, 1835 – d.  December 16, 1921)

In 1875, the 40-year-old Saint-Saëns surprised friends and family when he hastily married Marie-Laure Truffot, the sister of one of his pupils. The marriage was an unhappy one: after the deaths of their two young children, Saint-Saëns walked out on Truffot and never remarried. Despite this painful chapter in his life, he remained social and outgoing, hosting lavish soirees—where he supposedly performed in drag on more than one occasion—and indulging in frequent travel to exotic locales in Northern Africa. Some have speculated that he might have pursued trysts in Algiers, then a popular destination for European homosexuals.

Listen to Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian (Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, dir. Andris Nelsons).

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

(May 7, 1840 – d. November 6, 1893)

Though the composer wrote about his sexuality at length in his letters to his brother Modest (also gay), Tchaikovsky’s immense fame and fear of flouting social convention precluded him from living openly with a male partner. Not unlike Saint-Saëns, his short-lived marriage to a younger woman, Antonina Miliukova, was a catastrophe. Perhaps the closest Tchaikovsky came to publicly revealing his orientation was with his Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique. He dedicated the work to his lover Vladimir “Bob” Davydov (who also happened to be his nephew!). Despite myriad primary accounts that discuss Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, the Russian government’s long history of anti-gay censorship has muddied the biographical waters in Tchaikovsky’s beloved homeland.

Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathetique. (New York Philharmonic, dir. Leonard Bernstein).


Ethel Smyth

(April 23, 1858 – d. May 8, 1944)

As to be expected from a pioneering female composer and suffragette, Smyth displayed a keen musicality and sense of social justice from a young age. At only 12, Smyth announced her intention to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, which she later attended. She had a number of infatuations with women throughout her life, including an unrequited love for Virginia Woolf. She once wrote to Henry Bennet Brewster, her friend and librettist, “I wonder why it is so much easier for me to love my own sex passionately than yours. I can’t make it out for I am a very healthy-minded person.”

Listen to Smyth’s overture to The Wreckers (Scottish National Orchestra, dir. Sir Alexander Gibson).


Francis Poulenc

(January 7, 1899 – d. January 30, 1963)

The composer of a vast catalog of religious music, Poulenc once wrote to a friend, “You know that I am as sincere in my faith, without any messianic screamings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality.” Indeed, Poulenc was a lifelong Roman Catholic whose most lasting romantic relationships were with men. Though he fathered a daughter, Poulenc left behind more information about his gay relationships than his heteronormative ones. A copy of his Concert champêtre bears the following inscription to his then-partner Richard Chanlaire: “You have changed my life, you are the sunshine of my thirty years, a reason for living and for working.”

Listen to Poulenc’s Concert champêtre (Wanda Landowska with the Philharmonic Symphonic Orchestra, dir. Leopold Stokowski).


Aaron Copland

(November 14, 1900 – d. December 2, 1990)

Though never outspoken on the subject, Copland felt little to no angst about his sexuality. He never went to great lengths to hide his relationships, most of which were with talented young men who ran in his cultural sphere. Nor did his homosexuality interfere with his success as a composer, though it may have contributed to his blacklisting during the Red Scare. At one point, Leonard Bernstein pressured his mentor and friend to publicly come out. Copland wryly responded, “I think I’ll leave that to you, boy.”

Listen to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (San Francisco Symphony, dir. Michael Tilson Thomas).


Samuel Barber

(March 9, 1910 – d. January 23, 1981)

Barber met fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti when they were both students at the Curtis Institute of Music. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership: Menotti provided libretti for Barber’s operas Vanessa and A Hand of Bridge, and between them the men would win four Pulitzer Prizes. They would be together for nearly thirty years in a house they called Capricorn (also the name of Barber’s concerto for oboe, trumpet, flute, and strings). Later in life, the men’s relationship dissolved, contributing to Barber’s eventual creative drought and depression.

Listen to Barber’s Capricorn Concerto (Joseph Mariano, Sidney Mear, and Robert Sprenkle with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, dir. Howard Hanson).

Benjamin Britten

(November 22, 1913 – d. December 4, 1976)

Britten was introduced to tenor Peter Pears through a mutual friend. When that friend died in a plane crash in 1937, both men volunteered to help move his possessions. That project would be the first of many between the two, marking the beginning of a professional and personal relationship that would last more than 40 years. Britten would compose several opera roles and song cycles for Pears, who in turn became the foremost interpreter and champion of Britten’s vocal music. Of their relationship, Pears’ niece, Sue Phipps, said: “They made a conscious decision to neither flout it nor ignore it.”

Listen to Britten and Pears perform and discuss excerpts from Winterreise, from 1968.


Lou Harrison

(May 14, 1917 – d. February 2, 2003)

Not only was Harrison gay, he was an outspoken gay rights activist. His strong sense of identity manifested itself in arrangements and commissions for several American gay men’s choruses, and he was recognized for his achievements by the Annual Gay/Lesbian American Music Awards in 1999.  As AIDS researcher and co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis Lawrence Mass noted, Harrison was “proud to be a gay composer and interested in talking about what that might mean.”

