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The Queer Composition of America's Sound Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity

  • by Nadine Hubbs (Author)
  • October 2004
  • First Edition
  • Paperback
    $34.95,  £27.00
    $34.95,  £27.00
  • Title Details

    Rights: Available worldwide
    Pages: 293
    ISBN: 9780520241855
    Trim Size: 6 x 9
    Illustrations: 9 b/w photographs, 5 music examples

Read Chapter 1
Modernist Abstraction and the Abstract Art

Four Saints and the Queer Composition of America's Sound

Meaning! It is a piece of music, in which I have skillfully eluded all meaning!

Cyril Vane, Wildean homosexual dandy in John Todhunter's The Black Cat

It is not what is apprehended what is apprehended what is apprehended what is apprehended intended.

Saint Teresa, in Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts

The premiere of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts in Hartford, Connecticut, on February 7, 1934, was a major cultural and social event, a watershed spectacle that left its high-bohemian audience cheering wildly and weeping for beauty. The inspiration for such outpourings was an opera, performance, and occasion whose implications remain compelling and elusive even at some seventy years' remove. In the moment, however, audience members scarcely lacked for explanations of their ardent catharsis. Kirk Askew and Julien Levy, important New York art dealers both and leaders in the crying that night, readily explained their tears of joy. Their account suggests they had witnessed a glorious and redemptive birth—of nothing less than the national culture: Askew and Levy wept because they "didn't know anything so beautiful could be done in America."

"Everyone thought something" of the performance, in the words of one society reporter assigned to the event, "and was earnestly trying to express it." And surely this was key in the work's success: Audience members were not only captivated by Four Saints but impelled to find meanings in it. Indeed, though it presented no linear narrative—nor even clearly interpretable sentences or mimetic sequences—the opera seemed to radiate meaningfulness. Set by Thomson's music and the dramatic scenario by his life partner, the painter Maurice Grosser, Stein's abstract avant-garde language appeared, in its way, more lucid than ever before. To much of the Hartford audience at Four Saints' premiere, as to many readers and critics since, Stein's writing presented itself not as mere nonsense but as "suspiciously significant nonsense." But in February 1934 Stein's words, and the opera in which they were heard, conferred neither mere nonsense nor mere significance: Their effect was nothing short of numinous.

That the opera inspired such fervent engagement while availing itself to multiple interpretations fostered its use under various identificatory aegises. Or, to put it another way, Four Saints beckoned audiences to make of it what they would, according to their own needs and desires. Thomson had been honing his skills at setting Steinese in ways that optimized this effect. That his prior, "tryout" project, a setting of Capital Capitals for four male singers and piano (1927), reminded the actress Fania Marinoff of a Jewish synagogue, the painter and folklorist Miguel Covarrubias of a Mexican church, and the writer Jean Cocteau of the Catholic liturgy evinces the extent to which Thomson's diatonic idiom could evoke a distinct religiosity even while maintaining an extraordinary blank-screen quality, subject to viewers' projections. Audiences' similar response to Four Saints' open-endedness must have pleased its creators, for it is precisely the receptive stance endorsed by Grosser in his prefatory "Scenario" to the 1948 score edition. "One should not try to interpret too literally the words of the opera, nor should one fall into the opposite error of thinking that they mean nothing at all," he explained: "On the contrary, they mean many things at once." But if interpretive pluralism was the order of the day at the opera's opening, there is nevertheless a reception standard that seems to have operated over the whole range of responses: that of whether or not one "got it," as judged by one's own perception in the matter.

Olin Downes was among the operagoers who got it—or so he unequivocally indicated in his music column for the New York Times. "The trail of foppishness and pose and pseudo-intellectuality is all over it," wrote Downes of Four Saints' opening (February 20, 1934) in what would prove to be an extended Broadway run. Criticizing the performance by way of its audience, Downes reported that "[e]very snob and poseur in town" showed up to simulate "from a distance and across a decade or two the poses of certain Parisians" at this opera "that was performed with such éclat for the precious." The Times critic was at pains to reveal Stein's text as constituting "far from an innocent or naïve creation," as audiences might have assumed from the work's religious theme and its stereotypic staging of African Americans as people of simple faith. On the contrary, readers were warned, the opera presented "a specimen of an affected and decadent phase of the literature of the whites." Downes appears intent to articulate something against Four Saints' creators and audience as a perceived in-group, particularly to expose the alleged falsity of their pretensions (aping 1920s Parisians, they are merely ersatz) and of the opera's ostensible naiveté—which masks its true, "affected and decadent," nature. Invoking and interlinking perversion, privilege, and Paris, Downes purported to illumine the nature of this "'opera,' if such it is to be called," and its secretive meanings: I know something of such secrets, he assures his readers—and you need not bother.

The critic and novelist Carl Van Vechten was another operagoer who clearly deemed that he got it, albeit along very different lines. A queer member of the avant-garde like his friends Stein and Thomson, Van Vechten inscribed some morning-after annotations on Four Saints while still basking in the afterglow of its premiere, at his Hartford hotel. He broached the topic of meaning: "It is unfortunate, perhaps, that I can have very little to say" to people "who seek a key to some more perfect understanding of Miss Stein's text," Van Vechten wrote. He continued, "It becomes more and more evident to me that if appreciation of the text of Miss Stein is not instinctive with a person he never acquires it." Van Vechten thus all but says it outright: If you have to ask, you'll never know. Somewhat comparably, the press agent Nathan Zatkin "comforted the uncomprehending" on opening night in a manner Steven Watson recently characterized as "sly": "Either you get it or you don't—and, really, you shouldn't feel ashamed if you don't," Zatkin counseled. Whether or not intended "slyly," Zatkin's response, like Downes's, haunts an intriguing question: Apropos Four Saints, who might have greater reason to feel ashamed—those who get it, or those who don't?

That notions of shame, or decadence, or contrived innocence should arise at all in proximity to Four Saints and its premiere already suggests a circulation of meanings beyond those attributable to "pleasurable nonsense"—to invoke the terms in which the opera is typically glossed. And we might wonder what could inspire such notions in relation to a staging of (not just four but) nearly thirty Spanish Catholic saints, real and imaginary, named and anonymous, in song and movement depicting daily devotions, a country picnic, fishnet mending, and the witnessing of visions (among other things), all to represent in three acts their earthly life. A further, apparent bonus act bestows an afterlife no less sanguine, a brief postlude in which the saints reminisce together in heaven. So, in addition to the innumerable pleasant acts performed by its personae, the opera itself presents four acts—and thus (by either calculation) proffers an abundance of saintly acts beyond the three announced by the title, and required by the Vatican for saintly recognition. These acts' pageantry is set throughout by strikingly lucid tonal music neoclassically evoking Anglican chant in the same breath as Yankee hymns, and nineteenth-century American music-hall ditties alongside operatic gestures redolent of Mozart, Bizet, and Puccini.

Four Saints in Three Acts was a landmark collaborative creation of U.S. modernist artists engaged in early-twentieth-century efforts to establish a distinctly and genuinely American voice in transatlantic high culture. This chapter examines the opera at close range and in historical perspective, as an artistic object and event that has stood continuously since 1934 as a preeminent example of illegible modernist abstraction, and one that issued from a heterosocial and intergenerational artistic marriage of lesbian and gay Americans living and working in that "capital of hedonism" that was interwar Paris. It particularly interrogates the meanings that have attached to this putatively nonsensical work, in both production and reception, and the fertile scrutations that have attended Four Saints in all its legendary inscrutability. These interrogations highlight the queer expressive potential of artistic abstraction within the homophobic context of twentieth-century U.S. culture, and the crucial confluence, within that context, of queer lives and culture with artistic, particularly musical, activity and culture. The discussion here also raises questions that are explored throughout this book—concerning abstraction and identification; national, artistic, and sexual identity; and the predominance of queer artists in the twentieth-century creation of an American voice in concert music. More immediately this discussion illuminates the paths of influence and interaction, collaboration and rivalry, that were forged in Manhattan and Paris in the interwar years and led to the remarkably queer composition of America's sound.

Stein's Queer Abstraction

As a notoriously abstract production of the modernist avant-garde, Gertrude Stein's Four Saints libretto evades conventional meaning and likewise resists the reigning scientific and psychological apparatus of identity—that is, of social, sexual, racial, and other constructs of classification and normalization—that flourished in early-twentieth-century America and Europe. Indeed, identity evasion is a frequent theme in recent Stein criticism, which often reads Stein's texts as resisting (in Sidonie Smith's words) "the evolutionary story, the self-conscious narrator, the identification between . . . narrator and . . . subject, the unitary voice"—in short, "all the rhetorical and narrative components of a patriarchally inscribed identity." Stein's (negative) relation to identity is central in Four Saints, as it is in her modernist literary project generally: "Now identity remembers and so it has an audience and as it has an audience it is history and as it is history it has nothing to do with the human mind," she writes in The Geographical History of America; Or, The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind. Since identity, or human nature, according to Stein, "has nothing to do with the human mind," and masterpieces are rooted precisely "in the human mind," identity has no place in a masterpiece.

Speaking of masterpieces in the wake of dada and anti-art, anti-masterpiece developments, Stein (1874-1946) might appear as if clinging to nineteenth-century aesthetic values. But in fact her stance is bracingly modern, for what she insists on by these statements is a reversal of the values attending drama and literature: Stein places the inner experience of the spectator or reader—that of "the human mind," with its continuous sense of present moments—over and above the narrative representation of a past event, an outer reality that is a matter of "history." In contrast to the nineteenth century's championing of an artwork conceived as absolute and autonomous, Stein conceives of the artistic object and its observer in terms of mutual interdependence. In her avant-garde work Stein therefore focuses her creative efforts not on crafting narratives or histories, but on fully expressing "presentness," in congruity with that of the perceiving mind, locus of all masterpieces.

Stein's definition of a masterpiece fixes on its ability to convey the essence of a subject by nonnarrative—that is, nonlinear and atemporal—means. Her corresponding and self-consciously cubist notion of landscape theater, of which Four Saints in Three Acts stands as the most distinguished example, is one of "eternity as an unrolled filmstrip, a simultaneous presentation of an image in all its possible projections into time" in which "everything that has been and will be is there, and merely needs to display various angles of itself." Thus is Four Saints, in Daniel Albright's reading, "an opera that tries to be a picture—an opera in which the text defies discursivity."

We might further note that in creating an opera text that tries to be a masterpiece, the text's author defies cultural precepts concerning sex and gender identity. Stein's defiance here is evident from her presumptions to the (cross-) gendered role of "master." And it is likewise in a well-known passage from her notebooks: "Pablo [Picasso] & [Henri] Matisse have a maleness that belongs to genius. Moi aussi, perhaps." In claiming "maleness" (here a marker of gender qualities) for herself, Stein flouts her culture's rules for sex-gender mapping, in language and in life. But by the same gesture she accepts and reinforces the fundamental terms of the cultural norm, that is, the gendered definition of genius by which she—failing her bid for special exception—would be excluded from the running.

