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June 18, 2024

Celebrating LGBTQ+ Composers

Learn and Listen for Pride Month 2024

As the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra continues to celebrate Pride Month in 2024, we are taking the opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge queer artists – those who have impacted their craft and their community alike. The nuanced realities of queer identity, as well as historical steps towards progress and equity for the LGBTQ+ community – and lack thereof – can open further conversations about acceptance and inclusion. At the ISO, we aspire to build both an orchestra and an audience in which everyone is accepted and proud to be themselves. Read on to learn about queer composers and their artistic

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Longtime leader of the New York Philharmonic and one of the most prominent American artists of the 20th century, Bernstein is remembered for his virtuosic talent in several arenas. From original compositions to artistic leadership to pop hits such as West Side Story, Bernstein left an indelible mark in the soundtracks of American stories for years to come. Politically engaged with movements for civil rights, anti-war efforts and AIDS advocacy, Bernstein’s richly storied social life has contributed to his legacy as a popular and iconic musical figure, to be memorialized in classical and pop culture for years to come.

The ISO has performed Bernstein’s Serenade After Plato’s Symposium for decades beginning in 2003, most recently on October 29, 2022. The orchestra also performed Chichester Palms on nine different occasions since 1971, most recently on June 11, 2017. In addition to such ISO performances, the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra included excerpts from West Side Story in their 2021–22 Spring Concert.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

Smyth was a significant English composer who went on to lend her talents to the women’s suffrage movement, rejecting marginalization in the music world and devoting herself to the pursuit of gender equality. Smyth was vocal about the double standards and prejudices she faced as a “lady composer,” as some critics and reviewers deemed her derogatorily. Her 1911 composition titled The March of the Women became the anthem of the suffragette movement, and supplemented her activism alongside many other fearless women. Smyth’s romantic partnerships with women and men informed her activism and gendered experiences, including a notable infatuation-turned-friendship with writer Virginia Woolf.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Poulenc’s works span from piano solos to chamber music to ballets and operas, each unified by his energetic spirit and liturgical influences. Over the course of his career, he produced more light-hearted and humorous works to a fruitful series of religious and choral pieces. Poulenc’s romantic relationships with both men and women informed his life’s work as well as his complex understanding of his own identity, and he channeled such emotions into moving works dedicated to his loved ones in his life.

The ISO has performed Poulenc’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and an Orchestra – first in 1954 and ten more times until as recently as February 24, 2017.

Wendy Carlos (1939-)

Carlos is a pioneer in electronic music, from her Grammy-winning Switched-On Bach, which popularized the use of Moog modular synthesizers, to her score work on classics films The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Tron. Her fresh approach to synths gave classical music new life for new listeners, and her continued work in ambient music paved the way for countless other musicians. Carlos prefers to live a private lifestyle after opening up regarding her personal struggles with embracing and publicly sharing her transgender identity, and has spoken out about the prejudice and stigmatization she has faced due to her openness about her gender.


Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Barber’s work has been long celebrated, including his Pulitzer-lauded concertos for various solo instruments and major pieces that drew upon inspiration from his own life as well as literary tales. Barber’s early success extended into the world of vocal music and operas, and his coining of the “essay form” remains one of his personal motifs for his compositions. Barber’s professional and romantic collaboration with Gian Carlo Menotti became a significant era of his career, culminating in his successful opera Vanessa, for which Menotti wrote the libretto.

The ISO is no stranger to Barber’s work; in January of 2023 ISO’s former Resident Conductor Jacob Joyce led Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Barber’s infamous Adagio for Strings has been performed by the ISO an impressive 63 times since 1955, including within a variety of tours, themed events, and benefit performances. A 1999 recording of a portion of one such performance can be streamed on Spotify. On January 24 and 25, 2025, join us for Barber’s Violin Concerto paired with concertos by Frank and Bartók.

Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007)

Menotti’s Italian roots informed his expansive creative career of operas, cementing his legacy as one of the foremost operatic composers of the 20th century. Many of Menotti’s works reached acclaim on Broadway and beyond, including Pulitzer Prize-winning The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street. Embracing musical theatre as well as the sounds and stories behind several ballets, choral works, and a variety of orchestral and chamber music, Menotti’s prominence spoke to his versatility as well as his musical prowess. Additionally, for many years of their lives, Menotti and Samuel Barber were partnered in both the pursuit of their professions as well as life.

Julius Eastman (1940-1990)

Eastman channeled his radical politics and lived experience as a Black, openly gay man into his music, an experimental display of art played from the margins. What Eastman refers to as his “organic music” was pieced together phrases into longer pieces with specific performance conditions, offering a layered discussion of the sociopolitical and economic concerns that Eastman confronted in the world around him. Adding nuance to seemingly minimalist elements, Eastman was proud of his works as total conceptual experiences for the listener, which eliminated artifice to perform a fundamental core message of his own creation.

While celebrating Pride Month in 2024, tune into the works of these queer composers! Join us in listening to our curated Spotify playlist containing excerpts from their pieces and by continuing to uplift diverse voices in the arts all year long.