Monday 13 February 2017

Queer Talk: homosexuality in Britten's Britten

Queer Talk exhibition detail ©Britten-Pears Foundation
Queer Talk exhibition detail ©Britten-Pears Foundation
The composer Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears were not known either for their openness about their sexuality or any sort of activism. In modern parlance they certainly were not out. But yet people knew. When Britten died in 1976 (nine years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales) he was determined that his biographer should tell the whole truth about his relationship with Pears, and Pears bravely spoke openly about their relationship on Tony Palmer's film A Time There Was

Queer Talk exhibition, detail of timeline  ©Britten-Pears Foundation
Queer Talk exhibition, detail of timeline
©Britten-Pears Foundation
Whilst Britten and Pears might have been discreet, a distinct thread of homosexuality runs through Britten's work, and the composer did a sort of balancing act as he sought to reflect this and acknowledge his relationship to Pears whilst never being too overt. 

This is the background to the exhibition Queer Talk: homosexuality in Britten's Britten which is in The Red House, Britten and Pears' home in Aldeburgh now owned by the Britten-Pears Foundation. In an exhibition space formed from Britten's former swimming pool curator Dr Lucy Walker, director of public programming and learning at the Britten-Pears Foundation, has assembled a small but telling exhibition which relates Britten's experience and works to the attitudes of the outside world.

Key to the exhibition is the juxtaposition of the public and private. All along one wall runs a lively timeline which places events in Britten's and Pears' life against the wider political and social homosexual context, include a line of flags indicating when countries legalised homosexuality. On the opposite wall there is another display, culled from the recent book of Britten and Pears' correspondence (some 350 or so letters). These are more intimate expressions of regard, love and affection, the sort of private slang phrases which any could develops. In a way this is to shine a light on something which they kept very private, and the organisers are aware that there are still people alive in Aldeburgh who knew the couple. But in historical terms Britten and Pears are moving from private people to historical figures, and Dr Walker feels that it is important for people to know Britten and Pears fully.

Two of Britten's works are featured in detail, Canticle 1 and the opera Billy Budd and there is a video which includes excerpts from them, as well as the out gay tenor John Mark Ainsley talking about the canticle, the role of Captain Vere in Billy Budd and Britten's Nocturne.

Detail of Canticle I by Benjamin Britten ©Britten-Pears Foundation
Detail of Canticle I by Benjamin Britten ©Britten-Pears Foundation
There is a the manuscript to Britten's Canticle 1, 'My beloved is mine', a work written for Peter Pears and which only thinly disguises their mutual affection. Then there are manuscripts and letters relating to the opera Billy Budd where Britten's setting of one aria annoyed librettist EM Forster who felt that Britten's music did not go far enough. Forster says in one letter 'I want passion love constricted, perverted, poisoned but nevertheless flowing down its agonising channel; a sexual discharge gone evil. not soggy depression and growing remorse'.

But a third display case sets this against the lives of Forster himself, Alan Turing and Noel Coward. All three were gay and all three were Britten's contemporaries. Whilst Forster castigated Britten about Billy Budd in the 1950s, he had stopped writing fiction in the 1920s, leaving his homosexual novel to be published Maurice after his death and feeling that if he could not write fiction and be true to his nature then he would write only non-fiction. Ironically, whilst EM Forster was castigating Britten about the 'soggy depression and growing remorse' in Billy Budd, Forster was also sharing his unpublished novel Maurice with Britten and Pears. Being open only went so far.

Queer Talk Exhibition, detail of timeline ©Britten-Pears Foundation
Queer Talk Exhibition, detail of timeline
©Britten-Pears Foundation
Britten and Pears kept their correspondence and there seems to have been no attempt to remove sections and edit the story for posterity. By contrast there is almost no surviving correspondence for Noel Coward and his partner Graham Payne; there are few surviving letters between the two except for a moving one by Payne after Coward's death. More tragic was the story of Alan Turing who, despite his ground breaking work in computers and in breaking codes during the war, was prosecuted in the 1950s and finally committed suicide.

To provide a suitably corrective backdrop, there is a display about attitudes to homosexuality with headlines from contemporary newspapers, as well as reportage of the Wolfenden Report which led, ultimately to the 1967 bill. Film footage includes Wolfenden talking, but also has excerpts from the film 1961 film Victim  which played an important role in changing attitudes, and was in fact the first English language film to use the word homosexual.

The exhibition is one of a number in the UK where organisations such as the National Trust and the National Portrait Gallery are exploring themes arising from the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. Queer Talk provides a fascinating insight into the way the political, social and private interwove in Britten's life. The exhibition comes with an excellent accompanying book in which Lucy Walker, Paul Kildea, Neil Bartlett, Justin Vickers, Nicholas Clarke, Andrew Moor and Christopher Rogers explore further the themes from the exhibition. Particularly intriguing is the essay by Neil Bartlett, a famously out performer and activist, talking about his experience directing four of Britten's key works.

The exhibition runs at the Red House until 28 October 2017. There is an associated programme of films at the Aldeburgh Cinema, and study day events at the Red House. As part of the Aldeburgh Fringe during the Aldeburgh Festival, the Red House will be staging a complete reading of the Wolfenden Report.

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