About 1907, the year when she met her soon-to-be life partner Alice Toklas, Stein had come under the influence of Otto Weininger's just-published book Sex and Character. Theorizing that all humans are bisexual, the Viennese psychologist placed homosexuality within a relatively nonpathological schema: It is easy to imagine how this aspect of the work might have appealed to the queer-identified Stein. But Weininger also expounded on genius, writing that a female genius "is a contradiction in terms, for genius is simply intensified, perfectly developed, universally conscious maleness." That Stein embraced such writings surely had to do with the enormous cultural currency of psychology at this time among Europeans and Americans of Stein's privileged (haut bourgeois) class and educational background—not to mention her specialized training in the field at Radcliffe College (under William James) and at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Inevitably there would also have been a faute de mieux factor: With male superiority and gynophobia inhering in the very foundations of the culture, what were the chances of eluding them? Stein's response was not to give up her principal aspiration—to be a genius. Rather, she constructed herself, personally and artistically, in the terms of sex-exceptionalism we see crystallized in her "Moi aussi" annotation, which dates from this early-Paris period. And here Weininger's theories would have provided further affirmation: For within his modern scientific scheme, lesbians were already "half male."

Many critics have regarded the obscure language of Stein's writings as a means for her to evade detection as a sexual outlaw, queer in gender and sexuality. Catharine Stimpson offers a subtle but meaningful twist on this reading, by her proposal that Stein's linguistic coding serves as "a privileged, and a distinguished, 'anti-language.'" Borrowing the concept from the sociolinguist M.A.K. Halliday, Stimpson defines an anti-language as a speech system of an anti-society, one (in Halliday's phrase) "set up within another society as a conscious alternative to it." Asserting that Stein and Toklas, "in their own home and in the social circles they inhabited, were citizens of a homosexual anti-society," Stimpson cogently argues that the speech Stein formulated in and for those private inner realms, "as part of her vast experiments," has become increasingly public "as the dominant society has become less hostile to her subjects."

Of course, society's hostility on this front has not diminished in a constant or steady fashion, and in fact the United States saw an acute escalation of homophobia in the twenty years following Stein's death in 1946. Notably, the Stein-Toklas "homosexual anti-society" conjures precisely the "state within a state" that queer baiters most feared, and sought to flush out, in the stateside lavender scare of those Cold War years. But following the peak of the Cold War, particularly in the post-Stonewall era, Stein's encoding of lesbian sexuality has been progressively deciphered, thus rendering her anti-language indeed more public and her work effectively less abstract.

In the close of his introductory notes to Four Saints, Stein's longtime intimate Van Vechten seems to foretell the (eventual) evolution in reception that Stimpson identifies: Citing Stein's description of her work as (not a blurring of anything, but) "an exact reproduction of . . . an outer or inner reality," Van Vechten notes that Thomson's music too possesses "'an inner and outer reality' of its own," which, "perversely, but none the less with intention, has led to a rich and strange collaborative creation which very probably a future generation may be pleased to regard as a work of art." Veering himself toward hermeticism in this sentence, Van Vechten underscores simultaneously the "pervers[ity]" and "intention[ality]" of Thomson's contribution to Four Saints, as well as the distinction between "inner and outer" dimensions in both Stein's and Thomson's art. In lieu of any explanation of the scene he has just sketched, Van Vechten then offers his conjecture on future audiences' probable embrace of this "rich and strange" work—thus leaping over the present triumph of the opera's dazzling premiere the night before.

The abrupt turn toward some "future generation" and its receptive inclinations presents as a non sequitur, at least if we insist on the euphemistic distancing conventionally imposed in such instances—here, in the clustered company of unelaborated references to "perversity" ("with intention"), "strange[ness]," and realities distinguished as "outer" and "inner." But Van Vechten's gaze toward future Four Saints appreciators seems less curious if we allow these latter references simply to signify at apparent face value. Then his closing statement may emerge as a fond prediction of a more highly evolved future, one wherein Four Saints, with its perverse, rich, strange—its queer—vision, might be readily received in both its "inner" and "outer" dimensions, and with the same pleasure as Van Vechten finds there in 1934. That is, a future in which the authors' private anti-language is rendered public by a society (in Stimpson's words) "less hostile to," and thus more inclined to apprehend, the subjects of their work.

The present discussion of Stein and her multifariously queer abstraction attempts to establish our own time as that ideal moment for Four Saints reception. It reads Four Saints from the standpoint of a twenty-first-century sensibility more accepting of and accustomed to articulations of queer meaning than would have been possible in any previous cultural moment. This perspective, however contemporary, is directed toward cultivating knowledge of the past, by examining Four Saints historically in the light of its contemporaneous receptions and of Stein's own artistic theories and preoccupations. These are repositioned in relation to pertinent historic models and kindreds, particularly from the queer world—as when we consider the opera's religious topic in relation to the rich history of religious thematics in Western queer art.

Stein and Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts thus emerges as an influential instance of composing oneself in twentieth-century American modernism, a portrait of Americanism rendered by native queer artists living abroad. It was in Paris (a city then relatively lacking in musical cachet) that these artists found a congenial locus for sexual and artistic bohemianism, as well as an otherness that reflected back to them images of America more vivid than they had ever glimpsed at home. The renderings of Americanism they in turn reflected back to America were informed by their lived experiences and perspectives as Americans, but also—albeit unspeakably—by their lived experiences and perspectives as twentieth-century queer subjects. At issue here, and throughout this book, are both the queerness and the normality of such artists' predominance in the creation of American national identity via concert music.

Surely Van Vechten would have been gratified to know that Four Saints would reverberate so richly decades after its premiere. But if he imagined the opera and its subjects enjoying ready transfer among later generations, he was no doubt aware that at its opening Four Saints' idiom and its subjects did not present as fully commutable. Indeed, the identity ascriptions telegraphed by Olin Downes's "foppishness" and "Parisian poses" were evidently so difficult to pin on either the opera or its creators that Downes resorted to criticizing the audience. In so doing he may well have "violated a long-standing principle of criticism," as the current Times critic and Thomson biographer Anthony Tommasini attests. But we might nevertheless view Downes's critical indiscretion as fortuitous, inasmuch as it affords a glimpse of homophobic anxieties and antipathies that were occasioned by the opera's performance, and that might not have been documented but for his agitated lapse.

Having noted Downes's remarks, however, and their evident homophobic thrust, perhaps we should not lend them credence as anything more than a displaced attack on Four Saints' queer auteurs. Stein's and (less famously) Thomson's sexuality was no secret, after all, to cognoscenti in the transatlantic arts and critical community circa 1934—especially given the previous year's publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. But I do read in Downes an ascription of queerness—qua perversion, foppishness, and quasi-Parisian decadence—to that work which he placed at phobic arm's length (literally, in scare quotes) by his disdainful reference to the "'opera,' if such it is to be called." Downes thus evidently read Four Saints autobiographically in relation to its queer authors (and to a perhaps similar opening night audience). Though without Downes's homophobic impetus, I will likewise read Stein and Thomson's opera in autobiographical terms.

I take my cue for such a reading from the facts of Four Saints' reception and its production. In the reception sphere we have already seen some hints of autobiographical interpretation both in Downes's negative take on the opera's opening and in Van Vechten's euphorically positive one. Admittedly, this is more clearly legible from Downes's accusatory (homo-exposing) review than from Van Vechten's circumspect (homo-protecting) commentary—which becomes vaguest just at the point when it gestures to draw together queer artists, art, and audience across boundaries of inner and outer reality, and across generations from the (then) present to the (unspecified) future. Elsewhere, the opera's initial coproducers—including the scenarist Maurice Grosser, set and costume designer Florine Stettheimer, and choreographer Frederick Ashton—display their own indications of interpreting Stein's libretto in autobiographical terms.

Grosser's scenario, for example, presents the saints in sex-segregated groupings: "Saint Teresa and her women," "Saint Ignatius and his men." Of course, this is congruous with the opera's characterization of Catholic religious in the sixteenth century, and it is compatible with (not to say inevitable to) Stein's highly indeterminate text. Though the drama stages considerably more than the "Four Saints" of the title, this designation points nonetheless to a significant element in the work. For the titular four comprise the principal saints, in two pairs—a schema incanted punningly in Four Saints' prologue: "Four Saints two at a time have to have to have to have to." Following Stein's own casting conception along these lines, Grosser opted to highlight specifically homosocial pairings: of Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Ignatius Loyola with "their respective confidants," Saint Settlement and Saint Chavez. However apt, the monastic term "particular friend" is absent from Grosser's introduction of these last two saints in his "Scenario." Even so, their function, here and in the opera, as inseparable companions to the principals is clear. Grosser did remark of Saints Settlement and Chavez that they are "without historical prototypes": Thus we see the authors taking up where history had left off, providing suitable companions for Saints Teresa and Ignatius.

And suitability here is in the eye of the opera's queer creators. The female pair particularly seems to reflect the librettist's own tastes in the companionship realm. Saints Teresa and Settlement, as announced by the latter's name, mirror a "settlement" in the Stein-Toklas coupling that has been remarked in many contexts, including this 1966 recollection from Thomson: "Gertrude lived by the heart, indeed; and domesticity was her theme. . . . [A]fter 1907 her love life was serene, and it was Alice Toklas who made it so. Indeed, it was this tranquil life that offered to Gertrude a fertile soil of sentiment-security." Whether or not the principal male pair is especially suggestive of Thomson and Grosser, the connection of Stein and Toklas with the female pair—especially of Stein with Saint Teresa—emerges strikingly from numerous facts within and without the text. Certainly Stettheimer would seem to have understood Saint Teresa in this way: How else to explain the designer's inspired travesty—Teresa's costuming in the full regalia of a cardinal's vestments, fashioned in velvet and (like the opera's sets) the very latest modern material, cellophane?

Several critics have read the character of Saint Teresa in other terms: as a tribute to Alice Toklas. The character does bear one of Gertrude's pet names for Alice: Thérèse (the French spelling is used in Stein's libretto). And Saint Teresa made her home in Toklas's favorite Spanish city, Ávila, where Alice passionately proposed staying on forever when she first visited Spain with Gertrude in 1912. Saints Teresa and Settlement notably bear the initials of Toklas and Stein. Moreover, Stein writes about Saint Teresa in ways she characteristically uses to write about Toklas—as, for example, one who is always right: "Saint Therese could never be mistaken," and as the happily married, sexually desirous, and sexually fulfilled wife. This latter theme arises in connection with the following passage, in which Thomson (circa 1971) finds Saint Teresa/Therese, in line 4, enjoying "high sexual delight":

Saint Therese. To be belied.
Saint Therese. Having happily married.
Saint Therese. Having happily beside.
Saint Therese. Having happily had it with a spoon.
Saint Therese. Having happily relied upon noon.

