Queer History Month Post #3: Reading

Most of my writing so far on this website (and elsewhere) has dealt with questions of how musicology has been written in different times and places and with different audiences in mind. A large part of my argument for thinking about musical scholarship as a form of literature revolves around considering how we read different kinds of claims, characters, events, and sources–including the real, the fictional, and those falling somewhere in-between.

But what about readers and the act of reading? Questions of reading are intimately tied with all three of my sources: Vernon Lee’s reading of the Answerers to her questionnaire and reading into the Baroque art and music she so loved, Rosa Newmarch’s reading (and translation) of the available primary sources on the life of Piotr Tchaikovsky, and Edward Prime-Stevenson’s deliberate misreading or counter-reading of both musicological and sexological sources. Their readers–be they reviewers for Music & Letters, close personal friends, music lovers, or those stumbling across an old book about music decades later–also varied in what they brought to each author and subject and what they chose to address in their written reviews and remarks.

I think about this question of readership most frequently with the works and life of Rosa Newmarch, particularly surrounding Newmarch’s well-regarded but uneasy status within the world of musicology during her lifetime, the complicated and contradictory experiences of her documented readers, and the fascinating (and, admittedly, highly relatable) status of someone who devoted so much of her career to writing biography yet who maintained a high degree of privacy and frequently came across as skeptical of the biographer’s responsibilities to both subject and readership.

The first topic that comes to mind in connection with Newmarch’s Tchaikovsky project is the question of what she knew or didn’t know about Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and the motivations of the so-called “sensationalists” who shared gossip and conspiracy theories about the composer’s life, death, final work, and posthumous reputation. Malcolm Hamrick Brown’s chapter on Tchaikovsky in Anglophone criticism and scholarship (in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity) argues that she must have suspected or been told something about Tchaikovsky during her research and trips to Russia, although her gender, social class, and intended audience would all have kept her from discussing the subject of homosexuality openly. As I have discussed in connection with Newmarch’s Tchaikovsky project, some of her readers (most famously E.M. Forster, but probably also Prime-Stevenson and Edward Carpenter, both of whom make occasional references to Tchaikovsky in connection with “homosexual” or “intermediate” music history) seem to have read the subject back into her work, particularly when it came to the discussion of Tchaikovsky’s unhappy marriage, relationship with his nephew Vladimir Davydov, and correspondence with his brother Modest Tchaikovsky. Yet this was clearly not the case for every reader. May Byron, author of a lengthy series of fictionalized children’s biographies of great artists, drew heavily from Newmarch for her 1912 installment, A Day with Tschaikovsky. Byron’s books, with an interview format that increased their air of authority and accuracy, sidestep (as might be expected given their publication date and youthful audience) the question of her subjects’ frequently unorthodox lives–other volumes include Chopin, Schubert, Byron, Shelley, and Whitman. In the case of Tschaikovsky, Byron emphasizes his place as a man living for music who had a keen appreciation for history and literature. His relationships, with the exception of the correspondence with von Meck, are largely relegated to vague mentions of unhappy love affairs. In a tiny note in the book’s endpapers, Byron “wishes to acknowledge indebtedness, for many authentic sayings of Tschaikovsky, to the admirable books of Mrs. Rosa Newmarch” (Byron 1912, np). So the same passages from Newmarch’s books could clearly serve different functions for different readers.

Even before my interest in Newmarch as such, I have often found myself picking up older “lives of the great composers” to say what they say–or, often more pointedly, do not say–about Tchaikovsky and other figures. Beyond the question of how music biography (especially that aimed at children and general readers) often closets queer figures and sanitizes the more troubling, taboo, or “scandalous” elements of composers’ and performers’ lives, there is the question about how certain popular narratives get taken up as fact and repeated as such over decades and centuries. My other favorite thing to check is how many authors take up the question of Salieri’s “intrigues” against Mozart as a given, often referring vaguely to rumors or anecdotes without providing documentation. In her translation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, op. 48, Newmarch is somewhat unusual for the specificity of her references to Otto Jahn’s Mozart biography and Gustav Nicolai’s novella Der Musikfeind, a highly fictionalized Gothic story clearly inspired by Salieri’s teaching career and later life (even if she, like Jahn, misdates Nicolai’s work). (For more on Nicolai and the transformation of gossip into fiction into quasi-historical source, see my article on 19th-century Salieri-themed horror fiction in VAN Magazine.)

Then there is the question of reading the traces of Newmarch’s personal life and community beyond her scholarship. In his biography of Newmarch, Lewis Stevens emphasizes how much of her concertgoing happened in the company of her longtime companion Bella Simpson (including the delightful fact that they first met at a concert by Clara Schumann!). I am skeptical here of falling headlong into the biographical fallacy in thus thinking of Newmarch’s poetry about concert attendance and romantic friendship as perhaps reflective of some of her ideas about listening, love, and social limitations. But what are we to make of the fact that such readings of art and music were popular during Newmarch’s own lifetime? Or the fact that her Grove article on Tchaikovsky proposes a personal reading of Tchaikovsky’s music not on behalf of the composer, but on behalf of the listener? (More on the Grove later…)

The time of prejudice against Tchaikovsky’s music on the ground
of its national peculiarities has long since gone by; at least in this
country, where his reception has always been more enthusiastic
than critical. As regards its powers of endurance, the prophetic
spirit is hardly needed in order to foresee the waning popularity
of a few of his works which have run a course of sensational
success. . . . But it would be a rash critic who would venture to set
a term for the total extinction of such of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic
and operatic music as bears the full impress of his individuality. . . . If Tchaikovsky does not bear a supreme message to the
world, he has many things to say which are of the greatest interest
to humanity, and he says them with such warmth and intimate
feeling that they seem less a revelation than an unexpected effluence from our own innermost being. His music, with its strange
combination of the sublime and the platitudinous, will always
touch the average hearer, to whom music is—and ever will be—
more a matter of feeling than of thought. Therefore, if we must
pose the inevitable question—How long will Tchaikovsky’s music
survive?—we can but make the obvious reply: As long as the
world holds temperaments akin to his own: as long as pessimism
and torturing doubt overshadow mortal hearts who find their cry
re-echoed in the intensely subjective, deeply human music of this
poet who weeps as he sings, and embodies so much of the spirit
of its age; its weariness, its disenchantment, its vibrant sympathy,
and morbid regretfulness.

Newmarch, “Tchaikovsky,
Peter Ilich,” in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. J.A. Fuller
Maitland (New York: Macmillan, 1910), 5: 48–49.


Malcolm Hamrick Brown. “Tchaikovsky and his Music in Anglo-American Criticism, 1890s–1950s.” In Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity. Ed. Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell, 134–49. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

May Byron. A Day With Tschaikovsky. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912.

Edward Carpenter. The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women. London: Allen & Unwin, 1908.

Rosa Newmarch. “Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich,” in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Volume 5. Ed. J.A. Fuller Maitland, 48–49. New York: Macmillan, 1910.

Rosa Newmarch (ed. and trans.). Mozart and Salieri, op. 48. By Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. London: J.&W. Chester, c.1919.

Edward Prime-Stevenson. The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life. Rome, Florence, or Naples: Privately Printed, ca. 1909.

Lewis Stevens. An Unforgettable Woman: The Life and Times of Rosa Newmarch. Leicester: Matador, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.