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.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns: 1835-1921

When his father died when he was only three months old, Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns was raised by his mother in Paris and continued to live with her until her death. He became one of the world’s most famous composers in his day, and he was a homosexual possessed of a complicated private life, which often revealed his dark side.

Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy (on the level of Mozart), and made his debut as a concert pianist in 1846, before his eleventh birthday. As an encore, Saint-Saëns offered to play any of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas from memory. Word of this incredible experience spread across Europe and as far as the United States, where it was mentioned in an article in a Boston newspaper. Having all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas in ones fingers, ready for concert performance, was an unheard-of feat (then as now), all the more astonishing when offered by a ten year old.

By the age of 13, Saint-Saëns was attending the Paris Conservatory. He soon gained recognition among his peers as an organ virtuoso, eventually attaining the highly coveted position of chief organist at the Madeleine Church in Paris, a post he held from 1858, at the age of 23, until he was 42 years old. His weekly organ improvisations captured the attention of all Paris. As a composer, he was highly versatile, writing operas, symphonies, concertos, much chamber music, masses and other choral works, songs and solo literature for organ and piano. His opera Samson et Dalila still ranks among the standard repertoire of opera houses all over the world. His music was wildly popular during his lifetime, and he was well-connected with other composers, particularly Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt. Gabriel Fauré, who was Saint-Saëns's favorite pupil, soon became his closest friend.

His now popular Le Carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals, 1886), for two pianos and orchestra, was intended as a private entertainment for friends, and Saint-Saëns forbade its public performance during his lifetime. The part of the narrator, now frequently included during performance, was added by others after his death. It is a little-known fact that Saint-Saëns had the distinction of being the first noted composer to write a musical score for a motion picture, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (L'assassinat du duc de Guise, 1908), featuring actors of the Comédie Française in Paris.

Once called a second Mozart, Saint-Saëns soon made many enemies, who were envious of his stellar success and disdainful of his biting sarcasm. Later in life he was declared to be a “composer of bad music well written.” In old age he came to be mocked for his rabid conservatism, his dislike of modern music, the campaigns he mounted against French composers Claude Debussy and Cesar Franck, his shocked disapproval of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (allegedly infuriated over what he considered the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars) and his insistence, during World War I, that all German music be suppressed. He was never shy with opinion.

Saint-Saëns was a true polymath. In addition to conquering the world of music as composer, conductor, critic, teacher and concert organist and pianist, he excelled in the fields of geology, archaeology, botany, mathematics and lepidoptery. He held discussions with Europe's finest scientists and wrote scholarly articles on acoustics, occult sciences, ancient theatre decoration, and early musical instruments.  Saint-Saëns wrote a philosophical work that spoke of science and art replacing religion, and his pessimistic and atheistic ideas foreshadowed Existentialism. Other literary achievements included poetry and a successful farcical play. He was also a member of the Astronomical Society of France, giving lectures on mirages; he had a telescope made to his own specifications and planned concerts to correspond to astronomical events, such as solar eclipses.

The private life of Camille Saint-Saëns was filled with turmoil. He was homosexual but realized how much marrying would bolster his reputation. Understandably, he showed little outward sign of wanting to marry. However in 1875, at the age of almost 40, he began an affair with nineteen year old Marie-Laure Truffot, which led to marriage. Immediately after their wedding, Saint-Saëns declared that he was too busy for a honeymoon and took Marie straight home to live with his mother. Thereafter the composer treated his wife with deep disdain, until the arrival of children brought out a more sympathetic side. But tragedy intervened when both children died within six weeks of each other in 1878. André, aged two, fell from a fourth floor window, and soon afterward his baby brother Jean became ill and died. Saint-Saëns blamed Marie for the children's deaths, and a short time later he walked out on her in the middle of a holiday trip. Though there was no divorce, Marie never saw him again.

Saint-Saëns was solitary and secretive, prone to disappearing for weeks at a time. He could also be a remarkable host, often entertaining friends lavishly at his Paris home, where his performances in drag were well-known among his circle, particularly his impersonation of Marguerite, the female soprano lead in Charles Gounod's opera Faust. He is reputed to have danced in ballerina tutus for the entertainment of fellow gay composer, Tchaikovsky.

After abandoning his wife, Saint-Saëns traveled extensively. He began spending winters in French-speaking Algeria, which became a favored holiday spot for European homosexuals who enjoyed the adolescent male companionship easily available there. He was quoted as saying, "I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast." Saint-Saëns died of pneumonia in Algiers, at the age of 86, on December 16, 1921.

Have a listen to his hugely popular orchestral work, Danse Macabre. I’m sure you’ll recognize it.
Trivia: Pianist Franz Liszt made an astonishing piano solo transcription of this piece.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stephen Hough

Openly gay poet and pianist

Paderewski: Nocturne (encore at Carnegie Hall recital)



Openly gay classical pianist Stephen Hough was born in England in 1961, although he has held dual citizenship with Australia since 2005 (his father was born in Australia). Hough holds a particular interest in unusual works by pianist-composers of the late nineteenth century, of which this video clip is an example. He plays with wit, charm, sophistication, humor, lyricism and generous doses of style.

