Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

21 Feb. 2014. Musical Inversions: Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth and her Old English Sheepdog, Pan: http://www.52composers.com/ethel-smyth.html

Ethel Smyth and her Old English Sheepdog, Pan: http://www.52composers.com/ethel-smyth.html

The queer past has an extraordinary sensory presence in the twenty-first century.  Last Wednesday, I went to an excellent event dedicated to the life and music of Ethel Smyth (1854-1944). Organised by the University of Surrey as part of LGBT History Month, the evening paid particular attention to the musical career of Smyth, a composer, writer, suffragette and dog lover whose ‘The March of the Women‘, written for the Women’s Social and Political Union, became the anthem of the British suffragette movement.

The event started off with an informative and entertaining talk by Dr Christopher Wiley on the relationship between Smyth’s music and her lesbianism – her most today best known relationship was with the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. With the help of violinists Sophie Langdon, pianist Maureen Galea and members of the University of Surrey Chamber Choir, Wiley brought to life Smyth’s music. He demonstrated the breadth of Smyth’s oeuvre, which included, for example, operas, orchestral works and chamber music; and he also explained how the music reflected developments in Smyth’s own life such as her love for Elisabeth ‘Lisl’ von Herzogenberg, the wife of Smyth’s teacher, the composer and conductor Heinrich von Herzogenberg.

I was particularly interested to learn that one of Smyth’s early pieces, which was composed during her time with the von Herzogenbergs in Germany, makes use of a technique of ‘inversion’, here meaning that the closing notes appear in reverse order of the opening notes. While I have written a book on ‘inversion’, this is the first time that I have come across the use of the concept in a musical context.

‘Inversion’ emerged as a concept associated with what we would now call sexual identity in 1860s, in the affirmative writings on same-sex love by the Hanoverian lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895). Ulrichs argued that men who desire men have ‘a female soul’ within their male body. Women who desire other women in turn were seen to have a ‘male soul’ inside their female body (it tells us something about the gendered contexts of these debates that Ulrichs felt prompted to note that he assumed that female same-sex love existed but did not personally know any women who love women).

While the terminology of the ‘invert’ would eventually give way in the early twentieth-century to the ‘lesbian’ and the ‘homosexual’, inversion itself has become one of the most pervasive concepts in modern debates about sexuality. Indeed, ideas about ‘mannish lesbians’ and ‘effeminate gay men’ continue to circulate quite widely in twenty-first century debates about sexuality.

Virginia Woolf and Dame Ethel Smyth. New York Public Library IMAGE ID: 484383

Virginia Woolf and Dame Ethel Smyth. New York Public Library IMAGE ID: 484383

Today, ‘inversion’ is often invoked as part of negative stereotyping. In the late 1870s and 1880s, however, when Ethel Smyth was falling in love with a woman in Germany while honing her skills as a composer, many women and men whose desires ran against the heterosexual grain happily self-identified as inverts. Most famously, perhaps, the rebellion against gender and sexual norms was expressed through dress – Virginia Woolf, Smyth’s unrequited love when the latter was in her early 70s, once described the composer’s dress affectionately as ‘tweeds and spats [with] a little cock’s feather in your felt, and a general look of angry energy’.

Chris Wiley’s talk has alerted me to the existence of a whole new dimension to modern sexual
Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 16.31.03politics. For Ethel Smyth’s composition suggests that sexuality and gender were reshaped in and through music as well as literature, art and politics. From now on, then, I will be listening out for Smyth’s musical inversions and the queer echoes that follow them across time.

 

17 Feb. 2014. And Again With Feeling: Thoughts on Different from the Others

ImageLast week, to mark LGBT History Month, I organised a screening of Anders als die Andern/ Different from the Others (dir. Richard Oswald), a film about homosexual blackmail produced in collaboration with Magnus Hirschfeld who also stars in it. The event was a great success, attracting a large audience which – perhaps prompted by an unexpected fair turn in the weather – occupied almost all the seats in the Birkbeck cinema.

A quick survey revealed that the majority of people in the audience were not professional academics. This was very welcome information, for a main aim of the evening was to bring sexuality scholars into dialogue with people from a wide range of backgrounds.

To kick-start debate after the screening, three wonderful Birkbeck panellists – Silke Arnold-de Simine (European Literatures and Cultures), Justin Bengry (History) and Daniel Monk (Law) – shared their insights into the film and its contexts. Together, we discussed a wide range of topics including, for example, the relationship between law and the everyday, the somewhat surprising cultural visibility of various gender and sexual identities in the early Weimar Republic, and the similarities as well as differences between British and German sexual politics.

Still from Anders als die Andern (dir. Richard Oswald, 1919)

As the discussion opened up to the audience, two questions were asked with particular frequency albeit in a range of guises: one focused on how the historical material relates to our understanding of gender and sexuality in the twenty-first century; and the other reflected on the extent to which any approach to this past is shaped by our own personal experiences and sense of self.

In some cases, the questioner’s focus was firmly on Magnus Hirschfeld himself, reminding me that for some gay men and transgender people in particular Hirschfeld occupies an iconic position in the struggle for rights, equality and a liveable life. While I am critically suspicious of such elevations – not least because I find them hard to reconcile with the more problematic aspects of Hirschfeld’s work such as his support for eugenics – I am nevertheless interested in what one might call ‘the felt impact’ of his work: his role in the construction of affirmative imaginaries that allow nonormative existence to be conceptualised in collective terms, terms that can be, but are not necessarily, tied to political action.

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Our discussion last Thursday showed that neither the biographical minutiae of Hirschfeld’s life nor ‘official’ narratives about sexuality, such as the ones told by law, can fully tell us what it felt like to live a queer life in the early twentieth century. But reading such narratives alongside cultural representations – such as Anders als die Andern – allows us to critique the ‘truths’ that are assigned by and about Hirschfeld across time. For, to adapt Virginia Woolf’s observation in A Room of One’s Own, such representations are ‘likely to contain more truth than fact’.

Anders als die Andern and the discussion that followed interrogated many ‘truths’ and ‘facts’ about bodies and desires. In so doing, the event also revealed the critical importance of feelings in discussions about gender and sexuality.

The next Fellowship event will be an academic symposium, Homophobia Rewritten. Click here for further details. The Call for Papers closes on 31 March 2014.