Alex Ross is phenomenal. Don't take my word for it, or Bjork's, or the New York Times', which this week selected his The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century as one of the ten best books of 2007. Read one paragraph yourself, for the scope of his smarts and the elegance of his prose:
The nexus of classical music and gay culture goes back at least to the final years of the nineteenth century, when aesthetes of the Oscar Wilde type gathered at Wagner nights in London and wore green carnations in their lapels. "Is he musical?" gay men would ask of an unfamiliar newcomer. As the century went on, conservatories and concert halls filled up with introverted boys who had trouble fitting in with their fellows. Classical music appealed to some gay youngsters because of the free-floating power of its emotions. While most pop songs explicitly address love and/or sex between modern boys and girls, opera renders romance in an archaic, stylized way, and instrumental works give voice to unspoken passions. Already in the first years of the century, this music had the reputation of being a "sissy" culture--the association troubled Charles Ives, for one--and its cultural decline in the postwar era may have had something to do with the discomfort that the homosexual ambiance caused in the general population.
After saying "somewhere around half of the major American composers of the twentieth century seem to have been homosexual or bisexual," he adds "in Britain too the art of composition skewered gay," and writes an incredible chapter on Benjamin Britten and his life and musical partner, the tenor Peter Pears.
What perplexed Britten was not his sexuality per se--he never concealed himself in a sham marriage, and he sustained a loving relationship with Pears for more than half his life--but his longing for the company of underage males. Although that predicament places him outside most people's experience, the disordering power of desire is a universal theme, and Britten's music is a searing diary of its repercussions.
For anyone interested in music, this is an essential book.