Delius the Unlikely Hedonist BBC Four documentary* earlier this year concluded Delius’ early lifestyle struggles (stouches with Dad over career path, financial failure as a citrus magnate in the U.S.A., etc.) led to his “unique musical blend of the sensual and the spiritual”.  As for the sensual side, that infamous flagellateur Percy Grainger is quoted:  Delius “was a sex worshipper, who practiced immorality with puritanical stubbornness”….ultimately contracting the syphilis which killed him.  Compromised sight, mobility and eventual death:  quite a price for stubborn immorality…..would that Percy had elucidated!  Somehow “puritanical”  and “immorality” seem mutually exclusive…..wonder if Percy knew the full story?

*Delius:  Composer, Lover, Enigma, BBC Four; author Graham Rickson;; accessed 15.08.2013

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Sexuality Not the Only Extreme



SW  In a fun survey by BBC Music Magazine**,  fifteen  of the world’s top classical composers are outed for their “bad-boy”  behaviour.  Things like:  Beethoven’s rudeness plus totally messy housekeeping;  Purcell’s bawdy, disorderly drinking bouts; Thomas Weelkes’  habit of urinating on the Dean at Chilchester Cathedral (and that was in 1616!!!).  Not to mention Handel’s public rages, Berlioz’ murderous intentions and Gesualdo’s  fully- enacted homicides (he got away with murdering his wife and lover…..).  And Oh yes, Peter Warlock rode around on his motorbike….naked!  But the prize for the most outrageous composer-badness probably goes to Gerald Tyrwhitt, who found ingenius and cruel ways to torture animals.

On top of this  “run-of-the-mill”  bad behaviour, the sexual excesses of the great composers are apparently so overwhelmingly present (past and present) that the guilty parties’ names are not individually listed….apart from Bax, Debussy, Delius and Wagner as adulterous personalities.  Instead they are clustered together as names so numerous as to overflow  the “end of your sheet of A4”  (the list, that is).  If you want further evidence, take a scan of our previous posts.

Conclusion:  composers indulge in excessive behaviours of all types.

Contrast this with the sober, self-disciplined approach to the composing craft which emerges from interviews with 20th century composers:  compiled in a scholarly book by Ann McCutchan (see reference below).  Possibly excessive behaviour has diminished over the 20th c. (among composers?), or maybe deviant sexuality is not as much fun as it used to be. Or perhaps it is not mentioned in a formal interview.  Probably the latter.

**15 composers behaving badly, BBC Music Magazine (January 2013),  pp 50 ff.

Ann McCutchan (1999), The Muse That Sings, Composers speak about the Creative Process. Oxford University Press.

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Cosi fan Tutte and Mozart’s Dirty Love Letters  Mozart’s opera Cosi fan Tutte (1790) occasioned charges of depravity and moral looseness from the beginning.  The debate ( then and now) centers on the source of such objections:  is it the sexually humiliating plot, the libretto, or the incredibly sensuous music?  Unfavourable  reactions since its premiere have targeted Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist, as debasing the divine talent of the composer. But Kreisler points out (see reference below) the music itself propels us  into the emotional upheaval and moral/sexual duplicity of the central characters.  The basic plot line:  two young men accept a bet that disguised as strangers they can sexually seduce their innocent fiancés .  When this succeeds and comes to light, the girls are totally humiliated (and psychologically/erotically confused along the way!)

The question is, how could Mozart choose to musically validate a situation (the libretto/plot) which is morally repugnant to most?  One possibility lies in Mozart’s own personality, and his recently documented propensity to scatology,* (evidenced in foul  language contained in letters  to family members, and in occasional vocal ditties written for friends).  Wikipedia provides an insightful analysis of Mozart’s scatological tendency:  whether it was no more or less than common German language-use of the times, e.g. cultural/contextural (apparently Mozart was excessive even by that standard);  or whether it  was driven by a neuro-psychiatric condition known as Tourette’s Syndrome (Oliver Sacks says no…Tourette’s is not characterized by written obscenities).  Basically the debate is not yet conclusive, but it does suggest one possible reason for Mozart’s willingness to become involved in a “repugnant” plot.

A much better reason is offered by Susan Bowen, who provides a detailed analysis of the librettist Da Ponte’s life and career, including the nature of his relationship with Amadeus Mozart and his pro-American political interests (recall the late 18th c was the time of the American revolution and the rise of democratic ideals….dangerous ideas in middle Europe).

