An orchestra turns gay-hate mail into a cantata of hope

An orchestra turns gay-hate mail into a cantata of hope


norman lebrecht

May 17, 2018

From the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden:

During the spring, a letter arrived at Helsingborg Concert Hall. The letter referred to a Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra concert in which music by homosexual and bisexual composers was performed. The anonymous writer accused the HSO of ‘hopping aboard the fag train’. In response to this criticism, the HSO will perform a newly written cantata Bögtåget (The Fag Train).

The anonymous writer states that, ‘like many others’, she/he will not be visiting our concert hall again. The HSO, led by Fredrik Österling and tenor soloist Rickard Söderberg (pictured), is using the text of this letter in the cantata on May 26.


Österling, says: ‘As an artistic institution, we naturally actively relate to our surroundings and events going on around us. The hate letter I received reeked of contempt and fear for the love between human beings. I had no hesitation when Rickard Söderberg suggested that I should set it to music. By considering the text as an opera libretto, we were able to scrutinise the emotions that the anonymous sender was seeking to express. And at the same time, we are doing exactly what an artistic institution should be doing; we are reflecting our times in our art.’


  • John Borstlap says:

    It is difficult what to deem more crazy: the silly letter of a frustrated patron or the idea of setting it to music and presenting it to the audience.

    Identity politics have nothing to do with art. Understanding the variety and pluralism of humans does not mean labelling every individual variation and throw them all into a mass rally.

    ‘….. And at the same time, we are doing exactly what an artistic institution should be doing; we are reflecting our times in our art.’

    Is that so? Why should then orchestras continue to play music older than yesterday? Why should the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Ufizzi, the Prado remain open to the public? Why restoring monuments? It seems more appropriate that artistic institutions keep the achievements of humanity in general accessible to the public, including our own time, but definitely not narrowing their focus on today – which will be outdated tomorrow.

    About Mr Osterling’s own reflections upon our time:

    • Christopher Madden says:

      Identity politics nothing to do with art? What rot! What are you talking about?

      Clearly (and on the basis of other ‘comments’ you post on here) you are anti-identity politics, for whatever (ideological) reasons.

      Saying identity politics has nothing to do with art is like saying human/social life has nothing to do with art, since identity politics filters the contemporary reality of human/social life. Honestly!

      Perhaps if you were gay and/or were more familiar with queer culture you would understand why this orchestra is staging this piece. You don’t have to be gay to understand this, but if you don’t (attempt to understand it) and you’re not (gay), then some advantage might assist you. Otherwise it just seems the project is being dismissed for jumping on a ‘bandwagon’ that doesn’t suit someone’s general political outlook or personal sensibility.

      I’m not sure about the efficacy of the orchestra’s approach or the effectiveness of the work, but relating directly to the queer world is rare for the classical music world. I wish them well!

      • Sue says:

        Identarianism is totally toxic and divisive. The irony is that those who are trying to put a stop to this tribalism are those being called divisive. It’s just a projection from the identarians.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        The reason that orchestra is going to stage a work like ‘Bögtåget’ is that it has been scheduled and the musicians are professionals. The singer, Rickard Söderberg, is a popular presence in the Swedish television – he makes the roll of some kind of ‘crazy-hysterical-fag’ in popular TV shows of all kinds, and he sings very well. The composer, Fredrik Österling, claims that he has just found an excellent text for a musical joke, a ‘cantata buffa’ (he is found of musical jokes as you can see in the you-tube videos linked by Mr Borstlap. The text is (according to the press) written in a poetical satiric style that will likely make a good pun (we will see – that comes surely to appear in the Swedish television).

        Honestly, my personal impression is that the hate letter can be a hoax (nevertheless, it can be good fun).

        And by the way, ‘identity politics’ is divisive, destructive, anti-democratic, and evil.

  • Doug says:

    Here’s an idea: perform “fag train” for the new “immigrant refugee” population of Sweden. Free of charge, of course. Make sure you do this out of “love between human beings.”

