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"That Queer Secret of Theirs":

Edward Prime-Stevenson, Authorship, and Musicology at the End of the Long Nineteenth Century

Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson (1858-1942) was a music critic, novelist, and short story author from the United States, who also spent significant time in Switzerland and Italy in the early decades of the twentieth century. He is perhaps best known in the LGBTQ+ historical literature for the two overtly queer books he self-published while in Italy under the pseudonym “Xavier Mayne”: Imre: A Memorandum (ca. 1906) and The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life (ca. 1909).

The two “Mayne” works reflect the established position of medical sexology in writings on homosexuality from this time. Imre is framed as a case study sent by the narrator Oswald to Xavier Mayne, who is vaguely suggested to have medical qualifications. More than one reader of The Intersexes—most notably including the playwright Neil Bartlett in his Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde (1988)—has initially assumed the book to be a pathologizing work of homophobia. Bartlett writes that he was delighted to find “a book written in the first person, a book written by a homosexual man about his own life and times” (Bartlett 1988, 126).

Yet Prime-Stevenson was not a medical sexologist. Although his work draws heavily from the works of figures such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and Magnus Hirschfeld and both his fiction and research are cited in Edward Carpenter’s work on “the intermediate sex,” Prime-Stevenson was most professionally active as a music critic and newspaper columnist in New York City during the 1880s and 1890s. He served as a music and theatre critic for several independent newspapers (eventually becoming the music editor of The Independent) and contributed fiction to several more. The latter include the short stories “When Art Was Young” and “Once: But Not Twice,” both initially published as sentimental stories of male friendship during this time and later edited and reprinted in more overtly queer versions in the self-published anthology Her Enemy—Some Friends, and Other Personages—Stories and subjects mostly of human hearts (1913).

Music and queerness are intertwined throughout Prime-Stevenson’s fiction, with several turns of phrase, musical allusions, and even specific characters recurring over the course of multiple decades and different publications. The two musician protagonists of “When Art Was Young,” 17th-century motet composers Felice Madriale and Ilario Pretola, are ultimately united in love, life, and work, with their former teacher and confessor reflects:

Father Sebastiano said as much to himself a few days later, as he was travelling north from Rome alone, bound for Bologna; leaving the two friends in Rome. There they dwelt happily long years, Madriale soon as a great figure in his art, and Pretola at least a conspicuous one—albeit people sometimes said that “Pretola himself did not compose his best compositions.”

“I shall never let out that queer secret of theirs,” mused the priest. “And really to love much, and to forgive much—ebbene—it makes the world as melodious as when all the morning-starts sang together their motets and madrigals for joy!” (Prime-Stevenson 1913, 49)

The lovers at the center of “Mayne’s” novel Imre are also both deeply musical: the British narrator Oswald describes coming out to himself while listening to music by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and “an hundred other tone-autobiographies” (Prime-Stevenson 1906, 111), while the Hungarian military man Lieutenant Imre von N—is a skilled amateur musician. Imre is also heavily implied to be the narrator of the short story/analytical essay “Prince Bedr’s Quest,” an Orientalist fantasy on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that begins with an unknown speaker describing his and his friend Oswald’s musical tourism in Vienna. (Perhaps in an attempt to link his two main authorial personae, Prime-Stevenson included “Prince Bedr’s Quest” in Long-Haired Iopas: Old Chapters from Twenty-Five Years of Music-Criticism (1927), a revised collection of his earlier music writing published under his own name.)

Music also clearly played a central role in Prime-Stevenson’s few known real-life relationships. “Once: But Not Twice,” dedicated to his one-time student and romantic interest Harry Harkness Flagler and likely partially autobiographical, presents the main characters’ romantic friendship as revolving around frequent operagoing and amateur domestic music making:

What a pair we were to work our course together through Mozart’s E-Flat Symphony, à quatre mains—or become most stupendously excited in storming through the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth! Trembling with an ecstasy, that two high-strung young natures made no attempt to conceal, whole nights went to Schumann, to Schubert, to Brahms, to Tschaikovsky, to Franck! To this day, I can never hear Brahms’s noble Third Symphony, but I am carried back to one evening when we first played through it together. You jumped up from the stool in pure excitement, crying out that the slow movement was too wonderful!—you could play it no longer! (Prime-Stevenson 1913, 101)

As with Felice and Ilario, the relationship between Bertram Jaques and Douglas Macray finds its greatest emotional resonance and passion through joint composition:

But such musical evenings and the sweet sounds of those orchestras and singers that fifteen years make into matter of à travers chants, are less tenderly green in my thought than our quest hours of duets and extemporizing and—oh, audacious word!—composing together, in that quiet roomy second-floor back we shared. […]