Thomson's commentary indicates (by discreet verbiage) that the particular sexual meaning he ascribed here was one of cunnilingus, and identifies the "it" being spooned as "the sexual effluvia" (notably slipping into the ecclesiastical tongue). I will say more about this passage in my discussion of Thomson's music in Four Saints.

Thus far this consideration of abstraction has focused on Stein's Four Saints text and its staging, and on certain issues attending her famously abstract writings—issues of meaning and nonsense, legibility and opacity; of production and stated intention; of reception, positioning, and effect; of queerness, autobiography, "inner" and "outer" realities. And in the interest of illumining the particular local context in which Stein and Thomson's avowedly autobiographical opera arose, this discussion frequently explores these various issues in connection with statements (on Steinian abstractness and related matters) from Thomson and other members of the authors' inner circles.

A further type of abstractness that will concern us is invoked by the present chapter's title: "Modernist Abstraction and the Abstract Art" refers to music's status in nineteenth-century art and philosophy discourses as the most abstract of all the arts. In its nonrepresentational abstractness music was deemed by nineteenth-century thinkers—including, most influentially, Schopenhauer—the purest, most absolute, and hence most exemplary of art forms. Toward the end of the century the queer aesthete Walter Pater wrote in The Renaissance (1873) that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other arts it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form . . . yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it." Of course, twentieth-century modernist literature and arts were characteristically directed against the prior ideals of the nineteenth century, and they generally cited no special debt or reference to music. Even so, the art known as modernist—emergent following the birth of psychology and of the homosexual, and following the Wilde trials' cautionary spectacle—undoubtedly displays a far greater fascination with abstraction than any previous art.

Although critical consensus long held high-modernist abstraction "above" concrete signification, latter-day Stein scholarship has found in her allegedly inscrutable avant-garde texts privately coded narratives, and landscapes, of queer life and sexuality. Still other recent scholarship reads literary abstraction as a means of racial masquerade for Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and other modernists who sometimes figured their American identity in significant, albeit undeclared, relation to African American voice and identity. These sexual and racial analytical projects highlight a preoccupation with "nonestablishment" identities, and with arcane means for self-representing through them, that aligns with Robert M. Crunden's definition of modernists as "intellectuals in a philistine society, Catholics in a Protestant society, Jews in a Christian society, women in a male society, blacks in a white society, southerners in a northern society, [and] homosexuals in a heterosexual society," all of whom "often identified with oppressed colleagues in comparable marginal circumstances."

The linkages with African American identity in Stein, Eliot, and Pound, and surely in Thomson's casting of Four Saints, are also symptomatic of modernist primitivism, with its racialized "emphasis on the innately creative, the unformed and untamed realm of the prerational and the unconscious, indeed that vitality of the naive which was so especially a leading edge of the avant-garde," in Raymond Williams's description. Thus, in its original moment, Thomson's unprecedented casting decision—using African American performers in a sixteenth-century Spanish locale to represent the lives of twentieth-century white artists—served to stage, at a somewhat abstracted remove, the characteristically modernist sentiment (expressed here, with all customary white-cultural ambivalence, by Eliot) that the artist "is more primitive, as well as more civilized, than his contemporaries." As several writers have by now remarked, Four Saints' African American performers also served, at least for those worldly among its 1934 audiences, to emblematize a queer sexual freedom associated with Harlem and projected onto black bodies—a freedom of whose pleasures Thomson, Grosser, Van Vechten, and other queer men in their circle were known to partake. More generally, blackness visibly represented identity difference, and as such stood in for other, unspoken and typically less visible minoritized identities—as in Stein's "Melanctha" it had, at some level of abstraction, stood in for the author's Jewishness and queerness.

Virgil Thomson's abstraction in the (reputedly) already-abstract medium of music, though regarded as on a par with that of his literary colleagues, has been subject to far less exegetic speculation than theirs. One could cite certain obvious reasons for this, especially involving music's undeniably nondenotative nature, which indeed makes it difficult to read meanings or even associations here, as compared with verbal or visual media. And Thomson's idiom presents special challenges by its notorious "blankness," its obscurity in—not abstruse complexity, as with Schoenberg, Sessions, and other modernist composers of the day—but vernacular simplicity. His musical language has long been recognized for its remarkable commensurability with Stein's literary one but, in its queer eccentricity, has yet to be recognized for the full extent of its influence on America's sound.

The Music of Saints

Thomson's music in Four Saints has been described as humorous, eclectic, nostalgic for his Missouri Southern Baptist boyhood, the perfect counterpart to Stein's textual style, and a "primer on American musical declamation and drama." What goes curiously unremarked in this music is its frequent gorgeousness—and it is frequently gorgeous in any number of styles. In its neoclassic troping of musical idioms and style markers it stands with Satie (e.g., Embryons desséchés of 1913) and with the Stravinsky of Pulcinella (1920) and The Rake's Progress (1951). In its effect, the music of Four Saints can often resemble that of Prokofiev: Both idioms skillfully manipulate music-rhetorical conventions that push listeners' emotional buttons, and then each (in its own way) abruptly leaves them hanging, without continuation of the narrative framework that is normally illustrated by, and justification for, such catharsis. Among the vast range of musics heard in Four Saints are styles and idioms that would be at home in Anglican chant; in baroque opera or cantata (this including but not limited to Thomson's recitatives); in Mozart's Italian operas; in the Puccini of Suor Angelica and elsewhere (most obviously in surging lyric passages: e.g., at rehearsal no. 104); in nineteenth-century American music-hall entertainments and Protestant Sunday school classrooms; and in Bizet's Carmen (though exclusively that of Micaëla's pure white-key pastoral, and never of Carmen's chromaticized, rhythmically Latinized worldly and sexual knowing).

Close examination of a few specific passages will serve to highlight some features of Thomson's score that are useful to our purposes. We noted above one textual passage in which Thomson professed to find Saint Teresa in "high sexual delight." His 1971 testimony on this point gives us a rare item of knowledge—of a particular, concrete, and specifically sexual interpretation of a certain passage in this oblique opera, from one of its authors. We must not underestimate the significance of such concrete representations as Thomson began, in his later years, to ascribe to Four Saints. The ramifications of his revelation here are substantial: It clearly suggests that Thomson understood Stein's words as not merely abstract but denotative, as bearing specific meanings, including sexual ones—even in this explicitly religious-themed work, and in relation to Teresa's sainted personage. If only we heed him, Thomson is advising us (as Stein would similarly do by her own example: see below) to perceive in this "abstract" modern art those things which it seems to present—to see the naked woman on the canvas as a naked woman, and thus to defy the reigning modernist bourgeois and aesthetic prescriptions that would label such perception unschooled, vulgar, or philistine (by contrast with a purely symbolic, sensory, or otherwise abstracting reception).

Thomson is, moreover, providing a queer byline for Saint Teresa: Her erotic pleasure taken (in Thomson's reckoning) by the spoonful must exempt her from what Gayle S. Rubin maps as the "charmed circle" of "Good, Normal, Natural, Blessed Sexuality," and relegate her to the "outer limits" of "Bad, Abnormal, Unnatural, Damned Sexuality" including homosexual, autoerotic, manufactured-object, and other nonconjugal and nonprocreative sex. Rubin traces this hierarchic conception of inner- versus outer-circle sexual practices to Western ideological structures rooted in Christian (particularly Pauline) teachings, but she adds that such notions "have by now acquired a life of their own" and thus persevere even apart from religion. Four Saints, as seen in the light of Thomson's own reading, not only stages conventionally banished sexual personas and practices centrally in a charmed circle, but explicitly reunites them with the Mother Church, among her saintly elect—or, inversely: It links blessed personages with pleasures supposedly damned. As we shall soon discuss, Four Saints is neither the first nor the last instance in which Thomson treats religious topics, and treats them with subtle, particularly sexual, unorthodoxy.

Armed with such knowledge, one might well inquire as to how Thomson set the text in question. We find the answer in the opera's second act (score rehearsal no. 94 + 8 bars, Example 1): Saint Teresa's sexual ecstasy-apparent is set statically and repetitively, presenting a musical poker face throughout. The passage is marked by a slight increase in tempo, but the score direction un poco animato, which might serve as a clue to sexual excitement, bears more impact on the page than by its scarcely perceptible effect in performance. The particular moment of purported sexual delight, "Having happily had it with a spoon," falls in line indistinguishably with those surrounding it, and the passage overall is distinct from its surroundings in only one way: by its consummate blank neutrality and stasis. Throughout most of Four Saints Thomson's music juxtaposes the feeling that (in John Cage's words) "something is about to happen" against the feeling, evoked by Stein's text, that "nothing is ever going to happen." But this textual passage seems to inspire a reversal of roles on Thomson's part, its ostensibly hot implications calling forth a cool, vacant setting. And while such a musical-textual role reversal might appear as a radical move, its effect is decidedly conservative: It serves to maintain the established (hot/cold) complementary dynamic and its steady, semantic-circuit-jamming ratio of "suspiciously significant" elements to "nonsense" elements.

Now we might similarly inquire about the opera's only "tender scene," an act 2 duet between the characters Commère and Compère (rehearsal no. 109 + 3, Example 2). A pass here reveals this designated "Love scene" as anything but ardent. It comprises eighteen bars in which the lovers regularly alternate in the singing of their fragmentary lines. In classic operatic instances, tragic lovers' intertwined voices soar to the heights; here, the couple's notes never so much as overlap. The "lines" themselves comprise prosaic particles of authorial self-mutterings ("Scene eight."—"To Wait."/"Scene one."—"And begun."), all of which, in the singing, remain at a constant pitch level and on unchanging rhythm. The accompaniment is a sustained, arhythmic F{shp}-major triad, its voicing immobile throughout this scene. Of course, passages of stasis in music can be used to create serenity and, contrastingly, to create tension. This static episode does neither: It creates little beyond a blank, banal white noise. As we have remarked, Thomson offers up ardency and gorgeousness in this score. But he is always careful to do so dissociatively—that is, apart from any comparable implications in the staged scenario, and never in moments wherein the latter would conventionally call for such effects. It is in this regard that his music surely can be called abstract and a perfect complement to Stein's text: Where "something is about to happen" for one, the other always adopts the counterbalancing pose that "nothing is ever going to happen"—and what is "about to happen" in any case never does.

Not long after Teresa's moment of (muted) ecstasy, Thomson scores a "Dance of the Angels" (from rehearsal no. 98 + 4, to 101, Example 3). The passage's opening line constitutes a recurring question within Stein's authorial-musings-spoken-aloud in Four Saints: "How many saints are there in it." Answering her own query, Saint Teresa I sings, "There are as many saints as there are in it."