Bottom line:  Cosi  fan Tutte  and  the two prior operas on which Mozart and Da Ponte collaborated (the Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni) were not sexually-devious expressions of distorted psyches.  Instead they were strong political statements targeting European governments and the cultural Zeitgeist of the times.  Ironically, Cosi fan Tutte is a disguise (like its own characters) for dangerous political/social ideas.

In Bowen’s words:  “Mozart and Da Ponte use metaphor to try to uplift a decaying society, and force the audience to reflect on itself in history…..To say, as critics often do, that these operas are about sex, lust, and adultery, rather than politics, is worse than foolish.”

*Scatology = obsessive interest in faeces or obscene matters.

Susan Bowen ( 2012),  Lorenzo Da Ponte:  Mozart’s American Librettist;   http://;  (accessed 31.12.2012).

Wikipedia, Mozart and scatology; 16.12.2012).

Edsel Kreisler, Beautiful Music and Moral Discomfort in Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte”;  (accessed 4.12.2012)



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Pop Music Chills  This week’s Australian Weekend Review includes a long article examining the Beatles’  John Lennon and the elements of great pop music.  Authors Giedroyc and Reed argue that all the great (classical) composers wrote and profited from pop songs (above and beyond their contributions to art music).

One point generally accepted, is that pop music is about romantic love, and depends for success on a sexy “hook”.  Also, that melody is more important than the lyrics (too often hackneyed), particularly when it comes to rendering great music.  Indeed, to achieve lasting greatness (pop or classical), a composer’s work must “raise the neck hairs of musicians and music experts over generations.”  We might add that the “music experts” category must certainly include (educated)  listeners.

And so here we have yet another reference to  “the chills”:   Raising the neck hairs is but another descriptor for the association between emotive music, dopamine release (brain), and perceived physiological reaction.  And the first one we’ve seen which addresses the phenomenon in musicians per se (rather than in the listeners).

See Miko Giedroyc & Ben Reed, “Was Lennon really a Genius?”, Weekend Australian,  Dec 29-30, 2012, pp  7 – 8.


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More Music & Sex (It’s All in the Brain)


SW  Last October we posted on the relationship between brain-produced hormones and sexual activity in maturing birds. This is a relatively long-term interaction over a period of months, leading ultimately to the onset of sexual selection through birdsong.

In humans, it seems there is a startling and immediate connection between music and sex. A large body of scientific research now indicates release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the human brain when experiencing music which is emotionally moving: musical passages that give a listener the so-called “chills”. This is a phenomenon many of us know well. In my own case, I have long thought of such passages as “music which makes my brain cells lie down together” (possibly an unknowing but fitting sexual reference!)

What is most interesting is the character of dopamine itself. This is the brain chemical that is released not only during wonderful musical passages, but during a number of other pleasurable human activities: most notably during sexual activity (also eating, drug taking).

For the non-biochemist, there seem to be three variables involved: 1. Music, 2. Experienced pleasurable emotion, 3. Dopamine release. A number of questions arise: Is this a three-way correlation? If so, is one of the internal variables an epi-phenomenon? And if not correlational, what is the order of causation? Finally, is there any difference between dopamine release associated with the various external events (music, sex, food, drugs, other)?

Here are a few relevant papers about dopamine and “the chills”:

Stefan Koelsch (2010), “Towards a neural basis of music-evoked emotions”; Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol 14, No. 3.

Valorie N Salimpoor et al. (2011), “Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music”; Nature Neuroscience Vol 14, 257-262.

“This is Your Brain on Music”,, accessed 22.10.2012.

Joel Shurkin, “Research reveals the biochemical connection between music and emotion”;, accessed 12.11. 2012

More another time on music’s potential for investigating the human brain!

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“Opera Queenery” / Sexual Metaphor


SW  Paul Robinson claims a strong affinity, often an obsession, between gay men and opera…based largely on anecdoctal evidence.  This may apply not to gays in general, but to “a minority within a minority”:  Opera “Queens”, these being the flamboyantly effeminate variety of homosexual.  And again, this applies not to opera in general (its whole production including stagecraft), but the obsession is more with the specific aspect of operatic voice/vocalization.He goes so far as to describe “voice fetishists”, addicted to the soprano register and  often to particular singers (Maria Callas being the most notorious).  Not to be ignored, however, is the parallel lesbian addiction to the contralto register (the so-called “chest voice”).