The other day I came across that set of “Variations” you wrote, printed (at your own expense, of course) and dedicated to me. It was not dusty in the portfolio. By it lay some waltzes and songs we “collaborated.” Upstairs, I am sure, rests in secure tranquility, our bold attempt at nothing less than an operetta; which however did not advance beyond its first act. (Prime-Stevenson 1913, 101-102)

Prime-Stevenson’s nonfiction writings also reflect his interest in musical experiences and histories in ways that the author clearly saw as connected to his own queer identity and community. His last known book, a guide to curating one’s record collection entitled A Repertory of 100 Symphonic Programmes (ca. 1932), was dedicated to Flagler and serves as both a reflection on the latter’s musical philanthropy and remembrance of his and Prime-Stevenson’s relationship:



President of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society:

As to one whose personal interest in music from earliest youth upward, and increasing value, in mature years, to popularizing internationally the best music, have been ever in the affectionate knowledge of the author,

This little book is inscribed. (Prime-Stevenson 1932, front matter)

Going beyond Prime-Stevenson’s inner life, The Intersexes contains a lengthy passage on queer musical meaning that attempts to link biography, queer history, and the potential for queer listening practices:

Composers present homosexual types; during either all their lives, or portion of them. The supreme secret of the noble-natured and moral Beethoven seems to have been an idealized homosexualism. In Beethoven's sad latest days, can be traced a real passion for that unworthy nephew Carl; who, it is said, once sought to extort money from Beethoven, on threats to disclose an homosexual relationship! Beethoven's beautiful sonata, Opus 111, in often called among German and Austrian Uranians, "The Uranian Sonata", from some legendary "in-reading" of the work. The death of the brilliant and unhappy Russian composer Tschaikowsky has been affirmed (if denied with equal conviction) as a suicide, not a sudden illness, in consequence of terror of a scandal that hung over him—a relative being spoken of as the persecutor. Some homosexual hearers of Tschaikowsky's last (and most elegiac) symphony, known as the "Pathetic" claim to find in it such revelations of a sentimental-sexual kind that they have nicknamed the work the "Pathic" Symphony. Brahms and the colossal Bruckner have been characterized as "the ultimate voices in a homosexual message by symphonic music"; even if one sub-consciously uttered. (Prime-Stevenson, ca. 1909, 396-7).

I have written at length elsewhere [1] [2] about Prime-Stevenson’s seeming conflation of details from Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s biographies and the likely surprise many readers familiar with 19th-century European music history might have at seeing Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner listed alongside Tchaikovsky in a queer music history. Suffice to say here that all four composers were known to be longtime bachelors and/or figures whose relationships with women could best be described as “complex” (although only Tchaikovsky is currently understood to have been gay). All four also specialized in the kind of large-scale symphonic music that Prime-Stevenson preferred. And, in the parlance of late 19th-century music criticism and composer biography, all embodied a type of conventionally masculine presentation that Prime-Stevenson appeared to have personally valued in his own athletic activities and found attractive in others. In stark contrast to later homophobic analyses of Tchaikovsky’s music that described his work with the loaded terms “morbid” and “emotional,” Prime-Stevenson’s accounts of the composer’s visit to New York and 1893 obituary emphasize his masculinity and vigor:

Johannes Brahms seems to have been a similarly “masculine” touchstone for Prime-Stevenson’s musical and queer identity. In “Four Musical Sons of Vienna,” an essay on Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss, Jr., and Bruckner included in Long-Haired Iopas,

Prime-Stevenson returned to the idea of Brahms having a “secret message” for certain kinds of listeners:

As for the speech of his orchestral scores, an intensive concentrated masculinity appears with fine appeal. Men not distinctly musical sometimes bear witness to this factor in Brahms. Said a concert-goer of the more robust sex, the other evening, in quitting the hall, at the end of Brahms’ First Symphony, “I don’t know Brahms’s music half-well, I’m not musician enough. But he says things—he says things—I don’t know just how to tell you what the things are; but I don’t think that anybody since Beethoven has had as much to say to a man (Prime-Stevenson, ca. 1927, 32).

This focus on musical masculinity in Brahms’s music, by the way, is not unique to Prime-Stevenson. His contemporary and sometime fellow Anglophone expatriate musicologist Vernon Lee observed similarly gendered issues in music in her massive music perception study Music and its Lovers (1933).