The ballet music here is immediately reminiscent of that of Thomson's colleague Aaron Copland, in his Rodeo and Billy the Kid, and even Appalachian Spring. It presents a textbook example of that "sound of the American prairie" by now recognizable—via Copland's scores and countless echoes in Hollywood westerns, TV, and film music—as a beloved national cliché. Here the distinctive elements of this sound inhere in a number of features: first, in the straightforward bugle-call triadicism and gentle syncopation of the ten-note tune, and in its trot-step accompaniment of pizzicato strings, conjuring a pioneer folk ensemble of washtub bass and backbeat banjo chords. The tune and its accompaniment are stated, echoed by solo clarinet, and then slightly varied, all in E major.

And Commère breaks in with one of Stein's saintly laundry lists—"Saint Teresa Saint Settlement Saint Ignatius Saint Lawrence Saint Pilar Saint Plan and Saint Cecilia." Her litany is set by a reciting-tone formula that is effectively a four-bar fermata: It sustains the E-major tonic and confirms the established accompaniment style—while the now-monotone voice shifts to the less danceable, speechlike rhythms of through-composed baroque recitative. Here in the stasis of recitative, we may notice more plainly a certain modernist twist present in the harmonic dimension: the quartal aspect of its emphasis on the IV harmony. By showing equal regard to the fourth above and the fourth below tonic (IV and V, respectively), Thomson's harmony in this "Dance of the Angels" evokes the pitch symmetries of modernist harmonic palettes like Debussy's, Stravinsky's, Satie's—and later, Copland's. By a sort of music-rhetorical pun the usage also manages, in this setting, to evoke African American blues harmony, with its characteristic enjoyment of "nonprogressing" I-IV-I successions no less than I-V-I (the obliged teleology in conventional Germanic tonal grammar).

The theme tune reenters following Commère's interjection and resumes its scheme of vocal and instrumental call and response. As before, echoes and answers are given by solo woodwinds, in the reedy innocence of their midregister timbres—another Americana hallmark familiar from Appalachian Spring and other Copland classics. Now, however, such thematic statement imparts an air of expectancy, having broken away from E to move up into G major's brighter realm, and having broken free of foursquare regularity into a more breathless pace of irregularly shifting meters. This setup will in turn break away, to another through-composed episode that forsakes the theme to climb ever more breathlessly through a succession of momentary tonics. At its peak a muted trumpet recaps the ascent, and the dance reaches its terminus. Saint Teresa II, resummoning baroque stile recitativo, delivers a dignified closing remark: "Thank you very much." Then, suspended on the recitative's characteristic half (i.e., open) cadence, we are jolted back into G major by a sudden, glorious, and poignantly lyrical outburst from Saint Teresa I, entering forte on a high G cradled in the barest, most exquisite of settings. Her descending phrase serves as coda to the entire passage, conceding the last lovely gasp of what was, while it lasted, an exhilarating whirl.

Teresa's gesture, here a closing and recapping, is simultaneously in another realm a beginning and foreshadowing. It is indeed, as suggested by the opening-night response of Kirk Askew and Julien Levy, a birthing moment for American music. For although this little-known passage is likely to recall for contemporary listeners Coplandian Americana, Thomson's music for Four Saints, written in 1927-28, considerably predates works like Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942). Relevant, later-to-be-classic ingredients in Thomson's "Dance" surface in the musical idiom and orchestral soundscape of its tuneful country trot, in the melancholy beauty of its starkly lyric coda, and, not least, in the abrupt and heart-searing shift between the two.

To home in on some of the specific resemblances between the tonal neoclassicism Thomson introduced in Four Saints and Copland's Americana idiom, we might compare the brief passage from "Dance of the Angels" (see Example 3) with another sixteen-beat excerpt, taken from the famous "Hoe-Down" music in Copland's Rodeo (Example 4). We can readily identify several essential structural and stylistic similarities. First, each consists of a simple, triadic melody above a standard "boom-chuck" bass and chord accompaniment. And each melody emphasizes the notes of the tonic triad (i.e., main chord) of its major key, with particular emphasis on the descent from scale tone 3 to scale tone 1. Further, both melodies highlight pentatonicism and use the same folkish-sounding pentaton (i.e., five-note scale), consisting of 1-2-3-5-6 in the major scale, omitting 4 and 7; each melody presents a strong syncopation immediately in its opening bar; and each accompaniment is syncopated via a dropped downbeat at beat 13, creating a moment's musical wit by a trip-step in the approach to the cadence. Both examples also present a transparent style of orchestration with prominent pizzicato strings and trumpet, among other voices and instruments. All these features are shared between Thomson's and Copland's compositions, and moreover, all constitute key elements of the catchiness and distinct Americanness we hear in each "tune."

Of course, these two settings for the dance, while markedly similar in structure and effect, were composed some fifteen years apart. Copland's 1929 Dance Symphony, on the other hand, adapted from his early ballet Grohg (1922-25), exemplifies the balletic style in which he was writing around the time of Thomson's 1927-28 "Dance of the Angels." Here, however, we find music strikingly different both from Thomson's "Dance" and from Copland's own later Americana ballets like Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and Appalachian Spring. For whereas Copland's Americana idiom is neoclassically tonal, his writing in Grohg and Dance Symphony is more harshly dissonant and unmistakably Stravinskian. Specifically, it evokes the primitivist Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring (1911-13) and Les noces (1914-17), as contrasted with the neoclassic Stravinsky of Pulcinella (1919-20) or The Rake's Progress (1948-51).

One could similarly examine other passages in Four Saints, such as the closing comment of Thomson's lone muted trumpet, which presages his more expansive exposition of this instrumental "persona" (unmuted) in the hymnodic prelude to act 3 (again engaging the "Dance of the Angels" theme). Between the prelude's quietly prayerful beginning and its soaring climax the trumpet goes from street-corner salvation band to courtly heraldic duties. This music gives a foretaste of the musical trope that would come to represent American majesty and simple integrity, when, some years later, it became widely known via the compositions of Thomson's gay coeval and colleague Copland. In Copland's work and that of his followers, such writing would be presented not amid abstraction but with concrete thematic cues through which listeners could interpret the music. Take, for example, Copland's ballet score for Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring (1944): This presents the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" in a lucid, widely spaced orchestration comparable to that of Thomson's "Dance" and prelude, but now in explicit relation to Graham's themes of pioneer strength and austerity, prairie vastness and beauty, and—despite the ballet's theme of Shaker life (which, notably, is celibate)—joyous love and marriage between a man and a woman.

Growing evidence suggests it was in large part from such Thomsonian models as are given here and in the ballet and documentary film scores of 1936-37 that Copland learned, as it were, how to be Copland. The composer was characteristically candid in expressing to Thomson his admiration for Four Saints, its innovativeness and particularly its orchestration, and he was equally generous a few years later in his praise for Thomson's film music. Thomson's scores for two New Deal government documentaries, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, have only recently received serious critical attention. In close analyses of this music and that of Copland's film and other scores from the period, the musicologist Neil Lerner details the extraordinary dramatic and musical innovations of Thomson's long-forgotten documentary work and concludes, "Copland's U.S. pastoral sound is in no small part indebted to Thomson's landmark film scores."

The notion of Copland having derived essentials of his populist language from Thomson has arisen in other quarters as well. Ned Rorem has registered the point on many occasions, most recently with this summary: "[I]t was [Thomson] who first legitimized the use of home-grown fodder for urbane palates. He confected his own folksong by filtering the hymns of his youth through a chic Gallic prism. This was the 'American Sound' of wide-open prairies and Appalachian springs, soon borrowed and popularized by others." A similar genealogy surfaces strikingly in a memorial penned for the New York Times, upon Thomson's 1989 death, by Copland's most illustrious disciple Leonard Bernstein, who wrote that Thomson would "always remain rightly alive in the history of music, if only for the extraordinary influence his witty and simplistic music had on his colleagues, especially on Aaron Copland, and through them on most of American music in our century." Bernstein closes: "I know that I am one twig on that tree and I will always cherish and revere Virgil, the source."

All these assessments affirm Thomson's own frank statements, apparently intended for the record, in his 1970 book American Music since 1910—to the effect both that Copland was the author of "the most distinguished populist music style yet created in America," and that he had modeled this style directly on Thomson's music. According to Thomson, his own Four Saints was the inspiration for Copland's first opera The Second Hurricane (1936); his Plow soundtrack (1936), replete with folkish tunes, cowboy songs, and war ditties, and his Americana ballet Filling Station (1937) were the models for Copland's breakthrough ballet Billy the Kid, its western-genre successor Rodeo, and Copland's first Hollywood score, Of Mice and Men (1939); and his River score (1937), with its use of Southern hymn tunes, was the "direct source" for Copland's use of nineteenth-century hymns in Appalachian Spring.

Thomson claimed it had not occurred to Copland, "a self-conscious modernist," that an American composer at this time could write an American opera or ballet, nor had he imagined how one might write for a large, popular audience without sacrificing "intellectual" (i.e., high-cultural) status. By Thomson's report, his own musical simplicities showed Copland that one need not preserve the limiting "correct façade of dissonance" their Paris training had instilled. And these simplicities gave Copland, in his own words, "a lesson in how to treat Americana." If all this sounds like sour grapes, that fruit was almost surely present chez Thomson in 1970, and with the fermentation of some three decades. But it must be said that Thomson's book, a survey and assessment of sixty years of American music and composers, is throughout an exemplar of generosity, even-handedness, and peerless musical and professional discernment. And his account therein of Copland's influences, whatever its etiquette implications, appears verifiably on the mark.

While both Thomson and Copland lived, there was never any question—not after about 1938, anyway—as to whose idiom was the more recognized "American music." In Four Saints and other works, Virgil Thomson, in the estimable view of the former Times critic John Rockwell, "has given us as profound a vision of American culture as anyone has yet achieved." But Copland's willingness and ability to link his own lean, tonal music with seemingly apposite, broadly embraced mainstream images of America's land and people positioned him more optimally in that period, following the Great War, when the U.S. hungrily scanned its horizon for a native musical bard and national language.

Creative Identifications: Composing Oneself in Four Saints

To invoke the sixteenth-century mystic and seer Saint Teresa of Ávila is to invoke one of the defining icons of vital passion and ecstatic rapture in the Christian world. It is equally to invoke one of the beloved heroines and patron saints of Western queerdom, a woman who in her life knew intense intimacy with other women and endured on account of her rapturous s/m-tinged "visitations" both scandalous rumor and incarcerative scrutiny in the Spanish Inquisition—and a woman who has since her death inspired the devotions of queer writers from the English baroque poet Richard Crashaw to the earlier-twentieth-century English writers Ronald Firbank and Vita Sackville-West and the contemporary American poet Gloria Anzaldúa. In their literary paeans and in Stein and Thomson's Four Saints the critic Corinne E. Blackmer examines Saint Teresa's role as a "queer diva" whose "bravura negotiation of the speakable and the unspeakable" in her Life (written under order from her inquisitors) manages to reveal, "in a double movement of concealment and disclosure, the sources of her jouissance." By this description Teresa may seem a most fitting heroine for Gertrude Stein, who indeed read her writings with admiration.

