Title: A marriage of talents: Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears Credit: Craig Young Comment Friday 30th December 2005 - 12:00pm1135897200 Article: 1058 Rights
Born in 1913, Benjamin Britten showed prodigious musical skill from an early age. Starting with his involvement with the British Film Unit, he made the acquaintance of many contemporary figures of gay arts and letters, like W.H.Auden, Christopher Isherwood et al. Auden can be credited with helping Britten to realise that he prefered men, but it took some time to convert his homoerotic interests into fully-fledged gay passion. At the Royal College of Music, it finally happened when Britten met the love of his life, tall muscular and handsome tenor Peter Pears. At twenty four, he finally summoned up the courage to lose his gay virginity once and for all, but multiple sexual partners weren't all that alluring to him, given the mutual attraction that existed between him and Pears. That said, it took until Britten's twentieth birthday for him to finally move in with his lover. They would remain together for the next thirty seven years. During World War II, Britten collaborated on a modern opera, Peter Grimes (1942). It wasn't difficult to read repressed homoeroticism into the struggle that a closeted gay ex-sailor, Grimes, has with a narrow rural community, and he maltreats Sam, his apprentice, ultimately leading to his accidental death, which leads to his own suicide. Pears sang the title role, and the work became a musical tour de force about class inequality and rural conservatism as well as homophobia. Shortly after the war, Albert Herring (1946) repeated many of the same themes, and similarly depicted a struggle between individual freedom and repressive conservative mediocrity. However, Herring had a more upbeat ending, and embraced youthful vitality. Britten and Pears were quite open about the nature of their relationship to anyone who visited their home, Crag House, with a telltale double bed. They were discreet, but the relationship was common knowledge within the world of musical theatre and opera, despite the continued illegality of male homosexuality in the United Kingdom until the Sexual Offences Act 1967. In 1950, Britten became aware of Herman Melville's homoerotic Billy Budd, a tragic story about a handsome sailor who is destroyed by the repressed authoritarianism of closeted Claggart, the first mate, who resorts to sadistic punishment of the younger man to mask his own interest in Billy. Theresultant operawas well-liked when it opened. Despite an antigay witchhunt in 1953, Britten's establishment icon status protected him from exposure, as it did Pears. In 1954, Britten produced Turn of the Screw, another opera with homoerotic undertones as demonic sexual abuse crushes the life out of Miles, an embryonic artist. In 1961, he produced War Requiem, a gay pacifist composition related to the loss of several young army friends during the Second World War. Given the prominence of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the British peace movement, it was well-received. The Queen Mother was renowned for her own musical taste, and gay friendliness, so she invited Pears and Britten to stay at Sandringham in 1966. In 1973, Britten scored Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, with Pears cast as Aschenbach. At the same time, Britten began to develop cardiovascular problems which culminated in his death during the fiery summer of 1976. Pears survived him, and granted an Advocate interview (12 July 1979) about their thirty five year relationship. In 1986, he died, but a Britten-Pears Foundation exists to encourage musical talent, pacifism and lesbian/gay rights. Recommended: Phillip Brett (ed) Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes: Cambridge University Press Opera Handbook: 1983. Humphrey Carpenter: Benjamin Britten: New York: Scribner and Sons: 1992. Peter Evans (ed) The Music of Benjamin Britten: London: JM Dent: 1989. Patricia Howard (ed)Benjamin Britten: Turn of the Screw: Cambridge University Press Opera Handbook: 1985. Don Mitchell (ed) Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice: Cambridge University Press Opera Handbooks: 1987. Chris Palmer (ed) The Britten Companion: London: Faber and Faber: 1984. Eric White: Benjamin Britten: His Life and Operas: London: Faber and Faber: 1983. Craig Young - 30th December 2005    
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