Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays / Edition 1

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Overview


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.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Brett] has allowed us to consider Britten's stage works in fresh and innovative ways."--Opera Journal
Opera Journal - Keith E. Clifton

“[Brett] has allowed us to consider Britten’s stage works in fresh and innovative ways.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520246096
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/17/2006
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 295
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Philip Brett (1937-2002) was Distinguished Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. In addition to dozens of scholarly editions of English Renaissance music and pioneering articles in a wide variety of fields, he is author of Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes and coeditor of Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, Cruising the Performative: Interventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality, and Decomposition: Post-Disciplinary Performance. George Haggerty is Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside.
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Music and Sexuality in Britten


Selected Essays


By Philip Brett


University of California Press


Copyright © 2006

The Regents of the University of California

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24610-1




Chapter One


Britten and Grimes

"I am firmly rooted in this glorious county. And I proved this to myself
when I once tried to live somewhere else." 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 in the U.S.A. as "muddled, fed-up and
looking for work, longing to be used." Commissions quickly came his
way, and in the next three years he wrote a number of considerable works,
including the Violin Concerto in D minor, the String Quartet in D, the
Michelangelo Sonnets, the operetta Paul Bunyan on a libretto by Auden,
and the Sinfonia da Requiem. And it was a performance of this last piece
in Boston that prompted Koussevitzky to offer him the grant that enabled
him to write his first major opera. But the muddle did not clear up.
If as Auden is reported ashaving said, "an artist must live where he has
live roots or no roots at all," then it became clear that the anonymity and
isolation beneficial to the poet did not suit the musician, and Britten
gradually realized he must return to his native land, whatever the consequences
to him as a pacifist.

The opera Peter Grimes has an intimate connection with the composer's
decision to go back. It was in Southern California in summer 1941
that he picked up an issue of The Listener to which E. M. Forster had contributed
an article on the Suffolk poet, George Crabbe. This seems to
have been the turning point in Britten's decision not only about nationality
but also locality. It was Crabbe's own Borough to which the composer
repaired, no doubt with a sentence of Forster's ringing in his ears:
"Yet he never escaped from Aldeburgh in the spirit, and it was the making
of him as a poet." More important still, the article sent Britten to
Crabbe's poems, which he had not previously read, and in The Borough
he discovered not only a place to put down roots but also a series of characters
and a plot for an opera.

Crabbe's Peter Grimes is one of the poor of the Borough, and though
the poet grew up among the poor he did not like them. His portrait
of the man whose cruelty leads to the death of three boy apprentices from
the workhouse and whose guilty conscience drives him to madness and
death is alleviated by few redeeming features: a bold and unusual choice
for the central figure of a musical drama in the tradition of grand opera.
True, there are other anti-heroes in twentieth-century opera, of whom
the most famous is Wozzeck. But there is no assumption of basic decency
in the Grimes of the poem, and he is not so obviously the downtrodden
common man pushed into crime and insanity by the savage acts of those
around him. It is true, of course, that Britten and his librettist, Montagu
Slater, transformed him from Crabbe's ruffian into a far more complicated
figure, one who can be recognized in certain lights, perhaps, as a
distant foreign cousin of Wozzeck's. At the beginning of the opera
Grimes has lost only one apprentice, clearly by accident, and the death
of his replacement in Act II is also patently a mishap. The new, almost
Byronic, Grimes is rough, to be sure, but he is also a dreamer; and his
music constantly invites compassion and concern. Yet there are still great
difficulties with Grimes as the central figure, and the reaction of the critics
ranges from Patricia Howard's prim little sentence, "His is not a character
with whom we can admit to identifying ourselves" (Operas, 23), to
Eric Walter White's more sophisticated but equally unhelpful remark
that he is "what might be called a maladjusted aggressive psychopath"
(115). In a comparatively recent review, Desmond Shawe-Taylor has
gone so far along these lines as to find "a flaw in the conception of the
central character." In his opinion, "the new Grimes is inconsistently presented.
For all his visionary airs, the death of his second apprentice is directly
caused by his roughness and callousness, so that the sympathetic
Ellen Orford was in effect culpably wrong, and the 'Borough gossips' and
the much-maligned Mrs. Sedley dead right."