Stein also avidly read and admired the contemporary high-camp novels of Firbank, a prodigiously eccentric, sapphically identified queer friend of Van Vechten and others in Stein's circle. His novels include treatments of Teresa and the religious life in Valmouth (1919) and The Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926), which, like Four Saints after them, present historical and invented saints in fantastic scenarios that bear selective resemblances both to historical fact and to their author's contemporaneous queer realm. Such writing takes part in a long tradition, traced variously upon Anglo-American literature, of identification with Catholic monastic life on the part of queer subjects who (as Blackmer notes) have regarded its enforced homosociality as "an appealing refuge" and have felt attracted to a religion that was "for half of its existence" (in John Boswell's words) "most notable for its insistence on the preferability of lifestyles other than [heterosexual] family units." Among early-twentieth-century lesbians in the arts worlds of Paris and London, queer Catholicism's tradition was carried on in the devotions and conversions of Vita Sackville-West, Violet Shiletto, Christopher St. John, Una Troubridge, Renée Vivien, and others yet to be discussed.

Though she bears certain important resemblances to Toklas, Stein and Thomson's Saint Teresa, as we have noted, also seems to represent Stein, who was, like the historical Teresa, a "devoted artistic woman who achieved prominence later in life." She seems Steinish already by virtue of being the central character in Four Saints, where her name is the mantra continually invoked and repeated—like that of Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The latter book, of course, leaves no room for doubt about Stein's ability to write a "tribute" to Toklas without disturbing her own place as central subject. In the light of Saint Teresa's evident duality we might borrow (from one of Stein's manuscripts) the formulation "Gertrice/Altrude" to designate the biographical-referential space staked out by this protagonist. Ultimately, such space may even be limitless: Meg Albrinck argues that Saint Teresa "gains plurality and multiplicity through the repetition of her name" and thus resists categorization and interpretation.

"Can two saints be one," the libretto asks—as if to render these questions unignorable. And Four Saints' operatic realization offers an answer, in the affirmative. Thomson staged two performers to make one Teresa, splitting her character into dual roles—Saint Teresa I (soprano) and Saint Teresa II (mezzo-soprano)—for reasons both dramatic and musical: He wanted her to be able to converse, and sing duets, with herself. But however present Stein might be in the ever-expansive character of Saint Teresa, she is more nearly ubiquitous via the authorial commentary that crowds the prologue and resurfaces throughout the rest of the text—comprising nearly two-thirds of the whole, by Richard Bridgman's estimate. Indeed, Albrinck observes that Stein's libretto "is a curious mixture of dialogue, stage direction, and authorial comment, making the author's voice as present as those of the saintly characters." Jane Palatini Bowers further develops this notion, marking the presence of "Stein, the writer, [as] a character in her own play" and reading Four Saints' text as a representation of the process of its own composition. Surely much of the charm audiences perceive in the opera owes to Thomson's decision to set all of this "curious mixture" equally: "I put everything to music, even the stage directions, because they made such lovely lines for singing," he declared in 1982.

Unlike the now-revealed queerness of some of Stein's other writings from this period, that of Four Saints is not manifested in lyric style or erotic subject matter. Rather, queerness presents here in the engagement with a queer life cycle, located in a collective dimension embracing daily "tribal" or social life, vocation, and spirituality. Of course, my reading of Four Saints in Three Acts focuses on the opera, and not primarily on Stein's libretto. Within the latter, Thomson himself attested to finding a "quite impressive obscurity," upon receiving the manuscript from Stein in 1927. Once rendered a singable, stageable work by Thomson and Grosser (thus realizing the imperative of Stein's subtitle, "An Opera to Be Sung"), Four Saints remained an exemplar of avant-garde abstraction, but it was now inarguably and inevitably more concrete, in some significant ways. This difference has been noted from the time of its premiere. Van Vechten, for instance, writes that "Thomson's music has perforce introduced an associational element into this prose"—just after quoting Stein on her desire to destroy "associational emotion in poetry and prose." The latter-day critic Albrinck is at pains to emphasize the alteration of Stein's text, and the dilution of its resistance to dramatic and social conventions, that were wrought, in her view, by the operatic realization. But surely "[t]he transformations that were necessary for staging Four Saints" must be viewed in the first place "as a measure for the distance Stein's text maintains from the theater." This indeed is how Martin Puchner views them in his analysis of Stein's Four Saints libretto as an instance of modernist "anti-theatricalism" and thus of "closet drama"—a genre he defines in terms precisely of social resistance, via "the refusal of or withdrawal from social normativity."

One can scarcely argue with Albrinck's claim that Thomson's addition of commère and compère characters constitutes a prime element in his (and Grosser's) alteration of the libretto. Indigenous to French theatrical revues, these stock characters are put to narrational use. In this capacity the pair have been likened to the Greek chorus and, often in connection with Thomson's all-black casting of the original production, to the end men of blackface minstrelsy. In Four Saints, Commère and Compère "speak to the audience and to each other about the progress of the opera" (as Grosser explains) and frequently observe the action from their special place in a "box" offstage. Significantly, only these two characters, among all those presented in the opera, are intended to represent the laity. In the 1934 premiere they alone wore modern dress, twentieth-century street clothes, while the saints—excepting the resplendent Teresas—wore saintly robes of various sorts. And they are distinguished as the only characters that stage a "tender scene" and sing a love duet. They introduce heterosexuality into the opera, and thus Albrinck regards Thomson's Commère and Compère as straightening up Stein's act, as normalizing the prior queerness of her text and "radically rewrit[ing]" it in a manner fundamentally at odds with its vision, which Albrinck reads as antipatriarchal and socially resistant.

Albrinck fails to notice, however, an aspect of Thomson's "nonsaintly commentators" (as he calls them) that some other viewers have found most striking. To wit: Commère and Compère fulfill the highly specialized function assigned them—that is, of nonsaintly commentary—"and are therefore kept apart from the 'saintly' primary cast." Puchner remarks that Commère and Compère are "segregated" from the saints both spatially and functionally: by their relegation to the outer stage, and as bearers of only "the diegetic parts—narrative, stage directions, commentary"—of Stein's libretto, at remove from the saints' onstage mimetic action. Thomson's Commère and Compère are pleasant, they are helpful, they are demonstrably capable of affection with each other and of interaction with the saints. But they remain perennially outside the frame of Four Saints' spectacle. In their embodiment of the culturally ubiquitous and domineering topos of heterosexuality they invite the sort of reading that Albrinck gives them—as main attraction. They provide a focal point for (some) spectators' desire for the staging of heterosexual desire. But those spectators who seek other objects may readily see past them. And such queerish viewers are likely to notice that Commère and Compère, uniquely among Four Saints' dramatis personae, present as mainstream mortal folk, always outside the realm of saints and of consecration.

Of course, queer-attuned subjects in the pre-Stonewall era were accustomed to looking past standard surfaces, and adept at seeking out more rarefied clues to meanings that might reflect their own lives and experiences. To the queer listener John Cage circa 1957, it appeared "significant"—albeit in an unspecified way—that his friend and colleague Virgil Thomson chose a seemingly self-emblematic musical figure (a Protestant hymn tune, for a former Kansas City Baptist church organist) to set the Steinian phrase "as they say in the way they say they can express in this way tenderness." For other spectators similarly versed in the requisite encodings of pre-Stonewall queer life, a significant tenderness—at least in the way "they" can express it in Four Saints—is readable in the saintly spectacle presented on center stage, and with recourse to the creators' own queer lives. And it is readable despite the diversions of artistic abstraction and of heterosexual spectacle, with its exclusive claim on "tender scenes."

With reference to various past and present instances of reception, I have been arguing that Four Saints, its renowned abstractness notwithstanding, is in fact pivotally concerned with certain tender subjects: those of the authors' own lives, loves, and work as modern queer artists. Questions of "the way they say they can express" such subjects loom large and central here, given the proscriptions on queer representation and expression that obtained in American life throughout much of the twentieth century. By the century's final quarter, however, such conditions were beginning to change, and Virgil Thomson, born in 1896, was still around to bear witness. Even more remarkably, he remained until his death in 1989 capable of shrewdly assessing and continually adapting to shifting sociosexual and political terrains—contrary to conventional wisdom concerning old dogs and new tricks. Thus, although Thomson had been fiercely guarded and secretive about his personal life from the time of his 1940 U.S. return through at least 1966 when he published his memoir, in 1982 he saw fit to speak of his magnum opus in somewhat more personalizing terms than he or Stein had previously used (notably, in the 1980s Thomson also actively sought a biographer who would confront head-on the queer themes in his life and work). He spoke now of Four Saints as concretely thematic in its collaborative conception—specifically, as an autobiography of the artists, Stein and himself (and not merely an account of Stein's creative process, as Bowers would have it), presented via an eccentric species of religious allegory:

It was early in 1927 that Gertrude Stein and I first thought of writing an opera. Naturally the theme had to be one that moved us both. "Something from the lives of the saints" was my proposal; that it should take place in Spain was hers. She then chose (and I agreed) two Spanish saints, Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola. The fact that these two, historically, never knew each other did not seem to either of us an inconvenience. . . .

Why did it occur to Gertrude Stein and myself to write an opera about saints? Simply because we saw among the religious a parallel to the life we were leading, in which consecrated artists were practicing their art surrounded by younger artists who were no less consecrated, and who were trying to learn and needing to learn the terrible disciplines of truth and spontaneity, of channeling their skills without loss of inspiration. That was our theme; certainly that was our theme. That the daily life of saints could be, as regards their work and their preparation for it, a model to ours.

One senses here a very close identification between the authors and their brainchildren in Four Saints. And a fusion of the saints' personas and daily lives with those of their creators, within the imaginations of the latter, had also emerged in dialogues from the collaboration years. In September 1927, for example, Thomson wrote campily to Stein, "The saints are singing. . . . Gaily praising their maker and trying not to be too catty to one another" (in Thomson and Stein's own gay world, camp cattiness was a virtue and a defining performative element of the "anti-language" of their shared "anti-society"). Until Thomson's 1982 statements, however, neither he nor Stein had spoken in explicit terms of an autobiographical program in Four Saints. Of course, it was not the fashion among avant-garde or other modernists to make too much of artistic content. Rather, being modern meant glorifying form, as Stein did in connection with her notion of "landscape theater"—which not only granted writing a degree of abstraction commensurate with that of modern painting, but abstracted the very notion of writing by rendering it conceptually commensurable with painting (both here being apprehended piece by piece, and outside any temporal frame).