  • Sharon says:

    Several years ago I attended a concert performance of sung pieces accompanied only by piano of poetry written by gay poets in English (for ex Walt Whitman, Allen Ginzburg) and directly or indirectly dealing with gay life set to music at the opera center (I forget the name) that is on Broadway in the Lincoln Center area (diagonally across the street from Lincoln Center).

    To my untrained ear I thought the singing was pretty good and the lyrics relevant although I would not have been able to understand the lyrics without the libretto in the program, but that is true of most opera.

    However, the concert, was poorly attended, it seemed mainly by friends of the singers although I believe it was on a weekend night. I do not know if it was because the concert was poorly publicized (I only learned about it when I was buying tickets on the internet for something else) or if people do not approve of identity politics being the theme of an operatic concert.

    With regard to identity politics being a theme in classical music I am ambivalent. To me, since classical music has a spiritual nature to it, it’s almost equivalent to a sermon at a Sabbath religious service being about a specific current political event. Is it appropriate or should a sermon be about something that has a more abstract, universal, and timeless theme?

    If we want to influence behavior, attitudes, or even just evoke certain emotions should we just discuss general principles or specifics? One can make a case either way.

    • John Borstlap says:

      it seems to me that classical music is not the best vehicle for social or cultural engineering because that is limiting the art form’s nature and effect. It is the question of art pour l’art or art in the service of politics. Indeed the universal nature of classical music appears to require freedom from such servitude.

      Emancipatory movements are in themselves entirely justified given historic falsifications (suppression of women, gays, coloured people etc.) but the best means to correct such misconceptions seem to be purely educational and informative. In music, there do not exist gay symphonies or feminist concertos (in sonic art however, we have Olga Neuwirth), as there are no communist works or exploitative white male symphonies or string quartets which support a suppressing nobility. Shostakovich tried to steer clean from politics as much as he could by means of irony and double meaning, but we know how extremely painful that must have been. Compare that with Haydn’s music which was nothing more than the private hobby of the prince, who did not use them for political gains but felt it to be an important obligation and ornament to his position, leaving him entirely free to explore his musical interests, freed from material concerns and pressures.

    • Christopher Madden says:

      The trouble with holding up discussions of general principles is that for far too long too many have been excluded from what ‘general’ is taken to mean. There are occasions for both (general and specific), depending on context (however defined, and the field is huge).

      I think John Borstlap is confusing the issue with Shostakovich somewhat: Shostakovich was steering clear from exposure to and the ultimate threat from the censors and thus the death apparatus of the Soviet nomenclature. The use of irony, if anything, made him more political. The fact that the Fourth Symphony and the October Cantata were pulled from the drawer in the post-Stalinist era and performed widely (both works enjoy a rapidly growing performance tradition in today’s musical culture) means that his version of politics, not to mention his vision of humanity, won out; but this only confirms how political his music was, even if the political will always be associated in his music with his approach to form. Could we even say his music for the cinema was apolitical?

      Again, but when phrases like ‘social or cultural engineering’ are used, it is difficult to accept that the ensuing argument carries the principles of balance and fairness that the (or any) subject requires. Very loaded. Unhelpful. Some people are likely to differ on the barring of politics from any idea of the ‘art form’s nature and effect’, especially in situations when the politics in question addresses their reality, in light of which questions about the nature and effect of an art form are inevitably reframed and re-evaluated.

      The universal nature of classical music is not its freedom from ‘such servitude’ (Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches?!) but its non-referentiality. Unlike with linguistic communication, the listener doesn’t have to speak the language of music to understand it, etc..

      • John Borstlap says:

        Legitimate objections. But the question is, what exactly is meant by ‘political’. Extending the term to every human endeavor turns the term meaningless. One could argue that Shostakovich tried, by subverting political pressures, to liberate his music from political determination. The reason that his music has become part of the regular repertoire is not because it is in the first place political music, but because it is good music, its emotional content (without concrete references) offers possibilities of identitifaction for any person tasting something of the bleak atmosphere of the mdoern world.