Commentary Magazine


Topic: Igor Stravinsky

The Stravinsky Controversy

Was the modernist composer Igor Stravinsky gay? Who cares, you might ask? A lot of people, it seems. Or so one can conclude from the controversy regarding an article in the Times Literary Supplement claiming a whole list of gay lovers for Stravinsky, including his collaborator and co-founder of the Ballets Russe, Sergei Daighilev. Stravinsky scholars are skeptical of the claims about such a famously practicing heterosexual, but it is perhaps no surprise that Stravinsky is having homosexuality imputed to him.

The same thing has happened in recent years to countless famous people ranging from Alexander the Great to Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln. Apparently sexless celebrities–at least those who were unmarried and not publicly attached–are especially ripe for such treatment, viz., Henry James, T.E. Lawrence, Lord Kitchener, and others.

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Was the modernist composer Igor Stravinsky gay? Who cares, you might ask? A lot of people, it seems. Or so one can conclude from the controversy regarding an article in the Times Literary Supplement claiming a whole list of gay lovers for Stravinsky, including his collaborator and co-founder of the Ballets Russe, Sergei Daighilev. Stravinsky scholars are skeptical of the claims about such a famously practicing heterosexual, but it is perhaps no surprise that Stravinsky is having homosexuality imputed to him.

The same thing has happened in recent years to countless famous people ranging from Alexander the Great to Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln. Apparently sexless celebrities–at least those who were unmarried and not publicly attached–are especially ripe for such treatment, viz., Henry James, T.E. Lawrence, Lord Kitchener, and others.

Having done a little historical research on Lawrence and Kitchener, I have found that the evidence for their supposed homosexuality is actually extremely poor. While they may have been repressed gays, there is little to no evidence of their having carried on a same-sex affair or, for that matter, an affair of any sort. The same is true of James. Hard as it may be to believe in the sex-soaked America of the 21st century, it is possible that they were simply asexual–secular monks as it were.

Whatever the case, it should hardly matter one way or another. “Gay” and “straight” are modern categories that scarcely fit people who lived centuries ago and did not think of their behavior in those terms. Nor is it the case that their sexuality, whatever it was, was necessarily the key to understanding their personalities and achievements.

Even most present-day gay men and woman who are proudly out of the closet don’t want to be defined by their sexuality; indeed, that was a point that CNN anchor Anderson Cooper made in explaining why he waited to come out publicly. What’s true for Cooper is certainly true for Stravinsky, Lawrence, James, and many other famous individuals: they should be judged by their achievements and merits, not on the basis of their sexuality–especially when there is no definitive evidence about what their sexuality was in their first place.

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