Abstraction, Accrochabilité, and the Naked Woman

Undoubtedly Stein's Four Saints libretto is concerned with problems of form and intended to "oppose, subvert, and disrupt the dominant, conventional forms of drama." Similarly, Thomson's setting is determined to instantiate an American music of directness and simplicity in line with his anti-German Romantic, antimasterpiece vision. Much of what is "abstract" in Four Saints surely arises in connection with its authors' avant-garde attempts to resist prior artistic forms and their effects—for example, with Stein's struggle against the disconnect between (on the one hand) a play's narrative and (on the other) the sensate response of its audience members. She described having felt herself caught, as a playgoer, between a rock and a hard place: forced to choose between keeping pace with the onstage narrative, or attending to her own emotional response to it, always unfolding at a different pace. Stein's linguistic and formal experiments in Four Saints were directed to this and to other perceived problems of conventional narrative and drama, and they were tied to her artistic theories, particularly her notion that "the business of Art . . . is to live in . . . and to completely express [the] complete actual present." Her quasi-cubist approach to expressing the "complete actual present" in this "landscape play" eschews narrative, with its focus on the past, even while deploying the (conventionally narrativic) medium of language. The abstraction that ensues might seem all but inevitable, quite apart from any queer content in the work or in the authors' lives.

But the work was not created apart from the authors' queer lives, any more than the authors' métiers and methods—not to mention collaborative partners—were chosen apart from their queer identities. By virtue of its abstract formal characteristics, Four Saints already evinces a "refusal of [and] withdrawal from social normativity" that may be said to mirror queerness and other kinds of social marginality and resistance. Moreover, the opera was received and produced in autobiographical relation to its queer creators. It presents a mise en scène so simply and fundamentally queer as to be unremarkable, in the manner of forgone conclusion and quotidian normality. As Blackmer observes of Four Saints' Teresian protagonist, her "sexuality is not treated as an 'incitement' to narrative or as a prurient secret to be unveiled for the delectation of her spectators." Indeed, the signs of her and the others saints' queerness are simply present amid the toils and pleasures of devoted daily lives, an unquestioned element of "things as they are" (to invoke a line from elsewhere in Stein's oeuvre).

Thus rendered mundanely, unspectacularly central, these signs ironically became illegible, "abstracted," from the perspective of the dominant culture. Through such "abstraction" the authors were able to compose and stage their artistic statement of collective and individual, national, sexual, and artistic identity. And surely Stein and Thomson had reason, beyond modernist fashion, to welcome abstraction and, in 1927 as for many years after, to avoid speaking of any autobiographical program in their hagiographic and American opera, or consecration vis-à-vis the lives they were leading: For such notions would have made their work unpresentable (or, as Stein would put it, inaccrochable) in America, where the dominant culture deemed queer persons dispossessed of such sacred themes and expressions.

Not surprisingly, the receptive ideal that evolved in relation to high modernism applies to audiences the same expectations as are wielded by artistic producers—of placing form over content and of actively cultivating abstraction. Given the thorough training in not-seeing that modernist aesthetic culture thus engenders, perhaps we should not wonder that the fundamental queerness of Four Saints' spectacle is little registered in the still-growing discourse surrounding the opera and its libretto. Given, too, the particular instance of Four Saints as well as the general facts of queerness among so many of American modernism's principal figures, we might consider the possible connections between, on the one hand, the historical exigencies of concealing queer meanings from the homophobic mainstream, and, on the other hand, the contours assumed by abstract modernist style—and herein lies one of this chapter's key propositions. A related proposition, which will be pursued substantially throughout this book, links the exigencies of concealing queer meanings in twentieth-century America and, in the same cultural-historical context, queer subjects' extraordinary engagements with the putatively abstract art of music.

Twentieth-century Anglo-American queer subjects knew a great deal about abstracting meanings and speaking in code, especially in the decades following the (1895) Wilde trials. "You didn't mention it" in the teens and twenties, as Thomson recalled in 1988, "but you understood everything." Silence among queer persons and their allies was assured by the fact that "everybody knew about the Oscar Wilde case." And if this was not equally assured with outsiders and enemies, these at least could often be trusted to bring abundant ignorance to queer meanings.

Ernest Hemingway can serve as a case in point. For all his preoccupation in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, with identifying queer markers and subtexts and ostentatiously distancing himself from them, Hemingway seems deaf here to the resonant queer implications of a certain piece of advice he received (by his account) from Stein. After reading (circa 1922) a short story of Hemingway's that contained vulgar language, Stein instructed the young writer, "You mustn't write anything that is inaccrochable" (unhangable, hence: unpresentable for public display). "There is no point in it," Stein emphasized. "It's wrong and it's silly." Hemingway appears to have been, even some thirty-five years later, so intent on portraying (by contrived understatement) the purity and instinctual integrity of his own literary vision that he misses completely the possible significance of Stein's statement in relation to her writing.

Given Stein's emphatic stand on this principle (as well as her keen attention, as discussed above, to matters of reception) we might well suppose that she observed it in her own work: Never write anything that is inaccrochable. Do not offend the standards of bourgeois modesty and respectability, for there is no use in painting a picture that can be neither hung in a show nor displayed in a genteel home, and thus cannot be sold. Hemingway gave no indication that Stein encouraged him to alter his themes, but only the means of their conveyance, and then to specific, professionally strategic ends. Impressed by the naughty transgressiveness of his own slangy, tough-guy language in "Up in Michigan," however, Hemingway was apparently absorbed in a (retrospective) fantasy of himself as youthful challenger to the prior generation's orthodoxy, represented by Stein. He betrayed no awareness of the far more radical potential of Stein's conservative tactic, of its ramifications in relation to her own writing, or to the truly unorthodox meanings her assiduous avoidance of inaccrochabilité might have allowed her to pass under the public's nose. However useless as advice to Hemingway circa 1922, Stein's statement is valuable to us as an indicator of her priorities and strategies vis-à-vis obtaining exposure and getting her work, and its messages, before the public.

In light of such indications, perhaps the abstraction in Four Saints is best read as deferring rather than obviating meaning—and deferring it until such time as its audiences might be capable of receiving it. This notion is consistent with Stein's focus on the audience and their role of (in her view) completing the circuit of artistic process. It is also consistent with Stein's statement in 1939 to her young friend and admirer Samuel Steward that, while she deemed what she and Toklas did in bed their own business, "perhaps considering Saint Paul it would be better not to talk about it, say for twenty years after I die, unless it's found out sooner or times change." To Steward—who was approaching homosexual themes in his own work as a writer—she expressed regret at having written on same-sex affairs in Q.E.D., at a time (1903) when "it was too early to write about such things in our civilization."

Perhaps it was, more precisely, too early for Stein to write about such things, for this early work—in contrast to her writing from The Making of Americans (1911) on—employs a legible, linear style resembling that of Henry James. In her conversation years later with Steward, Stein confessed that she had found the writing therapeutic, but that having done it caused her to feel ashamed, for "it was too outspoken for the times even though it was restrained." Stein told Steward that she would not permit Q.E.D. to be published during her lifetime, but that she had in this instance "changed it around and made a man out of one of the [romantically embroiled] women" to create "Melanctha" (1905)—which presents in a style already vastly less Jamesian, more nearly Steinian. Something had had to be done, in Stein's view, to make the work responsive to the cultural requirements of its own time: "[I]t would not have been a graceful thing to publish it then."

Stein's work—the meanings of which are increasingly deciphered and demystified by critics—and her comments on it suggest there is more to Four Saints, its creators' vision, and (at least some) modernist abstraction than pleasurable nonsense or even pure form. But "considering Saint Paul," that most influential critic of sexuality and expression, and considering her audiences, Stein respected the crucial difference between the coded and the constative. She had reckoned with "the tradition that we call Pauline"—in which, as Ellis Hanson remarks in his study of fin-de-siècle decadent Catholicism, "we are asked to appreciate saintly jouissance without ever analyzing it." Interestingly, amid her acute awareness of abstraction and its crucial function, the writer best known as the prime exponent of nonsensical abstraction apparently neither trusted abstraction nor granted it mystique in other artists' work, and she further deemed the sense, or meaning, of her own work its very raison d'être.

Indeed, according to Thomson's recollection, Stein in the late twenties "did not trust abstraction in art" and believed it "constricted between flat color schemes and pornography." Thomson's account finds fleshing out in an anecdote from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that concerns Matisse's painting of "a big figure of a woman lying among some cactuses" and illuminates Stein's stance toward artistic abstraction:

[O]ne day the five year old little boy of the janitor who often used to visit Gertrude Stein who was fond of him, jumped into her arms as she was standing at the open door of the atelier and looking over her shoulder and seeing the picture cried out in rapture, oh là là what a beautiful body of a woman. Miss Stein used always to tell this story when the casual stranger in the aggressive way of the casual stranger said, looking at this picture, and what is that supposed to represent.

Matisse's "cactus woman" was not relegated to the obscurity of inaccrochabilité: The picture hung in Stein's own studio. And yet, as Stein surely understood, it would have been sequestered, along with any number of other works, had many of her "casual strangers" or readers of The Autobiography followed Stein's (and her little visitor's) lead, allowing themselves to register its content as well as its form. Her friend Matisse knew and used methods for rendering his pictures accrochable without giving up censorable content. Hemingway's story attests that Stein strongly approved of such methods, but it never suggests she was herself, as a receptor, "taken in" by them: In Matisse's work as in her own Stein expected, and found, concrete meanings. This point is amplified by the description, given in 1931 by the young composer and writer Paul Bowles, of Stein's exhortations on the absolute primacy of "sense" in writing:

She has set me right, by much labor on her part, and now the fact emerges that there is nothing in her works save the sense. The sound, the sight, the soporific repetitions to which I had attached such great importance, are accidental, she insists, and the one aim of her writing is the superlative sense. "What is the use of writing," she will shout, "unless every word makes the utmost sense?"

And yet in her own time many, if not most, of Stein's audiences and critics could be counted on to regard her avant-garde work as nonsense, and even to bring a willful, conditioned blindness to it and its meanings. The cultural frame into which her words were placed encouraged such not-seeing—not only by its construction of high art in transcendent, disembodied, and (within modernism) abstracted terms, but also by its insistence on the nonexistence of female sexuality in general and (female and male) homosexuality in particular. Of course, there have been both appreciative and hostile receptors who have trusted that they "got it" upon encountering Four Saints and other works of abstract reputation. But even as late as 1971 Thomson, in an otherwise appreciative review of a budding crop of code-breaking Stein scholarship, was at pains to point out (albeit subtly, surely not wishing to appear too knowledgeable about queer codes) the plain-obvious meanings in Stein's language that continued to pass under scholars' radar—which, as he also pointed out, was often hopelessly over-calibrated toward the arcane.

