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Music and Sexuality in Britten

Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays

Philip Brett
Edited by George E. Haggerty
With an Introduction by Susan McClary
Afterword by Jenny Doctor
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 295
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  • Book Info
    Music and Sexuality in Britten
    Book Description:

    Philip Brett’s groundbreaking writing on Benjamin Britten altered the course of music scholarship in the later twentieth century. This volume is the first to gather in one collection Brett’s searching and provocative work on the great British composer. Some of the early essays opened the door to gay studies in music, while the discussions that Brett initiated reinvigorated the study of Britten’s work and inspired a generation of scholars to imagine “the new musicology.” Addressing urgent questions of how an artist’s sexual, cultural, and personal identity feeds into specific musical texts, Brett examines most of Britten’s operas as well as his role in the British cultural establishment of the mid-twentieth century. With some of the essays appearing here for the first time, this volume develops a complex understanding of Britten’s musical achievement and highlights the many ways that Brett expanded the borders of his field.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93912-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    George E. Haggerty
  4. INTRODUCTION Remembering Philip Brett
    (pp. 1-10)
    Susan McClary

    I met Philip Brett one evening in 1986 at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Cleveland. After several years of avoiding the meetings, I had come to this one largely because of my then-graduate student Lydia Hamessley, who wanted an introduction to the profession. As I remember it, the Cleveland meeting was exceptionally enervating, and I cringed at presenting a bright, young scholar to such dreary fare. But while trolling the lobby, Lydia and I spotted on the bulletin board a small note announcing a cocktail party for anyone interested in gay and lesbian issues. As it...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Britten and Grimes
    (pp. 11-33)

    “I am firmly rooted in this glorious county. And I proved this to myself when I once tried to live somewhere else.”¹ In this tribute to his native Suffolk, Benjamin Britten refers to his attempted emigration to America during the years 1939–42. He and his friend Peter Pears left England shortly before war was declared and hard on the heels of two friends and collaborators, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, whose departure stimulated a minor exodus of British writers and a considerable outcry in the national press. Britten, then a discouraged young composer, has described himself on arrival...

  6. CHAPTER TWO “Grimes Is at His Exercise” Sex, Politics, and Violence in the Librettos of Peter Grimes
    (pp. 34-53)

    The modernist critical axiom that, in Joseph Kerman’s classic formulation, “opera is a type of drama whose integral existence is determined from point to point and in the whole by musical articulation,”¹ was often used, we now realize, as a way of vesting sole authority in the composer, a male. Much work has now been done on recuperating the singer (usually female). It is a particular irony of the fifty-year-old repertory opera,Peter Grimes, that the singer who premiered the role of the protagonist—and still the only one apparently capable of singing the notes as written—was also the...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Grimes and Lucretia
    (pp. 54-69)

    One of the sure tests of a composer’s stature is how he reacts to success. The furore overPeter Grimesboth at home and abroad after its premiere in 1945 was possibly more remarkable than that accorded any other opera this century. In the first few years of its existenceGrimeswas produced almost everywhere, even at La Scala, Milan, and at the hidebound Metropolitan Opera in New York. In connection with the Met production (a severe test of the work by all accounts), Britten’s face appeared against a background of fishing nets on the cover ofTime magazine, which...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Salvation at Sea Britten’s Billy Budd
    (pp. 70-80)

    The association of Benjamin Britten and E. M. Forster is one of the more interesting in the annals of opera. Less startling than the contemporaneous collaboration of Stravinsky and W. H. Auden (overThe Rake’s Progress, also completed in 1951), which by comparison was like two stars from different galaxies passing in unusual orbit, it seems to have been an almost predictable match between a literary-minded composer and a musical novelist who shared country, class and, to a large extent, beliefs. It also contained, for Britten at least, an element of the fateful. The two had met in 1936 under...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Character and Caricature in Albert Herring
    (pp. 81-87)

    The three Britten operas of the mid-1940s,Peter Grimes, The Rape of LucretiaandAlbert Herring,are all at one level or another concerned with oppression. The remarkable thing about Britten’s relation to that overworked word is that he seems intuitively to have grasped the thought behind the rallying cry of minority movements twenty years later—that the dynamics of oppression are not bound by a one-dimensional Marxist model but work in multifarious ways. The “oppressor” in one situation is likely to become the “oppressed” in another. And he seems also to have understood, probably from personal experience and again...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Britten’s Bad Boys Male Relations in The Turn of the Screw
    (pp. 88-105)

    There is a moment in Henry James’s famous ghost story that gives away one of its secrets. The Governess, having seen a strange male figure around the house at Bly for a second time, elicits from Mrs. Grose that its features are those of Peter Quint, the master’s dead valet. In her certitude that the ghost “had come for someone else” (than her), she jumps to a notable conclusion in her conversations with the kindly housekeeper:

    “He was looking for little Miles.” A portentous clearness now possessed me. “That’swhom he was looking for.”