This statement raises a number of issues. It is of course usual and
right for a society to protect the innocent and helpless from harm, but
it is also generally recognized that it must observe due process of the
law. The accident that befalls the second apprentice occurs when Peter,
who is responsibly watching the boy, has his attention diverted and his
paranoia understandably aroused by the arrival of the Borough procession,
which observes neither due process nor common decency. That
knock at the door just before the boy's scream reminds us in a very direct
way that society precipitates what it should be guarding against, and
therefore shares the responsibility with the individual. To put it in
Forster's more trenchant words, there is "no crime on Peter's part except
what is caused by the far greater crimes committed against him by
society" ("Two Essays," 20). More important than what is indicated by
the libretto, however, is what goes on in the score, because questions of
right and wrong in opera are ultimately determined not by moral law
but by music. We come away from the final duet of Poppea or the
Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde believing if anything in the power of love,
not the culpability of fornication, faithlessness, peremptory execution
and banishment. Grimes is as undeniably sympathetic from the music he
sings as Mrs. Sedley, on the other hand, is sinister. But what is finally disturbing
here is not only that an experienced and respected member of
the profession should wield a stick he would never use to beat earlier
classics of the repertory, such as Poppea or Tristan, but also that he studiously
avoids any truth that lies below the most obvious surface of the
action. To discover why that should be is to take a further journey into
the opera.

In the most sensitive account of Peter Grimes to date, Hans Keller,
who draws usefully on psychoanalytic theory as well as a secure musical
and dramatic instinct, points out that Peter "cannot show, let alone
prove his tenderness as easily as his wrath-except through the music,
which, alas, the people on stage don't hear. Thus he is destined to seem
worse than he is, and not to be as good as he feels. Peter Grimes is the
story of the man who couldn't fit in" (Peter Grimes, 105). It is this theme
that Peter Pears explored in an article directed to the opera's first radio
audience:

Grimes is not a hero nor is he an operatic villain. He is not a sadist
nor a demonic character, and the music quite clearly shows that. He
is very much of an ordinary weak person who, being at odds with
the society in which he finds himself, tries to overcome it and, in
doing so, offends against the conventional code, is classed by society
as a criminal, and destroyed as such. ("Neither a Hero nor a Villain,"
152)

This is a clear explanation, so far as it goes, and rather more helpful
than Britten's own statement that "in writing Peter Grimes, I wanted to
express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose
livelihood depends on the sea" (introduction, 149). One of the greatest
strengths of the opera is of course its vivid portrayal of the moods of the
ocean-owing much, I suspect, to Britten's re-encounter with the Suffolk
coastline. But, as in Crabbe, the natural detail is secondary to the human
drama played out against it and which it sometimes reflects (e.g., in the
Storm Interlude). In approaching this human drama, however, we need
to go further than Keller's psychoanalytical abstractions, further too than
Pears perhaps felt able, into the idea of the outsider, Grimes the unclubbable.
His tragedy is of course relevant on a universal scale in our age of
alienation, but I am interested in a particular interpretation that I believe
solves some of the problems that have been raised.

It is clear from the music of the opening scene that Peter is not only
telling the truth about the death of his first apprentice but also that he
really is at odds with the Borough, and seeks in his own inner life a means
of averting the harshness of his condition. All this can be heard in the orchestral
motive played as he steps into the witness box, in his first
words-sung on the same note as those of the bullying coroner but harmonized
differently, and also in the way he cadences so frequently, not
on the tonic, like Swallow, but on the seventh of the supporting chord
(example 1.1). Peter cannot reply in the worldly manner of the coroner,
then, just as later he cannot respond immediately to the approach of his
schoolmistress supporter, Ellen Orford. She sets him off on a paranoid
outburst that is literally out of tune with her E-major blandishments, and
when she does bring him round to her key, what they sing together centers
upon the minor ninth, the interval most associated with Peter's loneliness
and his private fantasies, of which she is the unrealistic focus (example
1.2).