Having cited one scholar's explanations for the word choices in Tender Buttons via Indo-European philology ("a subject of which Gertrude knew little"), and for those of another work via Jungian psychology, Thomson took the opportunity to drop a quiet little bomb concerning Stein hermeneutics. In "a stroke that demonstrated how simple it is to short-circuit the wiring of the open secret" (to borrow the description given in another context by Philip Brett), Thomson wrote, "I wonder why no one has ever reached out in public, at least to my knowledge, for the meaning of the title Tender Buttons, of which the literal translation into French will easily get anyone a laugh." Even Bridgman, whose book Thomson praised highly, "does not essay that one," despite devoting twelve pages to the piece. Here as in Four Saints, the exoticizing abnormalization of queer identity and life—their sequestering as tender subjects in receptions even of Tender Buttons—allowed them, in overt and mundane representations particularly, to pass undetected in the dominant culture: Queer abstraction indeed. And in case anyone might have missed the point—or perhaps because they can be expected to—Thomson closed this section of his discussion with an arch multipart pun, expressing his hope for further progress "toward opening up . . . the approaches to Tender Buttons presented in A Long Gay Book."

Queer Catholicism Goes to (Religious) Camp

Thomson's choice of Florine Stettheimer as Four Saints' set and costume designer was a bold move. The composer had previously considered Pablo Picasso and, separately, Christian Bérard in this capacity. But he fixed upon the cloistered and unknown Stettheimer as soon as he saw her flashy, tinselly paintings. When asked by Steven Watson a half-century later to explain the affinity between Stettheimer's paintings and the opera, Thomson got directly to the point: "Florine's paintings are very high camp, and high camp is the only thing you can do with a religious subject. Anything else gets sentimental and unbelievable, whereas high camp touches religion sincerely. . . . People who have been cured of an eye disease put little toy eyes in front of a statue of a saint. And then the world of tinsel can only be sincere." Evidently Thomson, a camp virtuoso for whom Manhattan's great cathedral was "St. John the Too, Too Divine," could recognize a kindred spirit when he saw one.

We should note in this connection that "camp" has only recently acquired the broad popular sense it now possesses—denoting a general sensibility, not necessarily in association with a particular sexuality or subculture—since the mass media appropriated camp, the word and sensibility, around the late eighties (capping a process begun in the sixties). Throughout the earlier decades of the twentieth century, camp was understood exclusively in its original relation to homosexuals and homosexual culture. This homo-specific usage surfaced as late as 1960 in Hemingway's memoir A Moveable Feast: His phobic ejaculation, "Take your dirty camping mouth out of here," was the means by which Hemingway outed a certain interlocutor to readers (or rather, to cognoscenti), the more insultingly because nonnominatively and insinuatively.

Susan Sontag's landmark 1964 "Notes on 'Camp'" let readers of Partisan Review in on what had been an exclusively subcultural phenomenon. But Esther Newton attests that camp was still a homosexual "in-group word" in the midsixties when she conducted ethnographic research for her ground-breaking Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Newton's book defined camp in terms of incongruous subject matter, theatrical style, and humorous strategy, identifying all these elements in intimate relation to "the homosexual situation." In a more contemporary context, Moe Meyer, responding to the recent mass appropriation and heterosexualization of camp, conceptualizes camp as a specifically queer social critique and emphasizes its "cultural and ideological analytic potential."

When in early 1927 Virgil Thomson suggested a religious subject to Gertrude Stein for their operatic collaboration, he had already been engaged with Christian themes, both narrative and musical, for many years. Brought up in a devout Baptist family, he also earned his principal income in church, working as a professional organist from his Kansas City adolescence through his undergraduate years at Harvard. Thomson's intimacy with religious topics thus began in his youth, but by means of more recent explorations he had, by 1927, confirmed the singular qualities of such topics as vehicles for queer meaning. The close association of religion, music, queerness, and abstracting dissociation that characterizes Thomson's work in Four Saints in Three Acts would surface time and again in his creative projects, in such a way as to constitute a central and persistent theme of his artistic voice and oeuvre. But the theme predates Four Saints, and it appeared significant in Thomson's life some years before it emerged in his art.

Attendant with Thomson's entire adolescence was a friendship and mentoring relationship with the Kansas City church tenor Robert Leigh Murray. The relationship was formative for Thomson both as a musician and as a homosexual. Murray provided contacts with the crème de la crème of local music teachers and took Virgil to hear the most illustrious concert artists of the day, in their own city and on weekend trips to Chicago. Whether or not the young Thomson was involved sexually with the decades-older Murray—and there is strong suggestion that, in some fashion, he was—the association with Murray and his cohort provided Thomson's earliest initiation into the homosexual world, and particularly into the realm of homosexual arts devotees and professionals. Here we might further note that in his youthful relationship with Murray Thomson experienced a fused, simultaneous initiation into musical and homosexual life and culture, which was itself, in this instance and elsewhere throughout his life, a fused entity: a life and culture that coalesced equally around homosexuality and musicality, mutually informed and mutually inextricable. The association with adult homosexuals would surely also have initiated the nascently queer Thomson into the ways and habits—including coding, silence, and double consciousness—that characterized the identity, discourse, and life of the reigning persona among early-twentieth-century middle-class queers: That is, of the "discreet homosexual."

On his seventeenth birthday, in 1913, Thomson received from Murray a gift that he would keep until his death nearly seventy-six years later. It was a handsomely bound copy of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis (1897), inscribed, "To a lad whose friendship is a very pleasant thing to me," and initialed by the giver. We might glean the significance of this gesture by comparison with a very similar instance in the queer youth of a Thomson coeval, the English writer Beverley Nichols. Alan Sinfield reports that Nichols was "taken up" during his World War I adolescence by a bachelor named Edwards who lived nearby. Though the two were sexually involved, Nichols's businessman father persisted in thinking the dandy Edwards a ladies' man until one day he came upon his son reading a book that Edwards had given him: Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. Mr. Nichols became violently frantic, calling his son a "pretty little boy" while hitting him in the face. He spat on the book and tore its pages with his teeth, exclaiming Wilde's name in disbelief.

Sinfield points out that Edwards, an effeminate, aesthete bachelor, was perceived by the elder Nichols as a "leisure-class philanderer" until Wilde's name arose, at which point he was instantly transformed into a homosexual. The meanings and effects of Edwards's gift to young Nichols, and Murray's to Thomson, owed to the facts of the contemporary symbolic economy, specifically the fact that after 1895 the effeminate, aesthetic, dandyish Wildean type was infamously the paradigmatic homosexual persona in Anglo-American culture, and "an Oscar Wilde" a male homosexual. Indeed, "the queer man as we know him is a consequence of the Wilde trials," which christened in scandal and shame an emblematics previously unknown. And we need only to look at The Well of Loneliness's Stephen Gordon, or her creator Radclyffe Hall, to confirm queer women's contemporaneous involvements in Wildeanism and its effects.

The particular Wildean opus Thomson received from Robert Leigh Murray carried further and deeper resonances, however, at least for queer readers, than those merely of homosexuality or aestheticism. Wilde's De Profundis, his long letter (literally) "out of the depths" of his imprisonment in Reading Gaol, inflected the (now eponymously Wildean) figure of the homosexual in terms of persecution and suffering, and of longing for Christian consolation and deliverance. And in its delineation of "an intimate and immediate connection between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist," De Profundis proffered a redemptive, indeed, Christ-like role for the abjected homosexual: that of the artist. Throughout Wilde's oeuvre art is religion, and religion—Catholicism in particular, in all its theater and ritual—is art. This queer theology resembles that to which Four Saints pays homage, albeit with Teresa's (effectively) antipatriarchal cardinality displacing Jesus' status as supreme sacerdotal figure. The extent to which Thomson adopted such an aestheticized affiliation to the Church may be suggested by his 1943 reply to a Herald Tribune reader who had found his Easter Sunday review "both Christian and Catholic": Thomson was delighted, he claimed, for although he was "technically neither," indeed "Christian" and "Catholic" described his "religious sentiments" exactly.

If Four Saints' religious theme was Thomson's suggestion, the queer theology instantiated there could readily have been formulated with reference to Stein's life. One time, in their early travels together, when Stein and Toklas went walking in the hot sun of Spain, the peasants assumed Stein's customary brown corduroys to be the habit of a religious order. Such a notion was not far from the truth, for Stein's "strange steerage clothes" (in Hemingway's description) were a visible marker of her life's passionate devotion and vocation. As she would advise Hemingway, "You can either buy clothes or buy pictures." Stein's chosen habit was to sacrifice the worldly pleasures of sartorial splendor for the divine riches of art, and to practice a kind of ascetic discipline in the material realm so as to dwell in art's consecration. Her perception of a similar devotion in Thomson preceded her decision to collaborate with him: Driving home after one of their first evenings together—during which Thomson had given his one-man rendition of Satie's Socrate, his lifelong musical touchstone—Stein remarked to Toklas that Thomson was "singularly pure vis-à-vis his art," which he appeared to regard (as she did her own) in terms of "discipline, humility, and loyalties rather than egocentric experience."

Composing oneself in relation to the high church, in art or in life, appealed to queer modernist artists including not only Stein, Thomson, and their Four Saints collaborators, but also their contemporaries Firbank, Hall, W.H. Auden, Montague Summers, and others. These moderns' conviction that "a cult of homoerotic community" could be found "[u]nder the cowl of monasticism" was an inheritance from their late-nineteenth-century queer predecessors. Wilde and Pater were leaders among the "late-nineteenth-century aesthetes, many of them homosexual, who found in the church a peculiar language for artistic and sexual expression." A similar artistic sensibility merged with cultural and political vectors in the French literary movement dubbed Neo-Catholicism, which embraced the "decadent" symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, and took as its principal text J.-K. Huysmans's 1884 novel À Rebours (Against the Grain).

A subsequent generation of American twentieth-century moderns would adapt Catholicism to their own particular symbolic purposes: It functioned as antonym to a despised Protestantism and, in its exoticized mysticism and sensuality, signaled a resistance to further scorned elements of a contemporary scientific, moralist, Progressivist national culture deemed vacuous and provincial. The further resonance of Catholic/Protestant within (what Sedgwick has called) "the new calculus of homo/hetero" is legible with many queer modernists, though none more clearly than Firbank. His Valmouth widows Mrs. Elizabeth Thoroughfare and Mrs. Eulalia Hurstpierpoint share both a homoerotic friendship and ornate Catholic pieties, the latter "aimed, in part, at converting their friend Lady Parvula de Panzoust from her 'fallen' conditions as heterosexual and Protestant."

Virgil Thomson's fascination with a sacred Christian erotics was undoubtedly fueled by his experiences as a college student in the late teens and early twenties when, according to Humphrey Carpenter, "Harvard was largely occupied with trying to copy the 'aesthetic' style of Oxford in the 1890s. Undergraduates read the Yellow Book, discussed Walter Pater and [Aubrey] Beardsley, displayed crucifixes in their bedroom [sic] and declared that they found the Church 'voluptuous.' They posed as Decadent poets and wrote sonnets." But Four Saints' particular genuflection to aesthetic religiosity was also importantly molded by Thomson's experiences with Protestant religion and music, and by Stein's style and input.