Robinson offers a number of valiant attempts to explain this phenomenon.  The most important, and listed first, is the construct of opera as a “metaphor for sex”.  He brings the following points to support this idea:  that voice and throat are erogenous zones, second only to the genitals;  that operatic singing, like sex, is “strenuously athletic”; that such singing is decidedly phallic in that it “penetrates the body” and renders the experience of explicit physical shaking.

There are many other interesting theoretical ideas in Robinson’s essay, definitely worth a thoughtful read:

Paul Robinson (2002), “The Opera Queen:  A Voice from the Closet”, Opera, Sex, and Other Vital Matters, The University of Chicago Press, p. 157 ff.


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Joe Dolce’s take on Grainger


SW     Scriabin’s sexually suggestive score markings were noted in our last post:  such terms as “accarezzevole” (carressingly), “volupte” (voluptuousness), “estatico” (estatically), etc.  On the topic of score markings, Joe Dolce’s recent essay in the Australian Quadrant (Nov 2012, p 82) roundly mocks Percy Grainger for using “good ol’ Aryan Grainger-Lish Markings” rather than the customary European dyamic markings.  Going one better, Dolce proposes his own Strine*** set of marks, calculated to appeal to the humour of any Dinky-Di musician.  A short selection:

She’ll be Right       (for difficult sections)

Bog In                     (to attack with enthusiasn)

Chuck a Sickie       (don’t play here)

Mad as a Cut Snake  (play furiously)

Veg Out                  (slower)

Fair Crack of the Whip   (allegro or faster)

Flat chat                  (fff )

Thanks, Joe Dolce (& the rest of the essay’s a hoot, too)!

***Strine=Australian English with ”bush” idoms




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Sexuality and Scriabin

Can you put explicit sexual images and ideas into music?
Alexander Scriabin certainly thought so and went further than any other composer in this direction.

Born in Moscow in 1872, Scriabin’s father was a wealthy aristocrat and his mother a professional pianist, who died of tuberculosis when Scriabin was one year old. He was brought up by his aunt and surrounded by women.

Short in stature at about five feet tall, he made up for his height with arrogance. A womanizer and predator around young girls, Scriabin was infamous for sexual abuse and rape, and was forced to resign as a teacher at the conservatory after a sex scandal with a girl. In spite of his lechery, some of his deepest attachments were with enormous, gruff men, unlike his effeminate self. He married a pianist and they had four children. He left his wife for a mistress whom he later married and fathered three more children.

Scriabin was a child prodigy and a brilliant pianist in spite of his small hands. His piano music is highly original, with a broad palette of unusual colours, harmonies, textures, and a preoccupation with eroticism, which he referred to as “ecstasy.” Some of the titles he gave to his music include “Sensual Delights,” “Danced Caress,” “Desire,” and “Poem of Ecstasy.” He inserted instructions in markings like “orgiastic,” “voluptuously,” and “with ravishment.”

The Étude in D sharp minor, Op.8 No.12 (1894) became a favourite with pianists like Horowitz and Richter. This piece is based on repeated cadences, creating the impression of multiple climaxes, although later in life, he suppressed and postponed climaxes. In the Fifth Sonata, for example, he avoided chords with an augmented or diminished note that would require resolution. The effect is an impression of music floating for 12 minutes on the edge of a climax.

In his orchestral Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54 (1905-08), the markings include accarezzevole (caressingly), très parfumé (very perfumed), avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique (with a voluptuousness becoming more and more ecstatic) and estàtico (ecstatically). According to Scriabin: “the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act. I definitely know that in myself the creative urge has all the signs of sexual stimulation…”

The Ninth sonata has a second subject that Scriabin lovingly described as “dormant or dreaming saintliness.” Mixing carnal and spiritual passions, he marked the score “avec une langueur naissante,” (with nascent languor) and developed the theme into a “sweetness that gradually turns more caressing and poisonous.” When the second subject returns for the final time in Alla Marcia, it signals the devil and terror.

The first composer to invoke sex in music, Scriabin also became fascinated by transforming sound into light, in the belief that the Greek gods used flashes of light to communicate.

In his symphonic poem “Prometheus: the Poem of Fire” (1909) he used a specially designed projector with colored light bulbs that he controlled. At the same time, he played a multi-colored keyboard, built in Russia by physicist Alexander Moser for performances of “Prometheus” in Moscow and New York. These were the first orchestral concerts with color accompaniment.