    “But how do you know?”


  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Britten’s Dream For Sue-Ellen Case
    (pp. 106-128)

    “How can a minor third be gay?” This response from a prominent lesbian feminist on hearing that I was engaged in gay musicology encapsulates what is thought to be the main question. But we need not subscribe to its implied finality. Granted that music as many of us have studied it—my interlocutor was once herself a music major—has been presented most rationally to us both as a symbolic system with no connotations and as a series of works of transhistorical significance. As gay scholars we ought constantly to interrogate this training and its implications. One strategy would be...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Eros and Orientalism in Britten’s Operas
    (pp. 129-153)

    In what seemed a rather bold gesture during my student days at King’s College, Cambridge, I persuaded a friend of mine with one of those classic Cambridge baritone voices to perform with me in a College Music Society concert theFour Indian Love Lyricsof Amy Woodforde-Finden. This was the closest I could have been said ever to have come, as a highly repressed and not-at-all gay boy, to camp. Any success it might have had as camp, however, was entirely owing to my straight baritone friend, who did incredibly unsuspected and virtually obscene things to the articulation of such...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Keeping the Straight Line Intact? Britten’s Relation to Folksong, Purcell, and His English Predecessors
    (pp. 154-171)

    The word “folksong” is likely to produce different and special reactions in musicians of all kinds. Many of us brought up in Britain are indelibly marked by early experiences ofThe National Songbook, edited by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, or one of many subsequent schoolroom anthologies, such as the one edited by Cecil Sharpe. I remember pursuing the program, which in my day included initiation in “country dance,” until the age when it seemed unbearably soppy. I was taught, in other words, along lines approved by Cecil (“it is Englishmen, English citizens we want”) Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and other...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Pacifism, Political Action, and Artistic Endeavor
    (pp. 172-185)

    Imagine the scene: a dignified Oxford college interior, setting for the Royal Musical Association’s annual conference, somewhat daringly entitled that year “Music and Eros.” We listened in polite if forced attentiveness as British éminences grises listed examples of the erotic in Berlioz or Wagner, and almost sighed with relief when a cultural studies scholar with a Manchester accent broached the topic of Mae West. Halfway through a morning session in which two young American women scholars had begun to unveil the meaning of some naughty sixteenth-century madrigals, the Oxonian chair, in a stentorian voice, declared his hand: “I think that,...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Auden’s Britten
    (pp. 186-203)

    At a recent symposium at the Huntington Library, the novelist Edmund White posed a question about Christopher Isherwood. What had enabled him, he asked, to write a novel with a homosexual central character who was neither pathologized nor sentimentalized at least a dozen years before anyone else would begin writing with comparable assumptions and ease? How couldA Single Manhave been written as early as 1964? This prompted me to a similar question about Benjamin Britten’s operaPeter Grimes(for which, incidentally, Isherwood had been Britten’s first choice of librettist). How could a work whose plot hinges on the...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE The Britten Era
    (pp. 204-224)

    I have deliberately chosen to talk today about a fiction, the Britten Era. To reduce British musical history from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s to a single expression of this kind is misleading or plain wrong on a number of counts. It would for instance ignore the second wave of the folk-music movement that started in the 1950s. Even more notably it would omit the British contribution to what was arguably the most important musical development of the postwar years: if the roots of rock ’n roll are embedded in the much-looked-down-on southern part of the United States, the vitality...

    (pp. 225-246)
    Jenny Doctor

    An afterword for and after this volume—for and after Philip—is indeed about coming to grips with effects: the effects of Philip’s lifetime of producing works of art about music, criticism and humanity. To survey these effects in full, I’ve turned to his legacy in print, reading and re-reading everything I could get my hands on: many writings on Britten, of course (some of the later ones sent to me electronically as he finished them—exciting moments indeed), but also articles on other musics and musicians, his thoughts concerning trends in musicology, his perceptive and unusually musical reviews of...

    (pp. 247-254)
    (pp. 255-266)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 267-280)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-281)