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Queer History Month Post #4: Ghosts

While we might think of ghosts as primarily visual entities, sound and music have played and continue to play an important role in the history of ghost stories and supposedly true stories of hauntings. One of my favorite sitcoms has a lot of fun with imagining the musical opinions of ghosts across time, including scenes with 1980s Scout leader Pat Butcher trying his hand at DJing via EMF recorder, excitable and naïve Georgian lady Kitty Higham enjoying being included (sort of) in the living protagonists’ parties, semi-closeted WWII veteran the Captain expressing admiration for Kylie Minogue, and Regency poet Thomas Thorne dancing enthusiastically.

Pat Butcher (Jim Howick) and Thomas Thorne (Mathew Baynton) in The Grey Lady (Ghosts, series 2 episode 1)

Both fictional and nonfictional (or “nonfictional”) writings on the subject are replete with sounds that seem to blur the divide between the living and dead–bells tolling, footsteps, music manifesting from unknown or unseen sources. This is hardly a surprise, for–whatever one believes about death and a hereafter–tales of the supernatural remind us of the infallibility of human senses. In the final scene of one of my favorite operas, Salieri’s and Casti’s La grotta di Trofonio, the sisters Ofelia and Dori are asked what they saw inside a supposedly magical cave whose owner (the titular Trofonio, who also commands a chorus of spirits) had previously manipulated both them and their fiancés. Ofelia, a serious student of philosophy, recounts the wonders of the natural world, while the more fun-loving Dori complains about the cave’s ugly broken crockery and annoying buzzing insects. What they see and hear (and thus what the audience can observe) depends upon and reflects their personal biases and interests.

In working on the various projects that led to Imagining Musical Pasts, I’ve thought a lot about what to do with claims about the nature of music and history that run counter not merely to my own beliefs and values, but to my own experiences of the nature of reality and something approaching historical, musical, or biographical truths. I try to be careful to acknowledge that my own worldview is also dependent upon a variety of factors, while still making it clear that some evidence and interpretations are more reflective of a shared reality than others.

So…ghosts. Vernon Lee’s ghost stories and musings on the nature of the ways the past haunts the present have been some of the most charming and engaging things I’ve read over the course of my research. In particular, the way “A Wicked Voice” presents the music of the past as an overwhelming phenomenon and manifestation of ghostly possession is extremely evocative.

But, while Lee’s ghosts verge on the “real” (even if she tended to see them primarily as a psychological and emotional phenomenon), my interest in ghosts is primarily metaphorical. The eventual title of my dissertation was (inspired by a remark from Julie Cumming) “Ghosts in the Archives,” and the concepts of ghosts and haunting make for powerful symbols when it comes to the relationship between queer musical knowledge and “official” histories. As Susan Stryker and Nina Auerbach (among many, many, many others) have observed, tales of the supernatural, monstrous, and unknowable have long served as stand-ins for the taboo, hidden, marginal, and/or repressed.

My thoughts on the ghostly in “real life”–even at this time of year–tend to be more in line with the rational Sherlock Holmes than with his famously spiritualist creator:

This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (1924)

Thinking about ghosts, however, is not terribly far off from thinking about our relationship to historical evidence of a more tangible sort. It’s about interpretation, and what even stories that are wrong or unlikely or just plain strange can tell us about how other people have experienced music. I think it is fair to say that I can doubt some of Lee’s thoughts on how psychological reactions to art function or disagree with Prime-Stevenson’s readings of Beethoven’s biography while still being curious about how they arrived at those perspectives. I cannot help but be aware, however, of the ways in which “lack of evidence” has also frequently been claimed by those who want to dismiss en masse all attempts at recovering queer histories.

All of these contradictions and problems haunting how we work on music history brings to mind a ghost story that neatly bridges my research interests and raises a lot of questions about metaphorical and “real” musical ghosts, queer readings of the past, and dubious biographical stories. Walter Thornbury’s “The Old Chapel Master” is a Victorian Christmas story (first published in 1873). While we might think of Christmas today as creeping into Halloween’s territory (I just bought a fruitcake while shopping for Halloween candy), Victorian Christmases were times for ghost stories and Thornbury’s tale is no exception. His narrator Karl’s composition teacher, Herr Zadaka, is seemingly haunted in both the supernatural sense (he at times sees a figure no one else can see) and the more metaphorical one (he is rumored to have had a great scandal in his past and is eventually revealed to be Antonio Salieri(!) living under an assumed name).

Musically and historically, the story makes little sense. The twin reveals of Zadaka’s scandals–his suggestion that Karl commit plagiarism (by inserting an unknown aria by Mozart into a new opera) and his own past betrayals of the bonds of friendship and collegiality–are ludicrous to anyone with even a passing knowledge of opera or the historical Mozart and Salieri. This is the realm of sensation fiction, a genre of early crime fiction where the unlikely revelation of secret identities and past misdeeds are all part of the psychological drama. But all of this tells us something about how Thornbury and his circle of literary and art historical commentators (a circle which included Oscar Wilde) viewed stories of (rumored) artistic scandals past and the perceived tensions between art and crime. I’m still sorting through “The Old Chapel Master”‘s layers of perspective, characterization, and storytelling,” and the ways Thornbury’s depiction of plagiarism as both an artistic and deeply personal crime might be read alongside something like Edward Prime-Stevenson’s “Aquae multae non–“/”When Art Was Young,” which depicts a similar case of plagiarism, betrayal, and reconciliation in a more overtly queer story of two 17th-century music students.

Like Lee’s Magnus, Zadaka is haunted by ghostly visions and the sounds of 18th-century opera. Whereas Lee’s story depicts a violent possession of a living 19th-century artist by his aesthetic opponent, Thornbury’s rivals are seemingly reconciled in death, with Zadaka dying while speaking to Mozart’s ghost while his daughter Lisa and presumed future son-in-law Karl play a piano four-hands arrangement of Mozart’s Requiem in the next room. For both Lee and Thornbury (at least in their fictions), both an awareness of music history (however fictionalized) and musical sounds themselves transcend the boundaries of time, space, and life itself.

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