Four Queer Composers to Know

CYSO is committed to honoring the voices of all members of our community, especially those that haven’t always seen themselves reflected in the mainstream narrative of classical music. In celebration of Pride this month, we put together a few of our favorite pieces by composers from the LGBTQIA+ community.

Benjamin Britten

You probably know Benjamin Britten as one of the most influential British composers of the 20th century. Britten is famous for works including the opera Peter Grimes (1945), the War Requiem (1962), and the orchestral showpiece The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945). Britten came to terms with his sexuality early on in his career and wrote many operas and song cycles for his partner and muse of nearly 40 years, Peter Pears, who was an interpreter and champion of the composer’s vocal works. Britten never spoke publicly about being gay—unsurprising, as homosexuality was against the law in the UK until 1967—but his sexuality didn’t stop his career from blossoming.
Take a listen to CYSO Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes from November 2017.

Michael Abels

An acclaimed composer of our time, you may recognize Michael Abels’s work on the score of the recent Jordan Peele blockbusters “Us” and “Get Out.” In 2018, Cedille Records commissioned Abels’ to write Winged Creatures for the album of the same name by Anthony McGill, Demare McGill, and CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra. Abels, who is openly gay, told Windy City Times in 2019 that “the progress we [the LGBTQIA+ community] have made in the past 50 years has been pretty dramatic.”
In addition to presenting the world premiere of Abels’ Winged Creatures in 2018, Philharmonic Orchestra performed his “Global Warming” in November 2019, captured on video below by a parent.

Leonard Bernstein

This pioneer of modern classical music, Leonard Bernstein effectively changed the way we see classical music today. As Music Director for the New York Philharmonic, he found new avenues to educate and advocate for the art form, including his ground-breaking series of televised Young People’s Concerts” for children. Bernstein’s daughter Jamie—who accepted CYSO’s Note of Excellence award on his behalf at our 2017 Gala—has written that her father couldn’t live openly as a gay man in mid-century America, but he and his wife also loved each other dearly.
Symphony Orchestra performed the Overture from West Side Story under the baton of Conducting Fellow Emmy Hensley in November 2018.

Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon is one of the most performed American composers living today. Her work has garnered world-wide attention and acclaim, recognized with Grammy and 2010 Pulitzer Prize in music. Higdon her her long-time partner Cheryl Lawson in the flute section of their high school band in rural Tennessee. They were married in 2014 in a ceremony officiated by conductor Marin Alsop.
Symphony Orchestra performed Higdon’s blue cathedral in 2009. While we unfortunately don’t have a recording of that performance, we think you’ll enjoy New England Conservatory’s recent rendition of the piece.

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