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Why are musicologists so indifferent to their subjects’ love lives?

2 May 2020

9:00 AM

2 May 2020

9:00 AM

Poulenc: A Biography Roger Nichols

Yale, pp.356, 25

People often say that the battle for male gay rights has been won, at least in the West, and that may be true. But the drag of the past is still great, and I can think of only two major works between classical and recent times that celebrate same-sex love openly: Shakespeare’s sonnets and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Light began to break through after the Great War, but largely for fellow insiders. Auden and Isherwood were timid in what they published in their prime. Proust did gay, but stuck to sordid. Only Gide spoke out positively in Corydon, but the journals are almost mute on his sex life. It took Genet, Burroughs and Warhol to place a bomb under the whole culture-wide taboo and proclaim the news: that males could be magically sexy to other males.

Biography didn’t take long to catch up, and arrived in the late 1960s with Michael Holroyd’s life of Lytton Strachey, the first honest biography since Suetonius. After that, rather wonderfully, almost every biographer seems to have tried to demonstrate that their subject is not some dreary old straight but was lit up with a complex eroticism.

Except in music. Russia still insists that Tchaikovsky wasn’t homosexual. Poland’s solitary gay figure, Szymanowski, has been horribly disinfected. Accounts of Benjamin Britten’s life always have something virginal about them, while did you know that Cage, Copland and Lully were gay? And so to Francis Poulenc — hardly a squeak. Well, if anyone could put this right it would be Roger Nichols, the most distinguished authority writing in English on French music.

His new biography begins broadly with Poulenc’s birth in Paris in 1899, into a comfortable home supported by the family’s successful chemical business. But Poulenc was not a late starter, and by chapter two the canon starts to appear — and Poulenc the man takes a back seat. A woman, writing to him about Satie’s funeral, reports: ‘The smart, leisured, homosexual set was well represented.’ This was pretty much Poulenc’s set, and it would have been a perfect opportunity for the biographer to describe it. But Nichols says nothing.

When Poulenc falls deeply in love for the first time, Nichols quotes one of his letters to the beloved, Richard Chanlaire: ‘You have changed my life, you are the sun of my 30 years, a reason to live and work.’ Who was this person? Nichols sums him up in just six words —‘a talented painter and amateur violinist’ — and follows this with 600 words on the ballet Aubade. The effect on the reader is very odd.

In a paragraph on Poulenc’s Catholicism, Nichols suddenly throws in: ‘The lovers he took from the milieu we may unkindly dub “rough trade”.’ That circle also needs to be described, since our hero spent so much time in it, but there’s nothing.

Later we hear en passant that Poulenc is having an affair with a Raymond, then a Lucien, then a builder called Louis and someone called Claude. Who are they, and how might Poulenc have met them? It is not that Nichols is squeamish about homosexuality, he’s just not interested. Yet this is the key to his subject’s emotional vitality as well as his recurring depressions, as Nichols admits: ‘Central to Poulenc’s mental distress was the breakdown of his love life.’ It is not enough to believe (as the text seems to) that because Poulenc was reticent about it his biographer needs to be too. Nor is it just the homosexuality that’s skimped. On page 181 Poulenc — astonishingly — becomes a father. That episode gets a mere 17 lines.

Nichols does track Poulenc’s musical travels, which were extensive and international. But what he really wants to do is analyse the music as it emerges chronologically, and he does this with incomparable knowledge and panache, setting the works in their cultural context. He also has a wonderful way of describing music. ‘Technicians may frown at [Poulenc’s] reliance on the diminished seventh, that old warhorse of heightened emotion.’ Or: ‘The shaping of the vocal line is almost that of art nouveau in its elegant curves, perfectly set off by the regular quavers that so often grace the composer’s most heartfelt songs.’

After a while, because the author’s flair is infectious, one accepts that music is hogging the show. The compositions become the characters in the book, with their origins, temperaments, relationships and destinies set in the great world of performance. I don’t think anyone writes better about classical music than Nichols, his wry humour and gift for surprising connections never losing touch with scholarly erudition. But why aren’t musicologists interested in people too?

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