Revisiting a Symphonic AIDS Memorial
On April 30, 1983, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis held a fund-raiser at Madison Square Garden, billing it as “The Biggest Gay Event of All Time.” The main entertainment was a performance by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Beforehand, a distinguished attendee led a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as the AIDS activist Larry Kramer recounts in his book “Reports from the Holocaust”: “Leonard Bernstein walking across the length of Madison Square Garden in his white dinner jacket to conduct the circus orchestra in the national anthem, while eighteen thousand gay men and their friends and families cheered, was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced.” Kramer goes on to say that the event went unmentioned in the Times. Under the editorship of Abe Rosenthal, a notorious homophobe, the Times greeted the early years of the AIDS epidemic with coldness and silence.
The American classical-music world, in which Bernstein had achieved incomparable fame, was not a great deal better. In the decades after the Second World War, a gay life was acceptable if it was led quietly and politely. A number of composers made their sexuality known—Ned Rorem, Lou Harrison, Pauline Oliveros, David Del Tredici, and Julius Eastman, among others—but openly gay performing musicians were rare to the point of vanishing. The civil-rights movement, popularly associated with the Stonewall riots, the fiftieth anniversary of which arrives on June 28th, had little effect. As late as the mid-nineties, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Michael Tilson Thomas caused murmurs of unease when they mentioned their sexuality or their partners in the media. The atmosphere was all the more stifling because so many gay men and lesbians made their living in the classical-music business. A research project led by the music critic and record producer Joseph Dalton found that at least a hundred and thirty-two composers and two hundred and thirty-nine performers had died of AIDS in the U.S.
One landmark in the belated evolution of classical culture was John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, which had its première at the Chicago Symphony, in 1990, with Daniel Barenboim conducting. It was the first major musical memorial to those who had died of AIDS, and it remains the most formidable classical work written in response to the epidemic. Its impact was all the greater because Corigliano came from a distinguished musical lineage; his father, John Corigliano, Sr., was the longtime concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. That orchestra is playing the symphony this week, as part of a Stonewall-linked festival called Music of Conscience. The percussive, dissonant fury of the first movement, titled “Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance,” feels like a musical transcription of an ACT UP protest.
Or so it seems to me now. At the time, I had a less sympathetic reaction. I came out in 1990, when I was twenty-two. The late eighties and early nineties were the darkest, most precarious years of my life. What gave me hope was the audacity of gay culture in that period. I attended Queer Nation and ACT UP meetings in the San Francisco Bay Area. I bought my copy of “Reports from the Holocaust” at A Different Light, the landmark L.G.B.T.Q. bookstore in the Castro, along with Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet,” David Wojnarowicz’s “Close to the Knives,” and other gay classics. I embraced the proposition that silence equals death, and I outed myself in my early writing, including in my first article for The New Yorker, in 1993.
I therefore brought a fair amount of psychic baggage to the Corigliano symphony, which I discussed in my journalistic début—a review of Corigliano’s opera “The Ghosts of Versailles,” which appeared in The New Republic, in 1992. I acknowledged that the composer’s openness about his sexuality had helped to end a tradition of closetedness in American classical music, but I professed to find the score insufficiently radical in style—too reliant on late-Romantic and early-modernist gestures. I wrote, “In memorializing victims of a disease that has spawned a new form of political and aesthetic activism—a movement whose rage is aimed bluntly at American institutions—Corigliano lapses into the funerary clichés of another time and place.” Evidently, I was expecting a Queer Nation protest in the form of a Chicago Symphony commission.
In a letter to the editor, the Chicago-based music critic Andrew Patner offered a cogent response: “Such criticism of a work of memories, and particularly of memories of specific musicians who have died during the epidemic, seems misplaced at best.” He went on, “Given the complete silence on AIDS from other serious composers—and from nearly all popular music writers and artists as well—must we be so harsh in judging a man who was the first among them to take on this scourge and who would turn to his memories as a means of expressing his rage and despair?”
Some years later, Patner and I became close friends, and we revisited that long-ago exchange. Andrew told me about what he had endured in those years: he abandoned a career in political journalism in order to care for a roommate dying of AIDS, and he watched many other friends die. “Everybody gone now,” he wrote in an e-mail, in 2010, with uncharacteristic terseness. Corigliano’s piece became a site of mourning for him. He wryly added that, although I had since warmed up to Corigliano’s music, he had cooled off. Such are the ways of temperamental critics. Andrew died suddenly, of a bacterial infection, in 2015, breaking the hearts of hundreds of friends around the world. The University of Chicago Press recently published “Portrait in Four Movements,” a collection of Andrew’s writings, for which I wrote a foreword.
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The younger Andrew was right. Corigliano’s symphony may not have been politically or aesthetically revolutionary, but it showed how a more incremental approach can work alongside an activist vanguard. By fusing gay rage and sorrow with familiar musical gestures—Straussian orchestral explosions, Samuel Barber-like threnodies for strings—it ennobled a portion of the population for which many orchestra subscribers might have felt disgust. The AIDS Memorial Quilt, which Corigliano used as a model, performed the same humanizing function. In 1988, just after the AIDS Quilt was first displayed, a poll showed that fifty-seven per cent of Americans believed that gay sex should be illegal. A year later, the number had dropped to thirty-six per cent.
The dark heart of the symphony is the second movement, which evokes AIDS-related dementia. It was written in memory of Jack Romann, who had been the concert and artist director at the Baldwin Piano Company. (Romann is not named in Corigliano’s program note or in the score; his Times obituary did not mention AIDS.) Many years earlier, Corigliano had written a piece called “Gazebo Dances,” one movement of which—a swirling tarantella dance—was dedicated to Romann. In the symphony, the tarantella material undergoes hallucinatory permutations, sometimes slowing to a crawl and sometimes accelerating in a panic. Like the Rondo-Burleske movement of Mahler’s Ninth, it is a scherzo—or “joke”—episode that intensifies a sense of crisis instead of providing comic relief.
The third movement, “Giulio’s Song,” begins with a chaconne in memory of Corigliano’s friend Giulio Sorrentino, using a theme that Sorrentino and Corigliano had once improvised together. A virtual quilt of musical remembrances ensues, honoring Fortunato Arico, J. J. Mitchell, Jacques Chwat, Mark Pearson, Jim Moses, Robert Jacobson, Nikos Kafkalis, and Paul Jacobs—the last a pianist of extraordinary talent. The entire score is dedicated to the Chicago-based pianist Sheldon Shkolnik, who died just after the première. The brief final movement recapitulates the furious funerary gestures of the opening, fading away on the note A.
The obvious point of comparison for Corigliano’s symphony is Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which had its première in 1991. In comparison with Kushner’s heaven-storming tragicomedy, the symphony is a more modestly scaled, formally contained creation. If you were to encounter it without reading the program notes, you would have no way of knowing that it was about AIDS. Yet, by appropriating a canonical form, Corigliano projects a contemporary understanding of sexual identity back into musical history. In that terrifying second movement, the symphonic structure cracks open and the music begins to scream.