Immortal Homosexual Poets

Michael Finnissy reimagines Beethoven’s Hammerklavier

Zubin Kanga performing Michael Finnissy’s Hammerklavier with a film by Adam de la Cour in the background. The Royal Academy of Music, London, January 28, 2022. Photo: Robert Piwko.

COMPOSER MICHAEL FINNISSY’S CAREER has been a lifelong rejection of the divisions drawn up in and around the world of classical music. Growing up in London in the 1960s, Finnissy did not pursue academic training in composition until the age of eighteen, and was influenced as much by Hockney, Rauschenberg, Ginsberg, Genet, and Godard as by the wide range of music that he absorbed from public libraries, from family and friends, and from the radio. In the years since, his large body of compositions has referenced folk, jazzspirituals, and the European avant-garde, his approach to music at once encyclopedic and, in his own words, “untrained, intuitive, and serendipitous.” Along with the broad range of artistic reference points that suffuses his work, a central thread has been his queerness, which, even now, he feels renders him an “outsider” within a classical music culture that, in many ways, remains stiflingly conservative.

Between 1989 and 1990, Finnissy wrote the song cycle Unknown Ground, which sets the voices of people with AIDS alongside the work of queer Soviet poets Sergei Esenin, Mikhail Kusmin, and Nicolai Kluyev (from whom the title is taken). The piece premiered at a benefit concert for the Association to Fight Aids in Moscow after it had been removed from the program of the official Brighton Festival for fear of prosecution under the then newly introduced Section 28 legislation, which made the “promotion” of queer lifestyles a criminal offense (the act was not repealed until 2003). Since then, works such as Whitman (1980–2005) and “Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets,” the sixth movement of his monumental five-hour The History of Photography in Sound (1997–2003), have explored some of the better-known queer artists of various literary traditions.

Finnissy’s latest major piece, Hammerklavier, premiered in full by pianist Zubin Kanga at the Royal Academy of Music late last month, continues this examination of queerness through one of the key texts in the piano repertoire: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 29, known as the Hammerklavier (1818). Beethoven’s piece, as its title indicates, was composed for a recently invented precursor to the modern grand piano, as opposed to the harpsichord, on which much preceding keyboard music had been played. With its thundering opening chords, it is inextricable from the instrument that perhaps above any other has come to exemplify the Western musical tradition, yet which, like Finnissy’s work—and any number of (queer) pianisms, from that of Cecil Taylor to John Cage to Julius Eastman—has remained open to radical reinterpretation.

Two centuries later after its composition, Beethoven’s piece provided inspiration for the modernists of the 1950s, in particular, the sonatas of Jean Barraqué—at that time the lover of Michel Foucault—and Pierre Boulez, whose “explosive, disintegrating, and dispersive” Second Sonata used Beethoven’s Hammerklavier as a program to “destroy the first-movement sonata form” from within. Finnissy continues this approach by seeking to “compose with Beethoven’s work as if it were my own”: a process of “re-interpretation, fragmentation, re-locating, estrangement, cubist-perspective.” Radically transforming quoted material—for instance, retaining only the rhythmic values of the Hammerklavier while totally changing its pitch content—Finnssy’s work is also composed “backwards,” beginning with Beethoven’s finale and ending with its famous opening movement. The result completely destabilizes the sonata’s narrative momentum, its dramatization of progress and struggle.

In 1975, Finnissy witnessed Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter perform Beethoven’s sonata to a standing-room only Royal Festival Hall. Coming on stage wearing what appeared to be carpet slippers and barely acknowledging the audience, Richter, Finnissy suggested in a prerecorded preconcert interview, played with an utterly uncompromising, unflashy focus, as if in private communion with Beethoven. “The pianist,” suggested Richter, “shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.” Finnissy has long pondered that intangible quality of Richter’s work, but in the light of subsequent revelations in Karl Aage Rasmussen’s 2007 biography Sviatoslav Richter: Pianist as to his queerness—his life partnership with soprano Nina Dorliak, herself queer, was not a sexual one—the obliqueness of his style took on new dimensions.

For Finnissy, Richter’s circumspection isn’t so much “the closet” as a kind of “spiritual” quality, expressed not within religious forms but through the wordless weight of tradition found in the music of Schubert, Beethoven, and others of whom Richter was such a profound interpreter. “I float on the waves of art and life,” he once said, “and never really know how to distinguish what belongs to one or the other or what is common to both. Life unfolds for me like a theater presenting a sequence of somewhat unreal sentiments; while the things of art are real to me and go straight to my heart.” Richter’s performance allows us to hear the silences and the absences that abide even in the heart of Beethoven’s most dramatic and clangorous of compositions as beacons of social, political, and spiritual hope.

In his program note, Finnissy wonders: “Are there inroads into Beethoven’s work that are available to homosexual people that are not open to heterosexuals? . . . My own discourse about the Hammerklavier is underscored by my homosexuality. Do I ‘misread’ the work?” This is not a simple outing of Richter or a reclamation of another queer icon to add to the retrospective hall of fame. At stake are questions of representation: by whom, for whom, as part of what? “There’s very little written intelligently about gay composers, and dozens still in the closet,” Finnissy suggested to Gregory Woods in 2003. “How? Why? . . . Musicologists still ask, ‘Does it really matter whether x is gay or not?’’ In Finnissy’s Hammerklavier, his evocation of Richter takes shape around silence and invisibility as much as visibility, his allusions to Barraqué’s sonata encompassing the fitful rests that progressively puncture both pieces’ dense textures. Grace notes—extremely brief, ornamental figures that glide, unstressed into the principal note that follows—sound out alone into extended pauses, this juxtaposition of florid activity and abrupt stillness evoking the soundless intervals in the second movement of Barraqué’s sonata, if silence can be a quotation. But Finnissy’s silences—while they bespeak the gaps and absences that characterize the closet, the silences of Richter’s private life—are also openings onto something else: They look the void head on and make it speak its secrets.

In the accompanying film made by Finnissy’s former student Adam De La Cour, images from vintage male physique magazines appeared alongside footage of Richter performing and patterns projected onto a man’s nude body, all rendered as fragments of digitally abstracted footage, furtive and obscure. The performance involved watching and listening to something perpetually out of reach, a mystery that has its own erotic charge, exploring the shadows imposed on queer people throughout history while refusing a straightforward narrative of progress from the (white male) closet to (white male) assimilation. “How? Why?” Against pinkwashing, homonationalism, and cops at Pride, as well as the tired terms of contemporary “culture wars”—discursive attacks staged by an embittered and embattled right wing—this is a queer music that puts minds and ears on edge, a bruising and exhilarating torrent of thought and feeling, quicksilver and dense, transparent and thick; a space not for the reinforcements of canons, traditions, and prejudices, but for a sustained questioning of what it means to listen at all.