Why Fiction?

Unfortunately, after the concert he [Maurice] met Risley.
“Symphony Pathique,” said Risley gaily.
“Symphony Pathetic,” corrected the Philistine [Maurice].
“Symphonie Incestuese et Pathique.” And he informed his young friend that Tchaikovsky had fallen in love with his own nephew, and dedicated his masterpiece to him. “I come to see all respectable London flock. Isn’t it supreme!”

E.M. Forster, Maurice (Norton, 1971), 161-2.

I’ve spent the last few weeks proofreading and working on a few different writing projects, but am aiming to finish the virtual library and get a few more blog posts and resource lists up by the time Imagining Musical Pasts hopefully becomes available in the next month or two. (In most cases, this is just a matter of finding the time and energy to turn my existing research notes into hopefully readable annotations, although I am still debating how best to share those sources that are not yet to my knowledge widely available in digitized formats.)

This afternoon, however, I wanted to think about fiction. As my research has developed from its initial form–a vague question of “how did sexologists talk about music and how (if at all) did musicologists and critics talk about sexuality around the turn of the twentieth century”–through the dissertation and various subsequent projects, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the place of literature and other fictional media as a source of musical knowledge and the problem of how to engage with that knowledge without lending credence to unreliable claims and sources.

Fiction can be a troublesome issue for musicologists, theorists, and others who consider ourselves skeptical commentators on music history. After all, is it not a large leap from fiction to outright lies, distortions, and misinformation? In my other project, on Antonio Salieri’s reception history, I write a lot about fictions that veer into the absurd, serve some particular aesthetic and/or political angle, or are just plain wrong about music history.

It is not for nothing that authenticity (and/or the lack thereof) is often a primary concern when it comes to both scholarly and popular reactions to historical and biographical fictions. In the wake of successful biopics, academics are often asked to hold forth on “how much” of whatever story is true. One can find websites comparing photos of actors to those of the real people they portrayed and giving point-by-point comparisons of film, television, and theatrical plots to the documented historical record.

Yet a curiosity about the people of history often goes hand-in-hand with gossip, anecdote, fiction, and the notion of what might be spread as “truth” within particular contexts. Maurice Hall, the stockbroker protagonist of E.M. Forster’s posthumously published novel Maurice (and the subject of the quote at the top of this post), has little interest in music, biography, or literature. Yet it is the experience of hearing an old university friend share a piece of gossip about Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and the supposedly secret queer meaning attached to his Symphony no. 6 (the Pathétique) that leads him to reading (as did Forster) Rosa Newmarch’s translation of Modest Tchaikovsky’s biography of his brother. Maurice’s musicological reading does not instill in him any great love of art or appreciation for music–something that distinguished him from his creator, a lifelong music lover who occasionally dabbled in analysis. But it granted him a kind of (recent) historical basis for his self-knowledge and what we might consider a kind of coming out process. As a result, he ultimately decides to reject his doctor’s recommendation of heterosexual marriage as a “cure” for his feelings. This is obviously a positive development, eventually leading to the novel’s famous happy ending, with Maurice and his partner Alec running away from familial, legal, and societal pressures to lead an idyllic life as rural woodcutters. Yet there is something ambiguous about this framing of Tchaikovsky as queer tragedy. As Philip Brett observes in “Musicality, Essentialism, and the Closet” (in Queering the Pitch, 1994), similar narratives would also serve more homophobic readings of music history well into the twentieth century.

Maurice Hall’s particular story is fiction, of course. But it is fiction that references a work of real-world scholarship that itself was engaging with an international and multi-lingual form of gossip and conspiracy theorizing about Tchaikovsky’s life, work, and death. It also reflects Forster’s place in a particular upper- and upper-middle-class intellectual gay male circle. At Cambridge, he was friends with the musicologist Edward Dent. He also knew the socialist philosopher Edward Carpenter, whose partner George Merrill was the inspiration for Maurice’s eventual love interest Alec Scudder. Through Carpenter, he may have also encountered the works of Edward Prime-Stevenson, whose occasional references to Tchaikovsky include a sexual pun on “Pathetic” and “Pathic” nearly identical to the joke made by Maurice’s friend Risley. This was gossip Forster knew intimately shared by those he knew intimately: friends, partners, and colleagues. The musicological truth of it might be dubious or debated, but it clearly functioned as a kind of in-group joke or sign or message that linked knowledge (of a sort) about history and biography to more current concerns.

During the 1980s, the advertising for both the film adaptation and theatrical performances of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus famously proclaimed “Everything You’ve Heard Is True.” Musicologists–myself included–have rather gleefully used the tagline as a bit of a target for addressing problems of truth in musical fictions. (Yes, the line actually refers to the popular success of Amadeus, rather than any claims of historical fidelity. But it was clearly winking at audience questions around “how much as true?” And, frankly, it is just too good a line to let go unremarked upon.) Shaffer himself was also cagy about his reliance on historical sources and the question of historical accuracy vs historical plausibility vs historical allegory in his plays. He sometimes claimed (as in a 1980 public talk covered by music critic Harold Schonberg for the New York Times) that his works were fictional extrapolations from gaps in the historical record, often emphasizing his research process.

In my admittedly biased opinion as someone who works on the history of gossip and also has an abiding interest in Salieri reception history, the most interesting parts of Amadeus aren’t about Mozart’s operas or the alleged workings of musical politics at the court of Joseph II. This isn’t to say that the historical inaccuracies don’t matter or that they shouldn’t be corrected when erroneously taken as fact, but that as a work of fiction about music history, there is more to consider than strict historical truth. The play (far more than the film, in my opinion) is, rather like Maurice’s conversation with Risley, really about gossip and historical memory and how we engage with imagined musical pasts. The Venticelli, two “representative citizens of Vienna” who (along with Salieri) appear in both the 1823/4 scenes and the flashbacks to the 1780s and ’90s, both actively engage in and comment upon multiple pieces of musical gossip over the course of the play. They are deliberately anachronistic, simultaneously invoking Shaffer’s references to documented historical sources, obviously imagined spoken gossip, and later anecdotes with varying degrees of fidelity and reliability. Unlike the other characters, they do not age and seem–when not functioning as speaking extras in various party and theater scenes–to largely exist outside of the play’s historical settings. The 2015/6 National Theatre productions emphasized their unique position, with the actors playing the Venticelli dressed in modern concert black, entering with the onstage orchestra, and checking their smartphones. They are very much figures of the current century, not the eighteenth or nineteenth. The gossip they share could also well be far more current in nature. They aren’t about what any of us know for certain, but what we think we might know and why that matters. Risley would no doubt get on with them incredibly well. Isn’t it supreme, indeed.

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