Listen to Harrison’s Strict Songs, No. 1: Here is Holiness, arranged for eight baritones and orchestra. (Louisville Orchestra, dir. Robert Whitney).


Leonard Bernstein

(August 25, 1918 – d. October 14, 1990)

Something of a wunderkind, Bernstein rubbed elbows with the American classical elite before he’d even graduated college. Knowing that conservative orchestra boards would not tolerate having an openly gay music director, Bernstein married actress Felicia Montealegre in 1951. Though he adored his wife and children—and was devastated by Felicia’s death in 1978—he carried on a string of affairs with men that only became less discreet as he grew older. Arthur Laurents, Bernstein’s collaborator during West Side Story, put it simply: “He was a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”

Listen to an excerpt from Bernstein’s A Quiet Place (Louise Edeiken, Mark Thomsen, and Kurt Ollmann with the Vienna Radio Symphony, dir. Leonard Bernstein).


Pauline Oliveros

(May 30, 1932 –       )

Alongside composers like Terry Riley and Loren Rush, Oliveros has been long-established as a member of the American musical avant-garde. She coined the concept of “Deep Listening,” which incorporates meditative practices like self-awareness with performance to “cultivate a heightened awareness of the sonic environment.” Unconventionally, Oliveros’ first instrument was the accordion, and she continues to perform on the instrument internationally. In 1971, she came out in her music journal Sonic Meditations in Source. She is an outspoken feminist who has collaborated with all-women ensembles, as well as other queer artists.

Listen to Oliveros’ To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation. (Hope College. 1970).


Wendy Carlos

(November 14, 1939 –       )

Carlos was the architect behind an innovative endeavor: the electronization of Baroque master J.S. Bach’s most famous music. Upon its 1968 release, Switched-On Bach became one of the classical world’s greatest runaway hits, helping to legitimize electronic and synthesized music as serious genres. Carlos was credited on the original album as Walter Carlos, and began to live as a woman after the release of Switched-On Bach. Carlos has composed music for iconic films such as A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

Watch a 2014 BBC documentary discussing the use of synthesized music in film. Carlos appears at 13:58 (introduced as Walter).


Jennifer Higdon

(December 31, 1962 –       )

A professor at the Curtis Institute of Music, Higdon is recognized as one of the classical world’s most celebrated contemporary composers. She won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and a 2009 Grammy Award for her Percussion Concerto. Her first opera, Cold Mountain, receives its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in August 2015. She married longtime partner Cheryl Lawson in August 2014, whom she met in band class in high school. Conductor Marin Alsop officiated their wedding.

Listen to Higdon’s Percussion Concerto (Jeffrey Lawi with the University of British Columbia Symphony Orchestra, dir. Raffi Armenian).

Composer and arranger Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly

(August 26, 1981 –       )

Muhly is a genre-bending composer whose most recent opera, Sentences, centers on the life of Alan Turing, the famed Enigma code cracker who was also gay. But Muhly has underplayed whatever personal connection listeners might draw between his experience as a gay composer in the twenty-first century and Turing’s. “I don’t want be like [in a mocking, high-pitched voice]: ‘I responded to his story in a very personal way,’” he told the Guardian earlier this month. “No one wants a gay martyr oratorio.” His opera Two Boys also deals with gay relationships.

Watch the Metropolitan Opera’s video preview of Muhly’s Two Boys from its 2013-14 season.

Who are some other LGBTQ composers and musicians that you love? Tell us in the comments below!

Schumann Rhenish Symphony

Acclaimed cellist Tanja Tetzlaff returns to perform Lalo’s Cello Concerto. Schumann’s joyful and exuberant Rhenish Symphony and David Diamond’s Rounds for String Orchestra complete the program.

Brass Through the Ages

Axiom Brass Ensemble

Axiom Brass Ensemble

Axiom Brass Ensemble

Axiom Brass Ensemble

A program of music by Jacob Druckman and Patrice Caratini performed by the Axiom Brass Ensemble.

Live from the Martin Theatre

The Juilliard String Quartet plays Haydn’s Quartet in G (H III:41); Berg’s Quartet Op 3; Schubert’s Quartet #14 in D Minor, D 810, “Death and the Maiden.”

Signifyin’ in Song: How the Sounds of Slavery Changed Music Forever

The Old Plantation (Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation), ca. 1785-1795. watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.

The Old Plantation (Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation), ca. 1785-1795. watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.


African-American spirituals are not just a cornerstone of the American choral tradition, they have impacted countless genres of music heard everywhere from saloons to symphony halls. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” borrows heavily from African-American musical traditions, and spirituals in particular. The composer once said:

I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.Antonín Dvořák

But, what’s the history behind African-American spirituals? How did they become so popular that even Dvořák adored them? And how have they changed music forever?

