Skip to main content
The PBS on-demand streaming service, WNED PBS Passport, is now available in Canada! Learn More
Laugh At, Pity, & Fear No More
Email share
Handel, Tchaikovsky and Lully

I watched The Celluloid Closet last night. It is a 1995 documentary film based on a book by Vito Russo. It surveys the various Hollywood screen depictions of LGBTQs and the attitudes behind them. According to the filmmakers, audiences were to laugh at, pity, or fear “queers.” LGBTQs were either completely defined by their sexual orientations, with no character development, or their sexualities were not explicit, but implied through stereotypical looks, speech, and behavior. Men were flamboyant, sissies, or fussbudgets, and women were unattractive, manly, or villainous. LGBTQ composers, especially those from centuries ago, sometimes receive similar treatment in encyclopedias, history books, liner notes, and online articles. Although we cannot change past films or writings, we can learn from them and do a better job in the future of representing LGBTQs fairly in all media forms. 

No one knows for sure whether Handel or Corelli were gay, but scholars speculate that they were. An online British article described a meeting between the two composers. They did not get along. The article concludes with the sentence, “It does go to show that you can’t have two prima donnas on the same stage!” The dictionary defines a prima donna as the principal female singer in an opera, or as a vain, undisciplined person who is difficult to work with. Neither definition accurately describes Handel or Corelli. Obviously, they were not female, and they surely were not undisciplined or difficult to work with. They were both extremely accomplished men who gave the world exquisite music. Characterizing them as prima donnas was a gratuitous cheap shot at their rumored, but unsubstantiated same-sex attraction. What a difference it would have made had the writer written, “It does go to show you that you can’t have two musical giants on the same stage!” 

The current Wikipedia entry on Tchaikovsky states that his life was “…punctuated by personal crises and depression.” This may or may not be true, but the unsuspecting reader might glean from the entry that everything unhappy in Tchaikovsky’s life was the result of his “pitiful” sexual orientation. That said, Wikipedia is still better than the old music history textbooks I studied back in college. I remember one in which the author described Tchaikovsky as vain, petty, and emotionally fragile. Had Tchaikovsky been straight, I believe the author would not have used pejoratives. Instead, he would have used charitable words such as handsome, meticulous, and profound to describe the same traits. 

One of the most feared composers in music history is Jean Baptist Lully. He was a gifted composer, ballet dancer, and businessperson who also happened to be bisexual or pansexual. Louis XIV considered Lully a friend, but Lully’s sexual proclivities displeased the King. Thus, writers characterized Lully as flamboyant, promiscuous, and vindictive. Imagine had they used more generous words, such as expressive, adventurous, and shrewd. We would be celebrating Lully today. 

The Celluloid Closet is a film that surveys the depiction of LGBTQs in old Hollywood. This essay, inspired by the film, only scratches the surface of how writers have depicted LGBTQ composers from centuries ago in encyclopedias, history books, liner notes, and online articles. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it and do more in the future to represent LGBTQs fairly and with the depth all human beings deserve.