Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Henry Cowell

Avant-garde composer jailed for homosexual conduct

This year marks the 114th anniversary of the birth of American composer Henry Cowell (born Mar. 11, 1897, in Menlo Park, CA; died Dec. 10, 1965, in New York). He was a pioneer in avant-garde music, famously known as the inventor of the first electronic drum machine, the Rhythmicon* (see photo below); one resides today in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Cowell hired a Russian inventor to fabricate the machine for him, principally because he wanted to be able to produce rhythms too intricate for humans to perform.

Cowell wrote compositions that set the established musical world on its ear. In 1928, Cowell became the first American composer to be invited to appear in the Soviet Union. During a concert given at the Moscow Conservatory in 1929, he created quite a stir. The audience refused to let Cowell play his second piece on the program until he repeated the first several times.  The Russian students, certain they would never hear such music again, insisted on hearing it until they could understand it.  His scheduled hour long concert actually continued for over four hours.

Henry Cowell, 1923 portrait by Margrethe Mather
His musical career was interrupted, however, when Cowell was charged with homosexual conduct by local authorities and arrested on May 21, 1936, at his cottage off the Alameda (Menlo Park, CA). At the age of 39, Cowell was charged for having sexual encounters with a seventeen year-old boy. At first, Cowell denied the allegations, but under interrogation he confessed to "improper relations" with several of his friends. Within a week he had written a confession and plea for leniency. Without legal counsel, his parents attempted to obtain his release by promising to remove him from the area – even from the country, if necessary. Their efforts failed, and the charges were not dropped, prompting Cowell to hire a San Jose lawyer to defend him.

The press followed the ensuing trial, especially since Cowell's international fame had brought unprecedented attention to the case. This coverage forced the judge to make an example of Mr. Cowell, even though to do so seemed to confirm the errors in the newspapers. He had been charged with only a single instance of homosexual contact, yet the San Francisco Examiner depicted him as a promiscuous child molester.

Cowell's friends reacted variously to his plight. Some turned against him, including composer Charles Ives, who refused all communication with Mr. Cowell between the time of his arrest and his later marriage in 1941. Percy Grainger, the world-famous composer/pianist, was among his defenders.

On July 8, 1936, Henry Cowell entered San Quentin, the largest prison in a penal system that had been rated the second worst in the nation. Here he would have neither desk nor table in his cell, so he could compose only on manuscript paper placed atop a book. In spite of having to work long hours in the prison jute mill, he not only composed a number of pieces in his cell, but also played at the monthly vaudeville nights in San Quentin.

While still in San Quentin, Cowell found himself immersed in music when he was transferred from the jute mill to work with the bandmaster in the prison's education department, where he created a thriving music program. As well, he continued to compose and arrange for performances of his music outside the prison walls. His wrote a book on melody and 11 music journal articles, while composing more than 50 new musical works.

In the intervening years his stepmother was able to obtain testimonials of his good nature from prominent citizens, including Lewis Termen, the Stanford psychologist, who had known and studied Mr. Cowell's intellectual achievements for 26 years. His good behavior resulted in his sentence being reduced to under 10 years, and in June 1940, with less than half of that time served, he won his parole and moved to White Plains, NY, where he worked as a secretary for Percy Grainger (bisexual Australian-born pianist/composer and infamous advocate for S&M sex). Cowell was returned to the musical world he loved, but on a parole basis. He soon went to work for the U.S. government on a project that would eventually lead to his full pardon, which came about through efforts of his many friends – in particular, Daniel E. Sullivan. Sullivan was an assistant district attorney who recommended a pardon, not because he thought the composer innocent, but because he thought him more in need of treatment than punishment. Many other local authorities agreed with this opinion.

After his release Cowell tried to appear conventional: he married in 1941, toned down his radical politics and gave up some of his avant-garde musical ideas. Later, in 1942, his wife of 14 months pled for executive clemency. Their marriage, however, was seen by insiders as more of a business arrangement. Sidney Cowell managed her husband's career, and being married helped clear his reputation as a convicted pedophile. In 1943, with a full and unconditional pardon in hand, Mr. Cowell became senior music editor of the overseas branch of the U.S. Office of War Information. In 1961, with his respectability fully restored, Cowell was chosen by President Kennedy to represent the U.S. at conferences in Tehran and Tokyo.
He was a tireless experimenter with musical form and method, and went on to teach Columbia University and Peabody Conservatory in the 1950s and 60s. Among his students were George Gershwin, John Cage (who hitchhiked across the country to study with Cowell) and Lou Harrison. Cowell wrote numerous works for solo keyboard, many requiring the piano’s strings to be brushed and plucked by the player’s hands, and tone clusters played with forearms or closed fists were common (see photo above of Cowell playing tone clusters on the piano with his left forearm and right fist).

Fabric (1922) piano solo HC307

In this short piano composition, three things are going on simultaneously. The thumb of the right hand plays the melody in 5/8 time, while the right hand fingers play filigree above the melody in 6/8 time; the left hand plays sixteenth notes in 2/4 time. Pity the pianist who has to fit this all together. And that’s the easy part. In eight measures scattered throughout, the left hand has a series of 9 notes to fill the measure (instead of 8). The piece is now in the public domain, so you can download the 2-page PDF file to follow along with the YouTube performance:


  1. This is some brilliant work you're doing here. Thank you so much. I appreciate both the gay contribution bit and the historiography and musicology. I was looking for some information on Cowell's 1936 trial and I could only find that he was jailed for moral charges. Another musicologist suggests that this might be for what would have been statutory rape and not for homosexuality. Where did you find that information? Thanks.

  2. Check out the article by Michael Hicks titled "The Imprisonment of Henry Cowell"

  3. Who didn't Ives hate? I remembered this as repulsive, and also the appalling things he said about Debussy especially. Nasty about Chopin and Mozart too. His 'Notes Before a Sonata' for the 'Concord Sonata' are sickening, especially before 'The Alcotts'--something about that particular 'common-man' pile being 'more noble than an Etruscan villa'. Such a rube and so much of the music is so ugly. I think I recall his wife also being particularly hateful about Cowell.