Signifyin’ Through Spirituals


Difficult and dark themes are coded in Dvořák’s words that African-American music is the “product of the soil.” Spirituals were born when Africans were forced to work American soil as slaves. Taken from their native land and bound by shackles, Africans slaves blended their native musical traditions with European ones. Music and dance provided an outlet for slaves to express their sorrow, though often their cries of pain sounded quite the opposite to slave owners. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became an important orator, author, and abolitionist observed:

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.Frederick Douglass
Contraband Children Dancing the Breakdown. (1863).

Contraband Children Dancing the Breakdown. (1863).


Frederick Douglass wrote at length about how slave songs were a way to signify: a kind of double-speak that exploits the difference between denotative and connotative meanings of words, especially of signs that have special significance to a particular subculture. In fact, Douglass himself confessed:

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.Frederick Douglass

Of particular importance in the signs and signification in spirituals are references to the bondage of the Hebrews in the Old Testament of the Bible. Thus, slaves could communicate Christian values to those “outside the circle” that were imposed upon them by slave owners. But, at the same time, they could communicate hidden meanings “inside the circle” about their own bondage.


The Great American Tradition That Almost Wasn’t




In the years following the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, African-American musical traditions were becoming increasingly known “outside the circle” in the United States. But, it’s almost by accident that the great musical tradition of African-American spirituals became known to the world at large.

In 1871, the historically black college Fisk University was facing financial failure, and the University’s music director, George L. White, assembled a touring chorus composed of members of the student body to raise revenue. White, a white missionary from the North, travelled with two quartets and a pianist along the Underground Railroad giving concerts of patriotic songs, hymns, and popular songs of the day.

Originally, the concerts were not a success.  Though faced with dire financial circumstances of their own, the touring choir selflessly donated their profits from one concert in Cincinnati entirely to support victims of the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871, leaving them pinching for pennies and on the verge of turning back for home.

White, however, decided that their concerts would be more successful if the musicians changed their programs to feature African-American spirituals, and established a name to capture the imagination of their audience. They called themselves the Fisk Jubilee Singers, with “jubilee” an allusion to the book of Leviticus. The “year of Jubilee” would be when all slaves were set free.  Since most of the student musicians of the Jubilee Singers were the children of newly freed slaves themselves, the name could not have been more fitting. To hear one of the earliest recordings of the Singers, click below.


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At first, the musicians were reluctant to perform spirituals in public since they were grim reminders of our nation’s troubled past. However, the group’s a cappella arrangements of traditional spirituals arranged for soprano, alto, tenor and bass incited intense interest in African-American music. A year after forming, the Jubilee Singers printed a collection of the music they performed, which was so popular it was reprinted in an expanded edition the same year. Mark Twain’s firsthand account of the group’s original performances captures the energy and exciting surrounding them:

Then rose and swelled out… one of those rich chords the secret of whose make only the Jubilees possess, and a spell fell upon that house. It was fine to see the faces light up with the pleased wonder and surprise of it…. Arduous and painstaking cultivation has not diminished or artificialized their music, but on the contrary – to my surprise – has mightily reinforced its eloquence and beauty. Away back in the beginning – to my mind – their music made all other vocal music cheap; and that early notion is emphasized now. It is utterly beautiful, to me; and it moves me infinitely more than any other music can.Mark Twain (1897)

Soon, word about the Singers traveled across the pond, and eventually, so did the Singers themselves. On one European tour, the Jubilee Singers performed before Queen Victoria. She exclaimed that their voices were so beautiful they must be from “Music City,” giving birth to Nashville’s epithet “Music City, USA.” On a subsequent European tour, the group earned $150,000, which provided funding to construct the first permanent building for Fisk University, Fisk Hall, which still stands in Nashville.


Jubilee Singers at the Court of Queen Victoria, 1873. Fisk University Library

A portrait of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ performance before Queen Victoria painted in 1873 by Edmund Havel, the queen’s court painter. Left to right (men): Benjamin Holmes, Isaac Dickerson, Thomas Rutling, Edmund Watkins; left to right (women): Mabel Lewis, Minnie Tate, Ella Sheppard, Jennie Jackson, Julia Jackson, Maggie Porter, Georgia Gordon.


The Legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Fisk Jubilee Singers are still singing today, carrying on the great tradition of sharing African-African spirituals that started almost 150 years ago. But, the impact of the Jubilee Singers on the world of music is immeasurable. Though some African-American musical traditions were popular before the Jubilee Singers formed, they brought the sounds of suffering, sublimated through song, to the world.

In fact, there are many songs which were originally sung by slaves that have become so much a part of our culture that we might now be unaware of their original context. For example, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” was popularized among white audiences by Pete Seeger. But, the song was originally published in 1867 as Slave Songs of the United States, the first collection of its kind.

While the original context of some slave songs has been obscured over time, composers and performers still explore the expressive power of spirituals. In the clip below, soprano superstar Jessye Norman has recorded her own version of “Lord, I Couldn’t Hear No Body Pray,” a traditional spiritual.


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We can compare Norman’s version to one of the earliest recordings of this piece, which is by the Fisk Jubilee Singers themselves, to hear how the tradition of African American spirituals goes on but has evolved:


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Baroque Arias and Ensembles

Baroque Arias and Ensembles performed by artists from the Haymarket Opera.