Stein's preoccupation with pleasure was central throughout her writing from about 1911, following completion of her grand chef d'oeuvre, the 925-page novel The Making of Americans. But the flavor of pleasure fixation in Stein's writing is wholly distinct from that of the decadent poets. It bears, for instance, no hint of shame, and betrays no taste for what the Church has called "morose delectation." Whereas Stein celebrated quotidian pleasures in occult language, the decadents celebrated occult pleasures in relatively quotidian language. Virgil Thomson partook of the latter sensibility in other sacred settings, but in Four Saints he aligned himself with Stein's singular approach to queer religiosity and, in certain ways, with camp style. And if Stein's queer anti-language is a thing apart from both decadent Catholicism and camp, it nevertheless functions much as camp does (in William Lane Clark's description) to cloak "the sexual projections of transgressive personality, allowing a sympathetic reader to read one side of ambiguous characterization and yet forestalling censure by providing the antagonistic reader equally plausible meaning(s)." Such language functions, in other words, to exploit multivalence: It elevates ambiguity to an art form and thereby creates space for queer meanings, pleasures, and realities.

Thomson's first formal attempt at composition was in July 1920, following his freshman year at Harvard (his matriculation at twenty-two having been delayed by Army service during World War I). The result was a choral setting of the Penitential Psalm De Profundis. Though Thomson's text here is conspicuously Old Testament, his title alludes obliquely to Wilde and his (by this time queer-emblematic) letter from the depths. Thomson's first effort as composer is notable not only for producing a "striking" choral work (in Tommasini's description) that he would later publish, but also for presenting certain general traits that would mark his subsequent composition, and sometimes his prose, including (1) an articulation of covert queer meanings in relation to musical works of overtly sacred theme, and (2) a commingling of Christianity and homoeroticism in which the latter topos appears always concomitant with (if not immanent in) the former.

More particularly Thomson's opus one shows an impulse to take up the banner borne by Wilde in that most poignant, emblematic statement of queer suffering, spirituality, and selfhood, De Profundis. It was an homage that would reach fuller—that is to say, both more substantive and more concealed—realization in Four Saints in Three Acts, Thomson's first large-scale work following his 1926 artistic epiphany and turn toward what would be his mature, tonal, vernacular style. Whereas Wilde's De Profundis "delineate[s] an intimate and immediate connection between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist," Four Saints mediates this connection somewhat, inasmuch as its relations, likewise intimate and immediate, obtain between the artist and Christ's emissaries in the form of saints both male and female (this latter undoubtedly essential from Stein's standpoint). But Thomson's 1982 statements on behalf of himself and his late collaborator convey a sense of artistic intentions no less sacred for this saintly mediation: If by the opera, he writes, "something is evoked of the inner gayety [sic] and the strength of lives consecrated to a non-material end, the authors will consider their labors rewarded."

Another instance in Thomson's saintly repertory is "Commentaire sur Saint Jérome" (1928), a song inscribed "pour Carl Van Vechten." Thomson never attempted to publish this setting of a kinky, queer, and misogynist text by the Marquis de Sade, but Anthony Tommasini, as pianist, has brought it to performance and recorded it on a 1994 collection. It yields a glimpse into Thomson's treatment of saintly themes outside, but roughly concurrent with, his composition of Four Saints. His nakedly simple, French-flavored and -inscribed setting soars to its pastoral apex on "des fesses des jeunes bergers" (the buttocks of young shepherds). The text in this song, evidently intended for exclusive inner-circle consumption, translates as follows:

Saint Jerome reports that during a voyage he made among the Welsh he saw the Scots eat with delight the buttocks of young shepherds and the breasts of young maidens[.] I would have more confidence in the first of these dishes than in the second, and I believe, along with all the cannibalistic tribes, that the flesh of women, like that of all female creatures, must be far inferior to that of the male.

Further interesting examples can be found in Thomson's published scores, including "Consider, Lord" (1955, on a text of John Donne); an arrangement of the Southern U.S. hymn tune "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" (1959); and settings of multiple Crashaw texts, some of which notably revisit the shepherd motif. All of these exhibit the traits identified above in relation to Thomson's sacred settings. As for Thomson's "Commentaire sur Saint Jérome"—the word covert scarcely applies to the blatant homoerotics here, but it perfectly describes the status accorded this unpublished song within the composer's musical oeuvre.

The most extraordinary treatment of a religious theme in Thomson's prose catalog is found, again, in an unpublished manuscript, though in this case it appears that Thomson had sought publication. Thomson published a great deal of prose, mostly criticism, in numerous articles and books over many years. This writing began in his college days and peaked during his 1940-54 tenure with the New York Herald Tribune, a period that saw Thomson become America's most important music critic and one of the most distinctive voices in music criticism of any era: trenchant, plainspoken, and lucid. But in 1924-25, about the time when Thomson penned an essay entitled "My Jesus, I Love Thee," he was still an unknown American composer in his late twenties, living in Paris. The essay was apparently submitted to H.L. Mencken for publication in his American Mercury (possibly in an earlier version and under its previous title, "Patented Praises"). Mencken's fame as a debunker of religion and irreverent critic of the American bourgeoisie likely raised Thomson's hopes of publishing an essay implicating Baptist hymnals and Christic erotics in a condemnation of (among other things) bourgeois materialism in American religion. But despite strategic efforts the argument in "My Jesus" falls considerably short of accrochabilité, and, fortunately for Thomson, Mencken responded with a firm (if vaguely bewildered) rejection.

We can surmise from his life's work, and from his late-1980s revelation concerning camp and religiosity, that religion chez Thomson was a topic highly charged with queer erotics and camp, and as such was subject to techniques of encoding and abstraction. But in this early essay we see Thomson testing the limits of his ability to get sexy queer thematics past the censors, as it were, without abstracting them. In lieu of abstraction, his ingenious tactic for dissociation was one of displacement: First, "My Jesus" attempted, in a high-handed and at times puritanical tone, to indict "the popular religion of our time," defined here as a success rhetoric focused on love and on business, and characteristically Protestant. Then, along a (rather flimsy) thread of "individualism," Thomson endeavored to implicate this "cult of success" in the personalized, first-person eroticization of Jesus he purported to expose in contemporary Protestant hymns. Quoting from the selected, offending, hymnal, Thomson concocted long strings of suggestive lyrics: "I 'tell Him every longing that throbs within my breast,' and 'He gives relief'; 'He satisfies me.'" This goes on for two full paragraphs, in the manner—or so we are to believe—of a prosecuting attorney relentlessly presenting his most damning evidence.

Ultimately, however, the target of Thomson's plaint is never fully clear, and it seems to shift throughout the course of his (uncharacteristically) blustery discourse. The righteous condemnation of Protestant hymnals that was Thomson's vehicle and opportunity for overt discussion of (homo-) erotics in Christic hymns (the question of their homo-ness is never named, but begged throughout) is therefore marked, from the reader's standpoint, as somehow fishy and perhaps disingenuous. Thomson managed cannily to confect a narrative frame through which his public discussion of sacred textual erotics might have been publishable. But crafting the narrative and convincingly directing its accusations of prurience—toward the hymnal and its users and away from himself—proved beyond his rhetorical powers in this instance. Yet, however ill-calculated, "My Jesus, I Love Thee" is an invaluable document of its author's queer apprenticeship as cultural spokesperson: We see Thomson experimenting with techniques for balancing "inner and outer realities," exposure and silence, that would later become practiced habits—if here they show need of further refinement. And the combination of religion, music, queerness, and dissociation was fully realized in this essay, as it would be in Four Saints and other Thomson compositions to come.

Although a posture of astonishment was essential to Thomson's indignant mien in "My Jesus," his keen, seemingly exhaustive reportage on disavowed erotic markers in hymn texts leaked evidence of a knowing and lack of innocence in this regard. Thus it was precisely in the deployment of his ingenious rhetorical stratagem (i.e., of displacement) that the ever-brilliant Thomson presented—from a standpoint of accrochabilité—as too clever by half. Thomson's over-eager cleverness exposed him within what D.A. Miller has analyzed as the economy of the open secret, wherein the "function of secrecy . . . is not to conceal knowledge, so much as to conceal knowledge of the knowledge." Elsewhere, of course, Thomson's knowledge in this realm is attested—albeit less flagrantly—by his sacred text choices throughout his compositional career, which suggest a near-connoisseurial ken toward the homoerotic tradition in English-language sacred verse. These musical compositions managed somewhat better than his earlier verbal one to maintain the simultaneous elusiveness and richness of meaning that characterizes modern queer knowledge—which is, under the regimes of homophobia, characteristically connotative and as such (in Miller's words) "enjoys, or suffers from, an abiding deniability." If Thomson's "My Jesus" offered its young author any lesson, it might have been about the oil-and-water polarity that his culture ascribed to church texts and deviant sexuality, and hence about the (paradoxically) ample maneuver room that religious themes afforded queer meanings—provided, that is, such meanings were rendered sufficiently deniable.

For our own part, we might note that music's singular capacities vis-à-vis "abiding deniability" render it commensurate with—and apparently even equivalent to—modern queer knowledge as Miller defines it. As we shall further explore in the next chapter, queer subjects in twentieth-century America would seem to have understood (however consciously) the relation between music and queer knowledge in terms of some similar significance—or so suggests the evidence of their extraordinarily frequent, devoted, and influential involvements with the "abstract" art of music.

A Postlude

During her long years of solitude following Stein's 1946 death, Alice Toklas converted to Catholicism. Toklas had, like Stein, come from a Jewish family, but she had never been religious. In her later years, however, she was increasingly drawn to the Roman Church. At home in Paris, Toklas was deeply moved by an Easter mass she attended in 1956, and by the end of 1957 she had taken First Communion. Thus at the age of eighty did Alice B. Toklas became a Catholic, as she would remain until her death a decade later. She spent the fall-winter of 1960-61 in residence and devotions at the convent of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, in Rome. Friends visited and corresponded with her there, and to one she confided that, were she young again, she might have joined the "good sisters" in their simple life.

Among Toklas's visitors that winter was Virgil Thomson. What the two old friends might have made of the symmetries emergent between art and life at some thirty years' remove, we can only imagine. It is known that Thomson was among those who greeted Toklas's conversion with understanding and support. However skeptical elsewhere on matters religious (a Christian, Thomson notes in his memoir, "I surely was not"), he could well have apprehended his friend's "need for an all-consuming passion" and for "an ordered pattern of life." Her embrace of Catholicism, its rituals and disciplines, fulfilled these needs for Toklas and lent her renewed energy in her waning years. Catholicism further provided Alice Toklas with the promise of a heaven where, after her long wait, she would be reunited with Gertrude Stein. Thus, an abundant afterlife as postlude, as final bonus act: It was an ending worthy of Four Saints.