My boyfriend and my dog are long suffering and patient. They recently spent four days in the car with me. Rather than fly, I had to drive to Tennessee and back so I could pick up a new instrument. We returned via Oberlin (because Richard hadn’t seen the campus yet) and State College (to visit a friend of Richard’s) – it was an easier trip than the ride down, for me at least. Having made the drive a few times before, the familiarity of the terrain seemingly shortens the trip. Kentucky’ rolling hills morph seamlessly into the bleak austerity of Ohio’s cornfields. A few miles north of Akron, the mountains begin as you head into Pennsylvania. They end suddenly as you’re dumped into the suburban terrain of northern New Jersey.
But not even the scenery could save us from cabin fever. Podcasts from Serial and This American Life were interspersed with opera recordings on Richard’s iPhone. Driving long distances with music in this way foster bonding and conversation, a makeshift living room in an SUV. In taking turns to drive, the passenger was tacitly assigned the task of periodically checking facebook keeping the dog in their lap. Every day, the expanding list of public figures brought down from on high was gradually read off. While Harvey Weinstein is a recurrent figure, others seem to have gotten lost in the litany. Since new of Kevin Spacey’s indiscretions, there’s been a certain silence about the manner in which he addressed the charges. In making a meaningless apology, he also said he was gay, seemingly equating his impulse to molest kids with his sexual attraction to members of the same sex. It’s gross, it’s unacceptable. But it’s not unheard of.
An Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s recording of Richard Strauss’ Morgen came on the radio. I admit that I recognized it, but only when words began.
Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen…
It’s ironic that Morgen is most often sung by a woman. Knowing John Henry Mackay’s proclivities, he’s more than likely addressing a member of the same sex.
But I’m unconvinced when I hear a man performing the work – there’s a certain delicacy that’s lost. We tend to like the similitude between the soprano and the violin – as if it’s a duet between two equal lovers. With a tenor, all that is missing
I wonder if that’s the point. In reality, it’s the violin that has the melody: blissful, unaware, even naïve to the triplets or syncopations of the harp. The violin has long notes on the big beats of the bar, while the singer moves more quickly, pauses on offbeats, evokes are more complicated sensibility. The singer surreptitiously enters in the middle of a phrase with the first line of the poem, evoking timelessness or stagnation. The violin’s line isn’t allowed to finish, grow, mature. The violin is being sung to, even occluded. The violin is the object of the poet’s desire.
But even listening to Strauss’s own recording of Morgen with a tenor, the differential between the singer and the melody seems strange, even unsettling.
These days, John Henry Mackay is only seldom cited in the mainstream of pre-Stonewall gay rights history. Some German thinkers on gender and sexuality such as Magnus Hirschfield or Karl Heinrich Uhlrichs were brought back from the dead after the Third Reich, but in looking back it would seem that Mackay’s works were a welcome casualty. Mackay’s career was largely spent not defending homosexuality, or at least, not as we would think about it. John Henry Mackay’s career was spent promoting pederasty.
Under the pseudonym Sagitta, Mackay used pen and paper to compose erotic literature, but also to espouse theories of education which mandated sexual relations between adult men and boys. His identity was no secret, and his Books of Nameless Love were essential reading for those on the front lines in the study of sexual variation and sexuality.
Upon meeting Mackay in 1892, Strauss was taken with Mackay’s personality. Strauss had a flair for the controversial and took a liking to Mackay’s early work Die Anarchisten, an anarchist work promoting the freedom of society from conventional economic and sexual mores. They met again at the premiere of Guntram in May, 1894 and within two weeks Strauss had composed Morgen. The poem was originally published in 1890 in Das Starke Jahr. Morgen was immediately hailed as the pinnacle of poetry. Paul Friedrich would go on to write that the poem represented the “apex of lyric poetry.” Ernst Kreowski thought it the most beautiful poem in the entire collection.
By all accounts, the relationship between Strauss and Mackay grew closer. In 1897, Mackay acted as mediator for Strauss, arranging for his first performance at the Berlin Volksbühne. Within a year of performing a concert there with his wife, Strauss was called to be the principal conductor of the Royal Court Opera at the Volksbühne, a position that would go on to determine the scale of his career. As a token of gratitude, Strauss and his wife devoted an entire evening concert at the Volksbühne to the poetry of Mackay in 1899. One witness wrote that “The poet himself kept back shyly, although the affair, with 2000 attending, was an enthusiastic manifestation for the poet, the musician, and the speaker.”
Morgen‘s perfection perhaps comes in the fact that the poem ambiguous as to the sex of the subject and object. It’s not an uncommon device, and certainly not unfamiliar to Mackay. Much like Tadzio in Death in Venice, Mackay’s early epic poem Helene was modelled on a boy he knew. It’s worth noting that not all of Mackay’s poems were only addressed to men. Strauss’ setting of Verführung (Op. 33, no. 1) clearly identifies a female as the object of male seduction. But at the first performance in 1896, the singer was accused of immodesty, while Morgen was went on to enjoy a reputation as one of the most beloved love arias in the repertoire. Indeed, just as Mackay helped Strauss’ career, Strauss’s song ensured Mackay’s place among the timeless in poetry.
Like many histories, the history of sexual liberation is problematic. All too often, Hellenistic models of pederasty display of sexual attraction activity between uncomfortably young men and older men. I admit not being so shocked the first time I picked up Nabokov’s Lolita, as for every book which goes into gratuitous detail about the preying of older men on small girls, there are two on men and boys. Max Klinger, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, Franz Schubert – all have works which explicitly use the pederastic trope to illustrate a transcendental form of love. In some senses, it’s hard to isolate these works or the men who wrote them.
The expression of people’s shock about James Levine is worrisome, considering the long-standing joke that inviting James to dinner would necessitate the presence of a high-chair for his accompanying paramour. The Met may have been complicit. The stories are no longer just stories. What I’m shocked more by is as prevalent as the defense of pedophilia has been, that people can be truly surprised that it can still happen, that people don’t ask questions when the rumors arise and accusations are made. It’s in our books, it’s in our operas, it’s in our favorite song by Strauss.
Strauss knew about Mackay. There wasn’t anyone who didn’t know. While the publishers of Mackay’s works were prosecuted for obscenity in the 1910’s and 1920’s, Straus recorded Morgen twice, and both times with a man singing. We have no way of knowing how many boys were victimized by Mackay, but the silence around his books and around Morgen remains to this day. It’s important because Strauss used his position as a musician to promote Mackay, despite the opinions of many then and now that he was nothing more than a rich pedophile who could afford a cheap publisher. Whether you like it or not, Morgen is about pederasty, and we’ve done our damndest to sanitize it. To forget. To “unknow.”
A great musician’s influence can be powerful, as we’ve found out in recent days. Levine used his position as a musician, conductor and would-be mentor to prey upon children and rob them of their innocence. But it was his stature in the profession prevented further scrutiny. Peter Gelb, Beverly Sills, and a host of other beneficiaries of Levine’s conducting prowess have steadfastly ignored what has been openly known for 40 years or more.
Our anger will likely pass in the next year or so. We’ll learn to tune it out again, and allow ourselves to enjoy Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Britten and hosts of other historical composer-pederasts. We’ll start thinking of Lolita as a “challenging read” again. We’ll probably listen to Levine recordings before long, claiming that we’re listening to it because of the singers, not the conductor. But without fail, the rapture of Strauss’ Morgen will certainly remain in perpetuity.