In the past few decades, readings and analysis through the lens of queerness have become more and more popular in academia; the two articles discussed below, by Samuel Dorf and Christopher Moore, are perfect examples of this trend. And while both articles bring interesting evidence to the fore, I believe that neither one is terribly convincing. Instead, they both essentially argue reductio ad absurdum on the stipulation that, in some form, a person’s sexuality bears critical significance on the generation of music, whether that person’s role be that of the composer or only of an ancillary nature.
In his article “Etrange, n’est-ce pas? The Princesse Edmond de Polignac, Erik Satie’s Socrate, and a Lesbian Aesthetic of music?,” Dorf argues that, due to the Princesse de Polignac’s lesbianism and her involvement in the creation of the work, most notably as a patron and in the libretto, Socrate has a uniquely lesbian aesthetic about it. The first reason I have to doubt Dorf’s conclusion is that, while the Princesse was certainly involved in the work – as he writes, she was the patron and she worked with Satie on its text – her involvement was very limited, and had almost nothing to do with the music itself, outside of the fact that she had asked for a work to be sung by women (her and two close friends). In addition, Dorf denies any involvement of the aesthetic on Satie’s part, stating that “Satie’s particular sexual preferences are for the most part irrelevant in this discussion” while I would say that the composer’s sexual preferences are perhaps the most relevant part of a discussion of queerness in a work of music. Furthermore, Dorf suggests that the act of women singing Greek together could be interpreted as “Sapphonic,” essentially a more “closeted” version of Natalie Barney’s garden readings of Sappho’s poetry. While there is some argument to be made there, Dorf produces no evidence as to why the Princesse de Polignac would even want to be seen in this light; evidence suggests that she strove as much as possible to avoid any action of hers being connected to homosexuality, and certainly public actions.
Moore’s article, “Camp in Francis Poulenc’s Early Ballets,” is also fairly tenuous in its argument, although it holds up better than Dorf’s, mostly in that it is much more firmly grounded in scholarship and specific evidence. All the same, Moore seems to hop around his argument as much as possible; he spends several pages on redefining “camp” which, it would seem to me, contradicts the idea of connecting Poulenc’s music with the idea of “camp.” By redefining camp, Moore pushes away from an audience that comes into the article with a particular understanding of camp that Moore rejects. While this is not a serious problem, it stuck out to me as somewhat odd. I found Moore’s position that Poulenc implies camp through les Biches in the use of Tchaikovsky’s music from Sleeping Beauty somewhat more convincing, but even here, the argument seems to fall apart in that it is the costuming, staging and Bronislava Nijinska’s choreography that really conveys the camp in les Biches and not so much Poulenc’s music. Thus, I would not ascribe the camp in these works to Poulenc, but rather to the ensemble of people who worked on the ballets; and the lion’s share of the work in that regard seems to go to those involved in the visual aspects of the ballets and not the musical ones.
Ultimately, I think one should be extremely careful when doing queer interpretations of these sorts of works because, as can be seen in these articles, there is a strong tendency to collapse a person’s entire personality and style into their sexuality. Not only is this poor form for academicians, but it has a strong homophobic bent to it.