Mathew Velilla (Author), Meghan Sprabary and Kristin Wolski (Editors)

This blog was initially inspired by a library Subject Guide that I helped curate in the Spring of 2021. The guide is a compilation of LGBTQ+-related resources that we have in the Music Library collection at the Willis Library. As it developed, I was interested in starting a project relating to the music and history of the AIDS virus in the United States from the 1980s until now. 

Since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s, the disease has taken the lives of 675,000 Americans and nearly 40.1 million globally. As a Latino and gay musician, I found this topic hitting close to home. I have friends and acquaintances who have the virus and are living happily today due to advancements in medicine.  I wish to push more awareness about the disease that has plagued the gay community, and how we have made tremendous strides in a positive direction to find new treatments for HIV/AIDS. How does this relate to music, you may ask? Well, if we take a quick peek in history, we find that some of the great composers we know of today were part of the LGBTQ+ community. However, they were not always able to express their true nature publicly. 

When the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit, the gay community was impacted significantly as the disease spread like wildfire. The disease was even originally known as GRID (Gay Related Immune Disease) because the first infections were found in gay men, but it quickly changed when they found infections other groups. However, upon initial discovery of the virus, people did not know how it was spread or even why it was lethal. The lack of knowledge and awareness had created high amounts of stigma for those infected. The gay community faced significant fear and anger, and some even termed the disease “gay cancer.” The widespread impact of HIV/AIDS on the gay community inspired several protests and initiatives to try to control the disease, such as promoting contraception and sexual health, and easily accessible health care for those infected. Readers can learn more about HIV and AIDs through the MedlinePlus open-access database.

Responding through Art

As time went on, many celebrities came out as HIV positive, such as Liberace, Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury. Other celebrities became HIV activists, like Princess Diana of Wales and Elizabeth Taylor. Due to the work of those celebrities and many other activists, HIV/AIDS began to be less stigmatized, and awareness grew for the disease and those infected. Many popular and classical musicians responded by composing new music. Pop songs such as “The Last Song” by Elton John, “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen, Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” and Madonna and her song “In this Life” were all inspired by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Musicians also responded musically to this time. One of the most significant pieces to come out of this time is New York City composer John Corigliano’s Symphony no.1. His first Symphony is based on his grief at the loss of so many friends during the epidemic. The piece was commissioned for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and debuted in 1991. Symphony no. 1 has four movements of bittersweet memories, anger and strife, denial and acceptance, confusion and understanding. It was inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, one of the most impactful pieces of advocacy throughout the epidemic. Each AIDS Memorial Quilt panel was 6‘ x 3‘ to represent the size of an average grave. Names of deceased AIDS victims were stitched into the quilt panels, along with art, belongings, and memories. The inaugural display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt was on October 11, 1987 in Washington, D.C. during the March on Washington for LGBT rights. 1920 panels were displayed at the time, but it continues to grow and now has nearly 50,000 panels.

Several other pieces of music were inspired by the AIDS Quilt, including Corigliano’s Ghost of Versailles, Mark Adamos’ Late Victorians, and Kevin Oldham’s Sarabande and Toccata, Op. 19.  The UNT Music Library has the original AIDS Quilt Songbook available for checkout if you would like to explore more music inspired by the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Likewise, local communities in DFW responded by making quilts to honor loved ones. For example, the Turtle Creek Chorale submitted panel block number 0600 to the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Also, Michael-David Light created a quilt honoring Turtle Creek Chorale members lost to AIDS. Find more resources from the Dallas Metroplex Chapter of the NAMES Project Foundation in the UNT Digital Library, as well as in the UNT Digital Libraries’ LGBT Collections. Also, find out more information about local responses by visiting the UNT Libraries’ Special Collection from 2017, Threads of Remembrance.

Listens to selections from the artists discussed above on our Spotify playlist.

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