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In spite of the presence of many gay, lesbian, and bisexual figures in the field of classical music, it is difficult to identify more than a handful of self-identified, openly gay or lesbian conductors even in the early years of the twenty-first century. As well, it is difficult to find much explicit discussion of the relationship between homosexuality and conducting. Yet the invisibility of sexual minorities on the podium should in no way diminish their very real, if often overlooked, contributions to classical music.

As they gain a more secure place in the profession and more visibility, openly gay and lesbian conductors no longer fear explicit persecution, and a few have begun to enjoy a tentative and gradual acceptance. In the last twenty-five years, gay and lesbian conductors have used their success both to broaden classical music to speak to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and to use music as an artistic activity around which to organize, strengthen, and heal glbtq communities.

The Rise of the Conductor

Conducting is a relatively new practice in the history of classical music. As the eighteenth century came to a close, a new role and persona developed for music directors. Before the 1780s and 1790s, the words conductor and conducting had little or no connection to music. Gradually, the meaning of the words grew to encompass musical direction; and the words acquired new nuances of meaning to coincide with the birth of the modern conductor.

Prior to this development, orchestral and choral directors existed, but they served more as timekeepers than interpreters and often played or sang in the ensembles that they directed. Generally speaking, prior to the late eighteenth century, the job of the musical leader was to maintain an even tempo and mark the beat.

The role was far from consistently fulfilled, and it involved a number of practices in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that appear quite foreign--and even humorous--to our notions of conducting. Musicians often rapped large wooden canes, waved handkerchiefs, or stomped loudly before the baton was introduced in the 1820s and became a standard conducting tool in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In musical periods before the Romantic Era (roughly 1820-1900), the composer typically found himself directing his own works, especially if he served as an official court or church musician. In this tradition, the Kapellmeister (literally "chapel master," or provincial conductor) served in many different musical capacities--composer, orchestral organizer, and conductor. Well-known composers such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven often led performances of their music from the keyboard.

As the very structure of classical music began to change, both in terms of the music itself and how it was produced, the roles of composer and conductor grew apart and the conductor began to take on new functions as interpreter of the score and performance coach of the orchestra and choir.

The need for a professional conductor partially grew out of the rhythmic innovations of the music itself. Composers such as Mozart and particularly Haydn and Beethoven began to introduce rhythmic irregularity into their music, altering one of the chief characteristics of the prevailing classical style. As composers experimented more with syncopation (the accenting of "off beats") and rubato (flexibility of tempo), ways of achieving rhythmic unevenness in a work, ensembles had greater need for a director not only to maintain an even tempo and steady beat, but also to guide them through the new style of musical expression that such innovations required.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, musicians also began to rely less on the aristocracy and the church and more on public audiences and concerts for support. The new market for music created new professional and artistic independence from the previous system of patronage, but it also demanded higher standards for musicians and greater accountability. The conductor gradually assumed responsibility for the musicianship of the ensembles he directed. (He, for until recently almost all conductors were male.)

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the conductor became increasingly more influential and powerful. He grew into a celebrity in his own right. He was expected to be a charismatic leader who inspired the orchestra, interpreted the music, and attracted audiences to his ensemble's performances.

The Emergence of Gay Conductors

Prior to the consolidation of the role and identity of the conductor in the nineteenth century, many musicians who organized and directed choruses, orchestras, and other musical ensembles, were also composers. Several of these composer-conductors were known for their involvement in same-sex sexual activity.

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Top: Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Center: A portrait of Dame Ethel Smyth by John Singer Sargent.
Above: Leonard Bernstein in 1971.

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