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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
    eBook
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  • Title Details

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

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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 syn