What are we to make of all of this playing with character, (self-)reference, and authorship? Was this all an in-joke for those limited few with access to “Mayne’s” most overtly queer work? Literary scholars James Gifford (1995), Margaret Breen (2012), James Wilper (2016), and Fraser Riddell (2022) all situate Prime-Stevenson’s queer writings in the broader context of international, multilinguistic, and interdisciplinary conversations taking place both inside and outside of medical sexology and sex reform movements during the early decades of the twentieth century. In looking at surviving reviews and even some marketing materials for his self-published books, I argue that Prime-Stevenson must have imagined a time and place where his queer musical writings could be more widely known in relation to the emerging field of Anglophone academic musicology and sexology. Across his career, Prime-Stevenson was both understandably careful about distributing his self-published work into the hands of sympathetic readers and intensely invested in seeing it read and reviewed in both specialist and public-facing media across Europe. A number of his early, conventionally published sentimental stories and boys’ adventure fiction were included in a bibliography of belles-lettres in the 1901 issue of Hirschfeld’s Jarbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen with commentary on their queer subtext presumably written by Prime-Stevenson itself. This bibliography includes, for example, “When Art Was Young,” here presented under the title “Many Waters” and later included in Her Enemy under the Latin title “Aquae multae non—”:

Prime-Stevenson E. Iraenaus. Many Waters. (New York, The Christian Union, 1885 [sic])

A deeply Uranian tale of passionate feeling between two musicians, both Uranians, under which spell the younger is willing to sacrifice his own reputation for the other as well as to forgive a great betrayal. (translation mine; Hirschfeld 1901, 516).

In my dissertation [3] I described Prime-Stevenson as attempting to create a kind of queer musicological methodology and literature via sheer force of will. He certainly was heavily invested in creating a sort of literary trail, not only for his own work, but for Besides demonstrating that Prime-Stevenson was thinking about queer interpretations of his own work for some time before he started overtly writing on queer topics, the reworking of this story and publication to readers of Hirschfeld’s Jahrbuch also shows Prime-Stevenson’s lifelong interest in the connections between music, homosexuality, and secret histories. Something I have found striking about Prime-Stevenson’s musical references is that they are invariably part of the established (and primarily German) symphonic canon. Some of this is due to Prime-Stevenson’s elitism—he was disdainful towards most forms of popular music that emerged during his lifetime (including jazz and the music hall), disliked the radio for placing the listener at the mercy of commercial programming, and occasionally complained at length about audiences listening to Wagner’s music dramas for the “sex-seduction” instead of properly appreciating the experience (Prime-Stevenson 1927, 385). Yet Prime-Stevenson’s queer reading of the canon, while at times idiosyncratic and historically dubious, also presents queerness as a hidden force behind even the most mainstream and dominant forms of artistic culture. At a time when both academic musicology and most popular writings on music were still decades away from more fully acknowledging the contributions of queer people in music history (not to mention the notions of gender and sexuality as lenses through which to analyze musical works), Prime-Stevenson made a case for the secret queerness of the most frequently performed (and, eventually, recorded) composers and works. His queer canon is found not through unearthing some secret repertoire, but in knowing how to listen to things that most people refuse to hear.

Works Cited

Bartlett, Neil. Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1988)

Breen, Margaret. “Homosexual Identity, Translation, and Prime-Stevenson’s Imre and The Intersexes.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 14.1 (2012)

Franseen, Kristin. “Ghosts in the Archives: The Queer Knowledge and Public Musicology of Vernon Lee, Rosa Newmarch, and Edward Prime-Stevenson” (PhD diss., McGill University, 2019)

—. “‘Homosexual Hearers’ and Queer Musicality in Xavier Mayne’s The Intersexes (1909). Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality (2023): Accessed 30 June 2023.

—. “‘Onward to the End of the Nineteenth Century’: Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Queer Musicological Nostalgia.” Music & Letters 101.2 (2020)

Gifford, James. Dayneford’s Library: American Homosexual Writing, 1900–1913 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995)

Hirschfeld, Magnus (ed.). Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen 3 (1901)

Prime-Stevenson, Edward. Her Enemy, Some Friends--And Other Personages: Stories And Studies Mostly Of Human Hearts (Privately Printed, 1913)

— (as Xavier Mayne). Imre: A Memorandum (Privately Printed, ca. 1906)

— (as Xavier Mayne). The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life (Privately Printed, ca. 1909)

—. Long-Haired Iopas: Old-Chapters from Twenty-Five Years of Music-Criticism (Privately Printed, 1927)

—. A Repertory of 100 Symphonic Programmes (Privately Printed, ca. 1932)

Riddell, Fraser. Music and the Queer Body in English Literature at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022)

Wilper, James. Reconsidering the Emergence of the Gay Novel in English and German (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2016)

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