‘A Lad’s Love’: New CD sings of an era of suppressed homosexuality
Brian Giebler (left) and Steven McGhee.

Brian Giebler is the new tenor on the block, announcing himself in his stunning début CD release—which has already secured a Grammy nomination—as the torch-bearer, with a shock of headcurls, for a generation of homophile British composers inspired to write songs based on texts by the closeted poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936) and other closely related texts.

The CD is generously proportioned, with 22 separate songs by six different composers, for a total running time of almost 71 minutes. Represented are Roger Quilter (1877-1953), John Ireland (1879-1962), Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), PeterWarlock (1894-1930), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and the only living composer in the group, Ian Venables (b. 1955).

A melancholy pall like a damp warm summer fog drapes over this collection of songs about idols and idylls. The former, epitomized in Housman’s first book of poems, A Shropshire Lad (1896), which the author claimed to be inspired by Shakespeare’s songs, Scottish border ballads and Heinrich Heine, are the lusty, unselfconscious country boys, healthy, beautiful manly types subject to rural violence, hard farm work, military conscription for Britain’s imperial adventures, and early death, if not in the Boer War then not two decades later in the Great War.

A.E. Housman, 1910. | Public Domain

The poet ravishes them with his yearning gaze in longing hero worship. He contemplates their youthful exuberance and the cold breath of their mortality, the lost opportunity and unrealized fantasies that will always remain with the poet. Hundreds of them come to Ludlow for the annual fair:

But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

The idyll is the pastoral vision of a sparsely settled England untouched by corrupt urban manners—what Marx terms the “idiocy of rural life”—which for many nonconforming young people meant a cruel existence of quiet despair and/or suicide.

Housman was a witness to the Oscar Wilde trial for gross indecency in 1895, which ended with a two-year sentence at Reading Gaol. In a rare burst of indignation Housman wrote:

Let God and man decree/Laws for themselves and not for me;/And if my ways are not as theirs/let them mind their own affairs,/their deeds I judge and much condemn,/Yet when did I make laws for them?

But for the most part Housman himself preferred to live in his isolated adoration from afar, idolizing one university classmate above all, Moses Jackson, who in return had no interest in him, rather than enmesh himself even in close friendships with man or woman alike. In compensation, he hoped that young men would carry inexpensive editions of these easily accessible poems in their jacket pockets; perhaps, he even imagined, one copy might take a bullet and save the reader’s life.

They say my verse is sad: no wonder;/Its narrow measure spans/Tears of eternity, and sorrow,/Not mine, but man’s.

This is for all ill-treated fellows/Unborn and unbegot,/For them to read when they’re in trouble/And I am not.

The centerpiece of the CD strays from the Housman oeuvre yet retains the elements of adoration and loving obedience. It is the frightful story of Abraham and Isaac from the Bible in a setting derived from a medieval British retelling and composed by Benjamin Britten in 1952. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his young son Isaac, and in his servility to the deity, the patriarch responds, “As thou wilt, Lord, so may it be.” Isaac, of course, is terrified of losing his life, but says, “Father, do with me as you wish.” The awful demands of patriarchy—first by God, then by Abraham—echo the propagandized sense of unworthiness in the homosexual invert, the feeling that he somehow deserves the miserable fate dealt him by society.

The CD program notes mention that Britten had just completed his all-male opera Billy Budd, based on the Herman Melville story, where the conflict between the officious Captain Vere and naïve Billy is almost identical: Authority, law, protocol and custom must be obeyed, however severe and unrelenting, for there would be no accountability rendered to the superior in command. In this 16½-minute cantata (Canticle II) Giebler sings the role of Abraham and a fine countertenor named Reginald Mobley is Isaac; and when both sing together, Britten intends this unusual sound as the voice of God himself, almost as if we mortal humans who place our faith in some higher power also incorporate that power within us and over us.

Roger Quilter’s one contribution to the CD is the song “Love’s Philosophy” from 1905, a setting of words by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It is an ode to the unity in the Earth’s diversity, the rightful place of heterogeneity in nature:

Nothing in the world is single;/All things by a law divine/In one anothers being mingle./Why not I with thine?

Quilter was befriended by Paul Robeson in England. One of the most exquisite songs in his repertoire was Quilter’s “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.”

Steven McGhee is the excellent piano accompanist for Giebler, and is also responsible for the informative program notes. About Quilter and his homosexuality, McGhee quotes the author Stephen Banfield, that he “cultivate[d] a veneer of perfumed innocence and effeminate romance, as a Victorian might sniff a nosegay so as to shut out the unpleasant smells of reality. If the artificiality of Quilter’s nosegay irritates us, we should remember what it protected.” The veiled, whispered, private messaging in these songs owes everything to the time in which they were written. Even so great a figure as the World War II computer genius Alan Turing was driven to take his own life in 1954, at the age of 41, not allowed to exist without being tormented for his homosexuality.

The new 2021 50-pound banknote honors Alan Turing.

A second contribution from Britten is a cycle of songs about relationships called “Fish in the Unruffled Lakes,” composed during the years 1937-1941 to texts by his dear friend W.H. Auden.

McGhee estimates that some 160 different song cycles have emerged from the poems in A Shropshire Lad. John Ireland included “In Boyhood” in his set, which could well serve as an epitaph—not just for Housman, not just for this CD, but for generations of queer folk who only wanted to share their love freely, to devote themselves to a beloved partner and not be condemned for it. They are still out there in many lands and climes. To them, to all of us, these songs are dedicated.

When I would muse in boyhood/The wild green woods among,/And nurse resolves and fancies/Because the world was young,/It was not foes to conquer,/Nor sweethearts to be kind,/But it was friends to die for/That I would seek and find.

I sought them far and found them,/The sure, the straight, the brave,/The hearts I lost my own to,/The souls I could not save./They braced their belts about them,/They crossed in ships the sea,/They sought and found six feet of ground,/And there they died for me.

Brian Giebler’s lovely high tenor, pliant and full of warm light, caresses these songs with perfect, admirable sympathy. He also works in oratorios, operas from baroque to modern (including one about Alan Turing). His open, sweet voice would work well for the American Songbook, and indeed he has taken roles in musical productions such as Les Misérables and Into the Woods. On this CD he is joined not only by Maestro McGhee on piano but with a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) that lend depth and character to many numbers. Even a close listen does not reveal the texts in all their integrity, however, either because of miking, articulation or competition from the other instruments. Unfortunately, the program booklet does not print the texts. Instead we are directed to some long, cumbersome website addresses that are not easy to read and input, and that most listeners—like myself, I admit—would find offputting. As they say in contemporary ’puterspeak, TLDR. That’s my only criticism, though not a minor one.

Giebler’s website is here. On it you can find numerous excerpts of his singing in a variety of roles, settings and styles, including the songs on this album. He seems to be pretty clear about his own orientation, expressing gratitude to his supporters and donors, first of all to “my true love Jordan Peterson” (who I trust is not the same J.P., the Canadian would-be prophet and personal consigliere, bestselling author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos).

(An illuminating essay on Housman, “The Etymology of Lads” by Andrew Holleran in The Gay & Lesbian Review, can be found here.)

A Lad’s Love
Brian Giebler, tenor; Steven McGhee, piano
Bridge Records 9542
2020
Total time: 70:43


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first two books, "Five Days, Five Nights" and "The Six-Pointed Star," are available from International Publishers NY.

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