Both my boyfriend and dog are long suffering and patient. They recently spent four days in the car with me. Rather than fly, we 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). Having made the drive a few times before, the familiarity of the terrain seemingly shortened the trip. Kentucky’ rolling hills morphed seamlessly into the bleak austerity of Ohio’s cornfields. A few miles north of Akron, the mountains began as we headed into Pennsylvania. They ended suddenly as we entered the suburban terrain of northern New Jersey.
But no scenery could save us from cabin fever. Our ears too needed food. Podcasts from Serial and This American Life were interspersed with recordings on Richard’s iPhone. When Richard would take his took turn to drive, my time in the passenger’s seat would be spent periodically checking social media. Every day, the expanding list of public figures brought down from on high grew. While Harvey Weinstein was a recurrent figure, others seem to have gotten lost in the litany.
Since news of Kevin Spacey’s indiscretions, there’s been a certain silence about the manner in which he addressed the charges brought against him. In making a meaningless apology, he said he was gay, equating his impulse to molest children with his sexual attraction to members of the same sex. It’s gross, it’s unacceptable. But it’s not unheard of.
Somewhere in southern Ohio, an Elizabeth Schwarzkopf recording of Richard Strauss’ Morgen came came through the stereo. I admit that I recognized it 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, the poet was more than likely addressing a member of the same sex.
But I’m unconvinced when I hear a man performing the work. 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, such would be missing. And yet 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.
In 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 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 of developments in theories 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 is ambiguous as to the sex of both 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 its first performance in 1896, the singer was accused of immodesty because of it’s explicit references to female sexuality. Meanwhile, Morgen went on to enjoy a reputation as one of the most beloved love songs in the canon because of its allusive innocence. In drawing a veil over Mackay’s intent, Strauss ensured the poem’s timelessness, quietly returning the favor which Mackay lent in boosting Strauss’ career.
Like many histories, the history of sexual liberation is problematic. The history of gay art necessitates inclusion of Hellenistic desplays of sexual activity between uncomfortably young adolesents and men over twice their age. If I’m honest, Nabokov’s Lolita presented no shock to me when I first read it, for every work of art which goes into gratuitous detail about the sexuality of pre-pubescent girls, there are two or three similar books on boys of similar age. Max Klinger, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, Franz Schubert – all created art which explicitly uses the pederastic trope to illustrate a transcendental form of love. Indeed, so close was the material to these men that it’s difficult to isolate these works from those who created them.
The expression of people’s shock about James Levine is worrisome, considering the long-standing joke that inviting Jimmy 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 shocks me more is that as prevalent as the defense of pedophilia has been in music and the arts, people can be truly surprised that it can still happen, especially when people don’t ask questions when rumors arise and accusations are made. It’s in our books, it’s in our operas, and it’s in our favorite song by Strauss.
In looking back, it’s clear that 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.