Nancy Spada's biography of musician Thomas Schippers

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday November 28, 2023
Share this Post:
Nancy Spada's biography of musician Thomas Schippers

Even allowing for the fact that authors don't always get to choose their titles, Nancy Spada's new "Beyond the Handsomeness: A Biography of Thomas Schippers" (Universal Music) hits a sour note. Her chatty, lopsided, frequently infuriating look at the much-celebrated but short-lived musician, great by all accounts, has the laudable goal of analyzing what was great about Schippers "beyond" his looks. But, in her account, he's ever the looker.

Why would you use "handsomeness" in a title anyway? It's a word all right, but an awkward one. Say it out loud to see how clumsy it sounds. Without even broaching the touchy subject of looksism in the classical music world, a biography that includes the man's own thoughts about his good looks overshoots the "beyond."

Spada references Jane Howard's December 6, 1963, Life magazine profile, "Matinee Idol Maestro," twice. In it, Hansen enthuses, "The brilliant young conductor is tall, with the face and body of a Greek god at a time when Greek gods are hard to find."

Schippers confided to Howard that Hollywood called, but he didn't answer. Elsewhere we learn that Columbia Artists Management head Ronald Wilford opined that Schippers was "too good looking for his own good."

"Admired by many for his classical handsomeness," Spada goes on, "he provoked nearly unanimous adulation for his musicianship and for the apparent ease with which he conducted scores of the utmost complexity. Members of the audience were often taken aback by his physical aspect, which was clearly impossible to hide when entering the orchestra pit, before being intrigued and, in the end, enchanted by his profound and passionate musical interpretations."

"There were very few people I interviewed," Spada insists,"who knew and worked with Schippers who did not comment on his looks, men and women alike."

Thomas Schippers in 1950  

Gay colleagues
Spada breezes past the other thing people who know little else about Schippers know: his versatile sexuality. It was "bisexuality" of the Leonard Bernstein variety, about which more is revealed in the new Bernstein biopic, "Maestro," though Schippers does not appear in it.
Schippers clearly doted on his wife Nonie, an heiress to the Grace shipping fortune, in no small part for her tireless doting on him. From all accounts, a key to their successful marriage was that Nonie "understood."

Against the odds, she predeceased him. Schippers died on December 18, 1977, of lung cancer, at 47. What is there to make of the conjecture by Nonie's cousin, "I don't think Tommy understood how much he loved her until after she died"?

It begs belief that the people Spada interviewed did not include friends and colleagues who would have known about Schippers's extracurricular pairings. His initial renown was hitched to his long association with composer Gian Carlo Menotti, of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" fame, with whom Schippers helped create the Spoleto Festival after the two sported around Italy seeking the right locale. They fell out after Schippers married Nonie.

It's a matter of record elsewhere, including Howard Pollock's new biography of composer Samuel Barber, that Schippers was "romantically" involved both with Menotti and Barber, Menotti's lifelong partner. Schippers's legendary collaboration with Barber came in his conducting of the premiere of Franco Zeffirelli's production of Berber's "Antony and Cleopatra," commissioned for the opening of the newly rebuilt Metropolitan Opera, in 1966. It was one of the most notorious flops in American music history, for which only Schippers and the cast won raves. So then there was Zeffirelli, too.

The roster of Schippers's principal colleagues and associates is a catalog of the gay music celebrities of his day (though, given the era, none would have used the word "gay"). He prepared the premiere of "The Tender Land," an opera for television by Aaron Copland, whose homosexuality still comes as a surprise to many music lovers. And then there were Ned Rorem and Benjamin Britten, the latter arguably the most famous out composer of the 20th century, although Spada leaves it unclear whether Britten and Schippers met in person.

Legend also attends Schippers's relationship with Bernstein, whose acolyte and associate he was at the New York Philharmonic. The catalog of other gay men, including Michael Tilson Thomas, who learned under Bernstein — "under" being a proximate word here, not denoting position— is as distinguished as it is long. When Bernstein stepped down as music director of the Philharmonic, Schippers was considered his heir apparent, though he passed on the position.

Perhaps if Spada had consulted with Bradley Cooper, writer, director, and star of "Maestro," who reputedly did years of study of Bernstein for the film, there might have been more to learn. But, as it is, America's most famous composer-conductor-educator gets a page in "Beyond."

Thomas Schippers at Cincinnati's Music Hall, conducting the Poulenc Concerto from the keyboard  

It started with the organ
As musically versatile as Bernstein, Schippers was a child prodigy at the piano. He made a name for himself conducting the Chicago Symphony in Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto from the keyboard.

But his "true love," Sapada says, was the organ. "Tommy's chief pleasure, when other little boys were out playing baseball," Spada breathlessly contends, "was to practice the organ in the church until late at night and then fall asleep in the chancery." He also conducted the Organ Concerto of Francis Poulenc, also famously gay, from the keyboard, claiming it wanted only one musician.

For the record, the former director of the Music Division at the Smithsonian Institution, himself a versatile organist and keyboardist who died of COVID, once told me, "American organists are always gay, and British organists never are." You read it here first.

His work with his hometown orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony, was as devoted as it was longlasting. The list of international orchestras he conducted and sometimes served as director is long.

It's a conspicuous failing of Spada's book that, dodging a full performance history, she refers the reader, for example, to the orchestra's official website for details about his work with the New York Philharmonic. Similarly, although she credits him with the many, sometimes groundbreaking, recordings he oversaw, Spada includes only a "limited" (but lengthy for all that) discography. It's a pity it doesn't also include leads to his live, unofficial, "sound check" items.

Similarly, his professional musical education receives summary treatment. The Curtis Institute, the Juilliard School, Harvard, and Yale all crowd into two busy paragraphs.

Thomas Schippers' album, 'Opera Overtures'  

At home in the pit
Spada does say, rightly, that for all of Schippers's talents, the metier with which he is most associated, then and today, is opera. A stalwart at what was to become New York's City Opera, he was also a major player at the Met. He was a scholar as well as conductor of problematic opera scores, devoting years to an edition of Rossini's "L'Assedio di Corinto" and "Il Viaggio a Reims" (both virtually unknown at the time) and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" in its original, pre-Rimsky version, all of which he conducted at the Met and elsewhere.

Although critics recorded a mixed success at the 1963 Bayreuth Festival, where he conducted a new production of Wieland Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg," many a Wagner fan cherishes that broadcast performance. His other highly celebrated outing was conducting "Medea" at La Scala with Maria Callas in 1961. Spada might have noted that both are on YouTube.

While it's perfectly understandable that Schippers's friends and associates would have called him "Tommy," it's somewhat more problematic that Spada does. She did have a brief personal association with him, but she mostly reserves "Tommy" for the conductor's early life. But then her own predisposition to be chummy with "Tommy" crops up from time to time afterwards.

As inviting and breezily informative as "Beyond" is, it leaves the central mysteries about Schippers untouched, not only the sexual liaisons but the aspects and qualities of his music-making that made him so beloved and kept him so sought-after. Spada seems willing to settle for the fact that Schippers insisted on spontaneity and sought never to conduct a piece the same way twice, plus her claim that his conducting was "profound" and "passionate."

Pretty is, we learn yet again, as pretty does, but the lingering question is, how does pretty do?

'Beyond the Handsomeness: a Biography of Thomas Schippers,' by Nancy Spada. Universal Publishers, 168 pages, $34.95.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.