Scriabin was a mystic and follower of Helena Blavatsky, one of the leaders of the Theosophy movement and eventually exposed as a charlatan. The movement encouraged sexual liberty and included many pedophiles.

In his attitude to women, Scriabin was derogatory and chauvinistic. He considered them materialistic and only creative with the assistance of men.

Eventually, he came to love the epicene. He also confessed his effeminacy when he reportedly said, “I could not have become what I am without fostering the masculine side of me and suppressing the feminine.”

Scriabin believed the world could only be saved by art, which was sacred and transformational. Before he died of septicemia from an infected pimple in his lip, he embarked on “Mysterium.” This enormous work aimed to rescue mankind from sin through art. It was planned as a synthesis of all the senses in one orgiastic performance over seven days in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas. Bells suspended from the clouds would devastate the universe with vibrations that would leave “nobler beings,” transfigured by the experience.

When he died at the age of 43, Scriabin left many orchestral works and a huge output of piano pieces, including 12 sonatas, Poèmes, etudes, waltzes, impromptus, mazurkas, fantasies, nocturnes and preludes.

Did he suffer from a mental illness? He had auditory hallucinations and believed the world would end in a sexual orgy. An alcoholic, he wrote many of his compositions while drunk. He believed he had greater powers than Christ and tried to prove this by walking on the waters of Lake Geneva. In the event, he had to be rescued from drowning.

What reactions have people described when listening to his music? Some have related visions of light waves and fire. One London critic wrote of “flashes of blinding coloured lights…totally different from the…emotions more commonly associated with conventional music… This experience convinces me that Scriabin’s music adjusts or negotiates human sensibilities in a mysterious and intuitive manner. He tapped sources as yet poorly documented or understood.”

Do performers or listeners find sexuality in his music? Mostly not. In spite of this failure, as well as his delusions, hallucinations and personal dysfunction, Scriabin’s music has very wide attraction, evoking the sacred and profane, in a profoundly emotional, complex and challenging sound world of great art.

“No composer has had more scorn heaped or greater love bestowed…” ~ Great Soviet Encyclopedia.

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Even Opera Markets Sex



SW The advertising world has long used sex to market its products.  Now it’s everywhere in the world of opera.  Opening your search engine for “sexy operas” yields a minefield of sites  For example:   Ten Sexy Operas in No Particular Order /Operagasm (especially like that tag!); Today’s Sexiest Female Opera Singers / Yahoo;  Top Ten:  What is the sexiest opera ?/ OperaPulse; Barihunks / Blogspot (assume sexy male baritones); and The 10 Hottest Opera Singers in the World / Freakin Omg.  And there’s more….

Then try The English National Opera’s ad campaign for it’s current production of Don Giovanni (only 7th, by the way, on OperaPulse’s 10 Sexiest) .  On the ENO website and on billboards around the U.K. the ad shows an open condom with the slogan  “Don Giovanni.  Coming Soon.”  ENO say it’s humourous and witty; others are not so sure.  It’s defenders point out that the ad is true to Don Giovanni himself, who boasts the sexual conquest of 2,065 women!  (Pretty sure he didn’t use a condom, though.)

Just to cap off, you might be interested in Paul Robinson’s (2002) book:  Opera, Sex and Other Vital Matters. University of Chicago Press.


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Music and Sexual Selection: Darwin’s other Theory


SW  Darwin’s theory of evolution, dubbed “Survival of the Fittest”, immediately entered the collective psyche when published in 1871. Darwin’s other theory, however, went virtually un-noticed.  This second hypothesis concerned music (avian, animal and human variants) and its adaptation over time, due to sexual selection.  Organisms (man, too) with superior musical displays are selected by their partners for reproduction.  Music as we know it today is the outcome of an evolutionary process  Darwin called “Sexual Selection”.  Religious principles were heavily challenged by Darwin’s Survival  concept (a major reason for his delay in publishing).  And these concerns clearly dominated the public response to Darwin’s book.  By contrast, it seems public consideration of sexual theories in Victorian England were not even up for discussion!

For those wishing to pursue Darwin’s second hypothesis:   see Miller G.F. (2000).   “Evolution of human music through sexual selection”.  In N.L. Wallin et al (Eds), The Origins of Music, MIT Press, pp. 329-360.

See also Darwin C. (1871).  The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex (2 vols.).  London:  John Murray.

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