Hough also composes and arranges transcriptions for piano solo, and often features his own works in recitals. Of late he has branched out into chamber and choral music. As well, he is a noted writer and researcher, publishing essays and writing album liner notes. He is something of a renaissance man, fully indulging his interests in painting, photography and blogging.

Hough has recorded over fifty CDs, and in 2008 he won the sixth International Poetry Competition*. Hough has spoken, written and blogged about his homosexuality and its relationship to his music-making.

Instead of limiting what we know about him, as is the custom of most classical musicians, Hough is quite open about his weaknesses, about moments when he’s deeply questioned his career choice as a touring musician, about battling ego issues, fighting nerves, and overcoming moments when he says he fails to reach his own high standards. Hearing him talk so openly and honestly about his vulnerabilities opens many to his art. I am a pianist myself, and I regard Hough as one of the top pianists of our time.

*Excerpt from "Early Rose", a prize-winning poem by Stephen Hough

...To the garden, awake,
Tiptoe, quick, go
Slick-stairs down the
Steps to the pre-dew
Night morn before the
Dawn's birth is born.
Follow to the foliage where,
Hidden as the future's
Fall or rise, the rose –
Petals closed – will bud-burst
A billion atoms of beauty...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)

Manuel María de Falla y Matheu was born into a prosperous family in Cádiz, Spain. His father was Valencian, his mother from Catalonia. Falla studied piano and composition with private tutors before entering the Real Conservatorio de Música in Madrid. His early compositions, written for small ensembles, were heavily influenced by Spanish folk music. He even wrote six zarzuelas (Spanish folk operettas).


In 1907 Falla moved to France, where he was influenced by the impressionists, especially Debussy and Ravel. During this time, he composed the well-received Trois mélodies, based on texts by the homosexual poet Théophile Gautier. His first work of importance, the one-act opera La vida breve (The Brief Life, first  performed in 1913) was followed by the gypsy gitanería (ballet) El amor brujo (Love, the Magician, 1915) and the folk ballet El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-cornered Hat, 1919). The latter was written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and premiered in London with sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso and choreography by Diaghilev’s gay lover at the time, Léonid Massine. Falla’s most ambitious symphonic concert work, Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), a nocturne for piano and orchestra, dates from 1916. This work, which became enormously popular, celebrates the bygone sensual and erotic atmosphere of Islamic Spain.

Manuel de Falla was homosexual, and it was widely rumored that he was involved in a menage à trois with French composer Maurice Ravel and Spanish pianist Ricardo Vines. Falla and Ravel were both closely guarded, private and extremely closeted homosexuals, leaving behind no written trace of their liaisons. Only their contemporaries related the relationship to future generations. However, the elegance, sensuality, and erotic suggestiveness of Falla’s music are interpreted by many as overt expressions of de Falla’s homosexuality, better than any written word.

The cultural center of Cádiz, the port city where Falla was born, is today called Gran Teatro Falla, in his honor. It is a magnificent Moorish-revival concert hall (1910) facing Plaza Manuel de Falla.


Significantly, the start of World War I forced his return to Spain. Soon after settling in Madrid, Falla met Federico García Lorca, the gay poet and a future collaborator, who was to become a close friend (see sidebar). In 1919 Falla moved to Granada for more peace and quiet to compose. During this time his home was a celebrated meeting place for Spanish gay intellectuals and artists. He and García Lorca worked on several collaborations, although only a few minor works resulted from their efforts.

Falla’s deep ascetic religiosity led him to be courted by Franco’s Nationalists, whom he saw as a check to the anti-religious sentiment of the Left. Falla was living with his sister when he was appointed President of the Institute of Spain by Franco in 1935. However, despite the high esteem he enjoyed in the eyes of Franco’s Nationalists, the composer was unable to prevent the 1936 execution of his friend and collaborator García Lorca, by then a successful homosexual poet with an international reputation. Falla, disillusioned by the homophobia of the Franco regime, dove even deeper into the closet and resigned his post in 1938. A year later he emigrated to Argentina, where he had been invited to conduct concerts at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Falla remained in Argentina, settling in Alta Gracia in the Sierra Córdoba region, where he was looked after by his sister until his death there in 1946. Franco's government offered him a large pension if he would return to Spain, but he refused. However, his image appeared on Spanish currency notes for many years.


By far the most recognizable Falla composition is Ritual Fire Dance, from El amor brujo (1915). First composed as a chamber piece, it is here played as a piano solo by Sebastien Koch.



By contrast Jota (from Siete Canciones Populares Españolas), written the same year as Ritual Fire Dance, is based on a popular Andalucian song to which Falla added an original harmonic accompaniment, to great effect. Acclaimed Israeli mandolinist Alon Sariel performs this piece with young pianist Nadav Herzka.




