From Beethoven to Britten, some of the most creative minds to put notes to a staff also pushed the boundaries of sexual acceptance. The complex compositions of classical music throughout history have explored the depths of sound, and LGBT individuals often led the way.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven
One of the most famous composers of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven as far as history can tell never had a sexual relationship with a woman but clearly pined for a number of men in his life. He seemed to yearn for his brother Casper, and after Casper’s death, he fought his sister-in-law to ultimately become the guardian of his nephew Karl, according to research published by Rictor Norton. How healthy was the relationship? To Ludwig, it seemed almost like a marriage, but the love may not always have been reciprocated, as many preserved letters show the composer angry when the younger Beethoven would bring other men home.
2. George Frideric Handel
What made Handel sing Hallelujah? There is a surprising dearth of information on relationships that the famed German composer engaged in, but the 2002 book Handel as Orpheus by musicologist Ellen T. Harris lays out the case Handel was a homosexual. Harris deduced as much from studying his unpublished works, but her book supports certain rumors that have surrounded his sexuality through the centuries.
3. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
While historians in Russia denied for centuries that Tchaikovsky was gay, Eastern voices in recent years have come around to the notion the tenderness in the composer’s music came from gay desires. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, famous for enforcing antigay laws, today acknowledges Tchaikovsky’s leanings. Historian Rictor Norton notes many letters between Tchaikovsky and both his brother and nephew that revealed his same-sex persuasion.
4. Jean-Baptiste de Lully
The libertine Lully was a composer, musician, and famed dancer in the court of France's King Louis XIV, where his gay sexuality was an open secret. At one point, he had a well-known affair with royal music page Brunet, according to George Haggerty’s Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures, but the boy was imprisoned when the composer fell out of favor with the king.
5. Benjamin Britten
For 35 years, this British opera composer, considered by many to be the greatest in the 20th century, lived with tenor Peter Pears. The two musicians spent 35 years together before Britten’s death in 1976. Queen Elizabeth II even wrote a letter of condolence to Pears upon Britten’s death. However, his legacy has been tarnished by accusations of pedophilia.
6. Camille Saint-Saens
The composer who wrote Samson and Delilah and The Carnival of Animals was a master pianist who at age 10 was performing Beethoven’s sonatas. In another similarity to Beethoven, Saint-Saens by many accounts was attracted to men but largely kept the fact out of public discussion. Many presumed his marriage at the age of 40 was undertaken to bolster his public image, and after the death of two children, he would walk out on that relationship.
7. Ethel Smyth
An English composer and suffragist, Smyth primarily had relationships with women through her lifetime. In Christopher Wiley’s Music and Letters, her affection for Virginia Woolf is clearly revealed, and she once wrote to author Henry Bennett Brewster that she wondered “why it is so much easier for me to love my own sex passionately than yours.”
8. Frederic Chopin
The legendary 19th-century Polish composer wrote love letters to Tytus Wojciechowski that revealed his persuasion, according to historian Michel Lariviere, and there is evidence he had male lovers before that as well, including the openly and famously gay Marquis de Custine.
9. Franz Schubert
While Schubert as a young man was definitely known as a womanizer, he likely was bisexual, later living many years with gay poet Johann Mayrhofer. Researcher Maynard Solomon found plenty of evidence that he also expressed deep feelings for male friend Franz von Schober.
10. Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc
An out composer in early-20th-century France, Poulenc created music opposing the homophobic Nazis during the 1940s, according to Daisy Falcourt’s Les Six. French historians suggest that through the years he was a notorious chaser of handsome younger men. Of course, a few notable relationships with women, at least one of which resulted in child, show he may best be described as bisexual, even if the attraction appeared somewhat sporadic.
11. Aaron Copland
Known in his lifetime as the dean of American composers, Copland wrote such Americana compositions as Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man. And according to biographer Howard Pollack, he was also confident in his homosexuality from an early age, even though he showed little inclination to come out publicly. His work would influence a generation of composers.
12. Arcangelo Corelli
Remembered today as the founder of modern violin technique, Corelli developed an international reputation during the late 17th century. Historians today widely believe that he was gay. He once served Queen Christina of Sweden, a lesbian royal, and also moved in the same circles as Handel.
13. Michael Tippett
The prolific composer of such works as “The Vision of Saint Augustine,” Tippett also was among a few European composers in the mid-20th century to come out, and he had public relationships with both men and women. He called partner Wilfred Franks “a major factor underlying the discovery of my own individual musical 'voice.'"
14. Samuel Barber
One of the most financially and critically successful composers in the 20th century, Barber won the Pulitzer Prize for Music twice, first for the opera Vanessa and later for his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. He also was half of classical music’s greatest gay power couple. He and composer Gian Carlo Menotti, whom he met while the two studied at Curtis Institute of Music, would become life partners, though The New York Times in Barber’s obituary referred to Menotti only as Barber’s “longtime friend.”
15. Gian Carlo Menotti
By the time Menotti died in 2007, the relationship was something The Independent acknowledged more openly. Menotti himself would be remembered for tremendous contributions to the field himself. He also would win two Pulitzers in his life, for The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street.
16. Leonard Bernstein
Maybe no composer had more pop influence in America than Bernstein, called music’s monarch by The New York Times upon his death. His wife, Felicia, would write in letters about their own relationship and reveal knowledge of his same-sex desires. “You are a homosexual and may never change,” she wrote. “You don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?”
17. Virgil Thomson
The modernist composer helped develop the American sound in the classical era. While not known for tolerance himself, Thomson was arrested in 1942 during a raid on a gay bordello near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, according to biographer Anthony Tommasini.
18. Colin McPhee
Canadian composer Colin McPhee helped define the sound of the neo-Classical era, bringing the sounds of Java and Bali to Western musicology. He was also out, hanging in New York’s gay cultural circles, at one point sharing a brownstone with other famed gay artists, Britten and W.H. Auden.