Outing the Dead

By David Brittan / May / June 2002
July 1st, 2007
Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas by Ellen T. Harris '67 (Harvard University Press, 430 pages, $39.95).

An artistic circle in which Alexander Pope could toss off verses and have them set to music by the future composer of Messiah must have been a hotbed of creative brilliance. If it was also a hotbed of homosexuality, nobody today would be surprised. But how would you prove it?

In Handel as Orpheus, Ellen T. Harris, an MIT musicologist, takes on two formidable tasks: first, to show that the Italian and English aristocratic households in which George Frideric Handel lived and worked from his early twenties to his late thirties (1706-23) were homosexual coteries; and second, to show that the 100 or so cantatas he composed in and for those settings are rife with homo-erotic content. It isn't easy to peer into eighteenth-century closets: homosexuality was just then emerging as a distinct identity, and harsh sodomy laws bred extreme secrecy, especially in Britain. Finding a meaningful connection between the artists' sexuality and their art is harder still.

On the first score - proof of gayness - Harris manages to establish that certain of Handel's associates were at least not strictly heterosexual. Gian Gastone, the married Medici prince who invited Handel to Florence from Hamburg, reserved what Harris calls "his most intimate relationship" for his groom. Other bisexuals among Handel's Italian patrons enjoyed lengthy affairs with castrati, those male opera stars who were engineered to sing in the Maria Callas range. But Harris makes a weaker case for gayness among Handel's English patrons. Lord Burlington's close friendship with the architect William Kent, for example, raises a red flag only because a sexual relationship between two men of their stations "would not have been unusual."

As for Handel's own leanings, a debate has simmered for years, fueled in part by the absence of a Mrs. Handel. Some scholars have claimed he had affairs with female singers, others that he was homosexual. Harris weighs in on the gay side, noting that the opera Nero contains an "openly homosexual" character and that Handel was caricatured late in life as a gluttonous pig, a depiction that might have signified an all-encompassing sexual appetite. She also points out that Handel was often compared to Orpheus, who in some versions of the Greek myth was not just a consummate musician but an advocate of gay sex.

Such findings are suggestive, but they fall short of proving that the cantatas grew out of (as Harris puts it) "a privileged male culture that embraced same-sex love." Although she appears to have done her best with the wisps of innuendo that survive three centuries after the fact, the tenuousness of this evidence makes the other half of Harris's job - illuminating the hidden homoerotic dimension of Handel's cantatas - that much harder.

Outwardly, the cantatas are straightforward settings of pastoral poetry and classical myths in Italian. Composed for one or a few singers with instrumental accompaniment, they are full of shepherds wooing shepherdesses, gods chasing nymphs, and parted lovers singing of their pain. Any homosexual content is well hidden.

Searching for such content in the music (as opposed to the text) turns up little. Although Harris tries to show that Handel expressed his own emotions through female voices, her argument lapses into assertion. Elsewhere she suggests that Handel used rests (musical silences) in his cantatas because he harbored secrets in his life - which is a little like saying Picasso used blue because he was sad. Music, as Harris admits, is often a poor guide to the composer's psyche.

That leaves words. Harris's take on the cantata texts relies partly on historical analysis - she tracks down classical variants of certain myths in which the amorous Greek shepherds were both male. But mainly she employs the tools of literary criticism; through a "homosexual reading" of the verses, she tries to establish what they might have meant in a "homosexual context":

"In a homosexual reading of Acis and Galatea," she writes, "Polyphemus [a cyclops] could represent the 'monstrous' law condemning men convicted of same-sex acts to death.... Alternatively, he could represent a male homosexual in a position of power who, with 'monstrous' hypocrisy, carries out these executions.... More provocatively, Polyphemus might represent a woman disguised as a man, as in the travesty tradition, and more specifically, a dangerous woman depicted by a low male voice."

Ideally, one would like to see evidence for these interpretations - or else an admission that it is all an imaginative game. But Harris has such faith in her own readings that she uses the cantatas themselves as evidence that one or another member of Handel's circle was gay.

One such quarry is Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, who penned a cantata text that flatteringly compared Handel to Orpheus. "I am compelled to sing / In praise of your music these words:"

Orpheus with his sweet sounds
Could stop birds in their flight
And the wild beast in its tracks;
Trees were moved by such beautiful sounds,
And rocks were even lifted from the ground,
But he never made them sing.

So you, greater than Orpheus,
Force my muse into song,
Just when it had
Hung the plectrum
On a hoary tree, and lay motionless.


In Harris's reading, nothing is as it seems. Birds, trees, rocks, and beasts are all "familiar metaphors for the male sexual organs." To "sing" is to have sex. "Pamphili's own situation," Harris contends, "is rather graphically described with his image of the plectrum [pick], which had previously hung unused and motionless on a dry tree." Decoded, then, the cantata reads something like: Thanks for the good time.

Anyone who has trouble buying Harris's interpretation will be unable to accept it as the sole proof that Pamphili - apparently the only Roman patron

not openly boffing a castrato - was boffing Handel. Yet this is what Harris asks readers to believe: "The most revealing evidence of an erotic attraction in Pamphili's life may be the texts he wrote for Handel, especially the Orpheus cantata."

If that standard of evidence were sufficient to characterize an entire community and its relationship to its art, then all would be settled: Handel and his associates were gay, and the cantatas were elaborate love notes. But as Harris must know - claims to know, in fact - interpretations are never certain. It takes more than a literary gloss to judge what was in people's hearts, and more than conjecture to out the dead.

David Brittan is a pianist who writes about music and the arts. He lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
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May / June 2002