Hordes are taking RCA up on the offer, even though no one can be sure whether all of these composers really happened to be gay. The disc has made the Billboard Top Classical Albums chart for the last several weeks, jockeying neck-and-neck with Sensual Classics, Too. That CD offers works by straight composers, but also aims squarely at a gay market by featuring on its cover, as does Out Classics, a homoerotic photo.
Another niche in the classical-music market has been found - and it's a wonder it took the recording industry this long to develop a product specifically for it.
According to a study released last month by the Interep Radio Store, a radio industry marketing service, the gay and lesbian market packs a spending
wallop estimated at $500 billion. One survey cited in Interep's study found classical music to be the most preferred genre among gays; the other places classical music second to contemporary pop.
A recent profile by Out, the gay and lesbian magazine, found that 95 percent of its readers had purchased at least one CD in 1994; 8.2 percent of those surveyed said they had purchased 85 or more CDs that year.
All of which explains why 53,000 copies of Sensual Classics, Too have been pressed and shipped since February - an exceptionally healthy number for a classical release.
"If we sold this many of every classical release, we'd be retired and living in Bali," said Kevin Copps, senior vice president and general manager for Atlantic Classics, the U.S. marketing arm for Teldec, maker of Sensual Classics, Too.
Teldec had released two other CDs with straight couples on the cover in the sway of romance, and a few gay employees of the label suggested a follow-up using a gay couple.
Why not, thought Copps.
Ubiquitous advertising announced the arrival of Sensual Classics, Too, running mostly in gay newspapers and magazines, such as Out, but also in straight publications.
"You don't just release something like this without drawing the public's attention to the fact that it's something special," said Copps, who adds that the CD and attendant advertising have generated mail ranging from contemptuous to congratulatory. He said the packaging and promotion of the CD are just another sign that classical music's image is being given a long-overdue makeover.
"Twenty years ago you recorded a Bruckner (Symphony No.) 8, put an ad in the Schwann catalogue, and that was that," said Copps. "There's some surprise, I guess, because we're treating something sacred as a commodity. Personally, when I take friends to a concert for the first time and they get turned on, I feel I did something great. On a big scale, that's what we're trying to do. The M word comes into it - marketing - but that's the way people are reached today. Classical music can't operate in a medieval fashion if it's going to keep its head above water."
"It's the next step in the continuum that was started by the Ikea ads," added Atlantic Classics spokeswoman Ellen M. Schantz, referring to a TV commercial that centered on a gay couple looking at furnishings together. ''It's a statement that says being gay is just fine."
"Politically, I think it sends out a wonderful message," said Harry A. Taylor, publisher of Out magazine, which gave Out Classics permission to use its logo on the CD. "It's a message not just to gays and lesbians that is affirming, but to heterosexuals around the world that we're not sex addicts who are unproductive to society. We are wonderful people who have contributed to world culture in a disproportionately large way. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, that message is underrepresented in the mass media."
But while being known as gay may be just fine with some composers today, the earlier generations represented on Out Classics were more skittish on the matter. For some, sexuality was something only darkly hinted at.
For instance, it is widely known that Leonard Bernstein had a touch of lavender (to use one euphemistic code word). But Frederic Chopin, Franz Schubert, Camille Saint-Saens? And Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten, too?
Liner notes to Out Classics do their best to tell listeners why the included composers are considered gay, but the arguments are hardly convincing.
Early correspondence from Chopin, we are told, expressed "homosexual sentiments."
The evidence that "Schubert was part of a gay Viennese sub-culture seems incontrovertible."
Tchaikovsky had a disastrous marriage, never consummated, and wrote to his brother afterward: "Only now, especially after the incident of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than wanting to be other than what I am by nature."
While these shreds of evidence hint, they hardly prove. After all, even if one could prove a homosexual encounter, a firm definition of gay does not exist. Does someone who has had one homosexual experience in a life of heterosexual experiences qualify? What about someone who has had homosexual thoughts but never acted on them? Scientists and sociologists carry on the debate.
Whatever the case, it's hard to imagine that being called gay would have made the composers on Out Classics very happy. While scholarship concerning the sexuality of these composers has long existed, it has remained safely buried in turgid academic papers. The mass distribution of Out Classics takes the issue out of the hands of specialists, and volleys it out into the mass media for the first time.
Copland, the dean of American composers, who died in 1990, deflected questions about his sexuality all his life. How would he have felt about having his name on a list of gay composers?
"I think that Copland would be horrified if he knew such a record were coming out at this point," said composer Ned Rorem, who was a friend of Copland's. "But then, how can I speak for him? Aaron was one of these people who were from a generation that was very private, and they had their reasons. However, I don't think it makes much difference once someone is dead."
Vivian Perlis, Copland's biographer, said that although at one time Copland might not have liked being included in a collection of gay composers, ''there's no way to determine how he would feel in the context of the world today. Things were very, very different then. You're not only talking about pre-gay rights, you're talking about pre-sexual revolution."
Rorem, who is openly gay, questions a number of issues raised by Out Classics: whether it's fair to out a composer, whether there is any good reason to group gay composers together, and whether there is even such a thing as a "gay composer."
"I don't know what it means," said Rorem, "and I've gotten kind of huffy with people who have mentioned that. It's like 'American composer.' You're an American composer if you have an American passport. A gay composer is just a composer who happens to be gay. I don't think it's something that needs to be said, but a younger generation is extremely adamant about it."
Rorem is also doubtful that there is such a thing as a "gay aesthetic" in music, a concept raised in notes in Out Classics, and which they stop short of answering.
Still, he said there is value in a disc that reveals role models to gay youths, who tend to feel isolated. And there is something to be said for any disc that brings classical music to a wider audience.
"I think that since homosexuals are as dumb as everyone else and as mediocre as everyone else, I like the idea that anything that brings classical music to people in this Philistine age is a good thing. No one knows nothin' about classical music these days. And if Britten and Copland are on this record, then it's good, and I approve."
Are these two discs likely to blossom into a permanent part of the classical-music market? Not likely, some industry officials say. "It's one of those things that is so different that any attempt to repeat it might be seen as a cliche," said Copps.
"The gay male is an important part of our clientele, and this disc acknowledges that," said Raymond Edwards, national classical manager for Tower Records, the 100-store chain where Edwards says 80 percent of classical music buyers are male. But, he said, the idea has taken off mainly because it's new.
"I think it's been sold mostly as a novelty item, and the novelty will wear off."