An excerpt from Nights in the Gardens of Spain, for piano and orchestra, here performed by legendary pianist Alicia de Larrocha (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal with Charles Dutoit, conductor). Filmed at the Alhambra in the late 1980s (Larrocha died in 2009). En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba (3rd movement): Click this link (embedding disabled).
http://youtu.be/TY8o6_7G_Uk

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci

Because Leonardo da Vinci was born out of wedlock in 1452, he was denied both an education and a lucrative profession. Despite the stigma of being a bastard son of a notary and peasant girl, Leonardo went on to master anatomy, astronomy, architecture, botany, cartography, engineering, mathematics, music, poetry, science, optics, sculpture, sketching, geology and, last but not least, painting. The polymath of all polymaths, he also designed machines and drew plans for hundreds of inventions.

When he was 15, Leonardo moved from the village of Vinci to the city of Florence, known both as a great center of art and as a flourishing community of homosexual men (in those days the German word “Florenzer” [Florentine] was the term for a homosexual). When he was 24, Leonardo and three other youths were arrested in Florence on a sodomy charge. An anonymous tip alerted the magistrate of the city that a 17-year-old male was a gay prostitute, and Leonardo was listed as one of four patrons. No witnesses appeared against them, and eventually the charges were dropped. However, two months later Leonardo was again accused and this time jailed for two months, until an uncle arranged for his release. Leonardo never married, had any children or showed any interest in women, and he wrote in his notebooks that male-female intercourse disgusted him. Leonardo dealt with this controversy by leaving Florence to settle in Milan.

Thereafter Leonardo took pains to keep his homosexual life private, but he nevertheless always surrounded himself with attractive men. Although he started writing his journals in code, his art reflected his love of male beauty, and the models he used were sexually desirable young men. His relationship with the beautiful curly-haired Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno (note Leonardo's painting of Caprotti at beginning of post), a former pupil, lasted twenty five years. For the last ten years of his life, Leonardo’s companion was a much younger nobleman, who would later serve as the executor of Leonardo’s estate.

When Leonardo died in 1519, Caprotti (better known as Salaì, meaning “little Devil”) inherited half a vineyard and several works of art, among them the Mona Lisa painting, now regarded as the world’s most famous portrait. Although Leonardo described Salaì as "a liar, a thief, stubborn and a glutton," Leonardo kept him in his household for more than 20 years, eventually training him as an artist. If Salaì had merely been a servant or pupil, he would have been dismissed.  Although Salaì stole from him on numerous occasions, Leonardo spent lavishly on clothing for his “kept” boy, even purchasing the 24 pairs of shoes the lad desired. What we do for love.

Many art historians believe that Salaì was the model for Leonardo’s homoerotic painting of John the Baptist. Salaì, a painter of modest talent, even created a nude version of the Mona Lisa, known as the Monna Vanna (shown at right). A page of drawings by Leonardo includes a sketch depicting Salaì from behind, pursued by a horde of penises on legs. I’m not making this up. We might have more of these had a pious priest not destroyed the bulk of Leonardo’s erotic gay sketches.

Leonardo eventually sent Salaì on his way, replacing him with a very young nobleman, Franceso Melzi, who described Leonardo’s affections as “a passionate and most fiery love.” Public knowledge of Leonardo’s homosexuality extended beyond his lifetime. In 1563, a book by Gian Paolo Lamazzo included a fictional dialogue between an interviewer and Leonardo. When being queried about the nature of Leonardo’s relationship with Salaì, Leonardo was asked, “Did you play the game from behind which the Florentines love so much?” Leonardo replied, “And how! Keep in mind that he was a beautiful young man, especially when about the age of fifteen.”

Undisputedly, Leonardo possessed the greatest mind of the Italian Renaissance. He wanted to know the workings of what he saw in nature. His inventions and scientific studies were centuries ahead of their time. He was the standard of ingenuity, and his intellectual inquisitiveness was the epitome of the Renaissance spirit. Six centuries later, the world is still in awe.

The following is from Serge Bramly's 1991 great biography of Leonardo:

No other personality was so intimidating, no other career so difficult to encompass, so biographers often resort to the assumption that Leonardo embodied some superhuman quality: "il divino". Vasari (a contemporary biographer of Leonardo) wrotes "there is something supernatural in the accumulation in one individual of so much beauty, grace, and might. With his right hand he could twist an iron horseshoe as if it were made of lead. In his liberality, he welcomed and gave food to any friend, rich or poor." His kindness, his sweet nature, his eloquence (his speech could bend in any direction the most obdurate of wills) his regal magnanimity, his sense of humor, his love of wild creatures, his terrible strength in argument, sustained by intelligence and memory, the subtlety of his mind which never ceased to devise inventions, his aptitude for mathematics, science, music, poetry. What's more, Leonardo was himself a man of physical beauty beyond compare.

Leonardo trivia:
He slept a paltry two hours a day.
A left-handed dyslexic, he tried to paint with both hands.
He was a stern self critic, destroying most of his work.