Philip Hensher: Touches that reveal so much more than an artist's skill

'It's not mistaken to think there is such a thing as "a gay discourse" in music, literature or painting'
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The Independent Online

The biographers have been busy recently, outing various distinguished or notorious figures from history as homosexual. Montgomery, in an authoritative biography by Nigel Hamilton, joined Kitchener and Baden-Powell in the ranks of those whose lifelong shyness with women might have had a well-hidden cause. Hitler was next, and that, it strikes me, isn't as implausible as all that. A sensitive artistic youth who loved his mother, opera and dressing up, he is embarrassingly close to an old cliché even before you start to consider the atmosphere around him before the Night of the Long Knives.

The latest claim along these lines is particularly interesting and raises a fundamental question. It has been suggested by the scholar Ellen Harris that Handel may have been homosexual. This is not really a new claim – people have often come to this conclusion quietly, based on his long and passionate male attachments and no evidence of any interest in women.

The claim, however, goes a little further than that. It is suggested that Handel's style displays elements that may be characteristically homosexual. In particular, his fondness for incomplete phrases breaking off into poignant silences, we are told, may reflect the fact that there was something unsayable about his personal circumstances; in the silent bars that often punctuate Handel's most intense utterances, we may hear what was later to be called "the love that dare not speak its name".

Put like that, it sounds complete rubbish, and it's tempting to dismiss it immediately – I hereby offer 50 quid to anyone who can find anything gay about the Hallelujah Chorus, and, no, the top note on the word "He" doesn't count. It's hard to think of silence as a particularly homosexual characteristic. Most of the ones I know never shut up yakking, to be honest.

And anyway, lots of composers are extremely fond of silence. No one would start to wonder about Debussy on the basis of the famous silent bar at the beginning of Prélude à l'après-midi d'une faune. Conversely, there are lots of indubitably homosexual composers who seem actively to avoid the dying fall and the echoing silence. Tippett, Copland or Henze, for instance, are much more drawn to the busy texture than to poignant silences.

But there is one striking comparison, which might start to make you wonder whether she's not on to something here. If silence in Handel is linked to his unspeakable sexuality, isn't it rather interesting that the most famous silence in all music, John Cage's "4 minutes and 33 seconds", is also the work of a homosexual composer? And Handel and Cage, surely, have absolutely nothing else in common.

Are there elements in art which, on their own, are specifically heterosexual or homosexual? Could one tell, based on the work alone, what the sexual preferences of its creator were? Basically, I think it is much like the experience of meeting people. You can't always tell whether someone is gay or lesbian, but sometimes, oh boy, you most definitely can. Wilde's plays or Firbank's novels are obviously by gay men. I guessed that the sitcom Frasier was written largely by a gay team long before I had this confirmed.

But what about the abstract art of music? Is the distinctively gay flavour of Britten's setting of Death in Venice also present in the Third String Quartet, which uses much of the same material? Sometimes, I think, it is possible to sense the homosexual's view of the world from the most abstract material, and I want to suggest that this is particularly true in the case of Schubert.

The biographical evidence for Schubert's sexual tastes is inconclusive either way. It's the music that has always made me think that his preference was for his own sex. Partly, it starts from those incredible expressions of passive longing for the divine lover, Ganymed, and the first Suleika song.

But it's there in the sonatas and symphonies, too. Those dying falls and silences in the great B flat sonata are always drawing close to something unsayable, as clearly as the finale of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. And in one of Schubert's most characteristic manoeuvres, there may be something definably gay. He very often changes key by settling on a single note, say the fifth note of the scale; in a second, the note entirely changes its meaning and is shown to be the third note of a completely different key. A magical trick, and one that is not confined to Schubert – Beethoven does the same thing in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony.

In Schubert, I think it may spring from a crucial sense of identity, the secret gay knowledge that sexual roles are not fixed. The notes are "versatile", as homosexuals say; a note may in one bar may be an A flat, the firm basis of a respectable key, and in the next be transformed into a G sharp, the flighty third of E major. It all depends.

On the whole, I don't think it's completely mistaken to think that there is such a thing as a "gay discourse" in music, literature, or painting. In individual cases, there may very well be stylistic features that can plausibly be traced back to the sexual make-up of a work's creator. A lot of energy has been expended in recent years considering the question of whether there are specifically male or female artistic styles, and the subject of the "gay discourse" is rather a similar one.

Any of these claims, of course, are going to have to be backed up by biography. But in cases such as Handel's and Schubert's, that firm evidence will only confirm what careful listeners always rather suspected. Me, I always thought Acis and Galatea and the Death and the Maiden quartet were as queer as a Liberace concert.