Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
MusicPart of Humanities

Research project: Queer Music, Queer Theory, Queer Music Theory

Currently Active: 

Queer Music, Queer Theory, Queer Music Theory is a research project funded through the AHRC ‘Leadership Fellows’ scheme, from September 2017 onwards.

Conservative music-lovers were appalled at the idea of a gay Schubert, let alone that their favourite Schubert works might be intrinsically gay too, and they preferred to attribute his unique musical ability to mental health problems, venereal disease, or even his ugly appearance. Yet queer musicology had burst out of the closet and into the academic limelight, and the debate about Schubert's sexuality was even reported in the mainstream press. The notion of 'queer music analysis', however, was damaged during the debate: in 1993 Rita Steblin comprehensively rebutted Solomon's biographical research and asserted that the evidence in fact pointed towards Schubert's vigorous heterosexuality, which left notions of Schubert's homosexual musical style looking precarious. Apparently discredited, research into the analysis of queer music continued, but with considerably less prominence. (By contrast, the idea that popular music is often sexual, and sometimes queer, has been far less controversial: consider Bowie and Prince, for example.)

In the quarter-century since the birth of queer musicology, scholarship, and cultural and political attitudes have altered considerably. Many Western countries have introduced legislation to recognise same-sex relationships, and even President Putin acknowledged in 2013 that Tchaikovsky, Russia's most famous composer, was probably gay (inconvenient for Putin, given Russia's enactment of a so-called 'gay propaganda' law that year). Recently, there has been a renewed interest in queer music analysis, and a re-evaluation of the work and conclusions of earlier queer music scholarship is now due. Indeed, the very notion of 'queer music' is itself contestable and uncertain. We know that there are queer composers, whose artistic intentions may be related to their queer identity. But surely their intentions are not reducible to queerness alone? Perhaps rather than 'queer music' we should speak of queer creative strategies, queer forms of expression, queer 'meanings'? What, then, is 'queer' about queer music? Where does its queerness reside? And what can the analysis of queer composers' music contribute to our understanding?

This Fellowship ('Queer Music, Queer Theory, Queer Music Theory') will allow Dr David Bretherton to take a lead in re-energising the debate about the nature of queer music, and to play a decisive role in the re-conceptualisation of queer music from a music-theoretical and -analytical perspective (that is, from the perspective of the features and 'language' of music itself, rather than of the character traits of its composers). Focusing on selected works from the last two centuries, by composers such as Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Copland, Britten and Finnissy, this research will explore the emergence of queer musicology and critique earlier work in this area. It will then interrogate the concept of 'queer music' through several music-analytical case studies organised around core ideas from the discipline of queer theory. The notion that modern Western society is dominated by a 'heteronormative' discourse favouring heterosexual relationships and 'normal' gender behaviours will be particularly important, because its analogue, musical convention, when subverted is often dubiously interpreted as autobiographical evidence of a composer's queerness. This project seeks more nuanced and thoughtful alternatives, and seeks to align queer musicology with other approaches in the humanities. Its findings will be reported in a variety of academic and public forums

Related research groups

Musicology and Ethnomusicology
Share this research project Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Weibo
Privacy Settings