"I have my visions, fiery visions, they call me dreamer," sings Peter (in
Act I, scene 1). And the tonal planning of the opera reflects the conflict
between this fantasy life (generally expressed in D, E or A major) and the
outside reality represented by, say, the E-flat of the storm and pub scene,
or the B-flat of the courtroom and the final manhunt. It is easy enough
to point to the self-destructive force of Peter's pride and of his fantasies,
and to show how even his relationship with Ellen is doomed by his seeing
marriage to her as the last step on the ladder of gaining respectability
and "showing the Borough." But this still leaves him, in a sense, as an
unexplained boy-beater, and it is only by looking more closely at his relation
with the chorus, representing the Borough, that a closer understanding
of his nature can be reached. Eric Walter White has pointed out
important distinctions between the handling of the chorus in Grimes and
in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, with which it has often been compared
(116). Britten was evidently concerned to characterize the minor figures
who emerge now and then in order to emphasize that the crowd is after
all a collection of individuals, each of whom, like Grimes in Crabbe's
memorable phrase, "is at his exercise." Yet the most powerful moments
are undeniably those-like the storm fugue, the round in the pub scene,
the posse in Act II, the manhunt in Act III-when everyone on stage
joins the chorus, only Peter himself standing out in contradistinction to
the general will, which at one point, in the round, "Old Joe has gone fishing,"
he almost overcomes musically singlehanded. There is no other relationship
so important in the opera: the boy doesn't utter a word; and
Ellen-well, as we have seen, marriage with her is out of the question,
and her parental response when she discovers a bruise on the boy's neck
prompts her to a judgment which Peter can only interpret as desertion.
The failure of their relationship leads to another and crucial step in
Peter's decline. It is expressed musically in the second most important
motive in the opera, a downward thrusting figure in which Peter, so to
speak, accepts his fate (example 1.3).

But the break with Ellen is only symbolic of his final capitulation to
the values and judgment of society at large, a point ironically underscored
by the final "Amen" of the Borough at prayer. The congregation
emerges, and starts a different chant: "Grimes is at his exercise"-set to
the very notes of Peter's self-surrender. Is it quite clear at this point why
the Borough people are so incensed? Clearly no one but Ellen combines
moral fervor with sufficient human warmth to be unduly concerned
about the misfortunes of a workhouse brat. It is Peter himself who rivets
their hypocritical attention. He is an outsider not merely because of the
unpleasant sides of his personality either, but because he is "different"-a
difference accounted for on the surface level of the plot by his visionary
side. His difference of nature-proud, aloof, rough and visionary-poses
some sort of threat to the narrow ordered life of society struggling
for existence against the sea, and therefore he is subjected to persecution,
which is part of the ritual societies devise, whether subtly or in this case
brutally, to maintain the bounds of what is socially acceptable.

The action of such a society upon an individual or minority in such a
manner is simply stated as oppression. The word is overworked, but there
is nothing better to describe the essence of a tragedy conceived long before
the writings of the 1960s taught us the mechanics of the phenomenon outside
purely political spheres. The dramatic treatment of this subject in earlier
ages tended-as in, say, Milton or Handel's Samson-to dwell on the
heroic aspects of the destructive but ennobling anger it can generate. But the
anger of the nonheroic Peter is directed not toward some cataclysmic showdown with
the crowd, but more dangerously against the defenseless boy, and
still more dangerously, against himself. The moment when oppression becomes
crippling and leads to tragedy is when it is accepted and internalized.
And once we hear Peter falling under the spell of the Borough's values, we
know that he embraces his own oppression and sets his soul on that slippery
path toward self-hatred that causes the destruction of the individual.

First, it cuts off his means of escape: he is rooted, not only "by familiar
fields, marsh and sand," as he admits to Balstrode in Act I, but also "by
the shut faces of the Borough clans." Second, it leads him to think he can
vindicate himself by making money, setting up as a respectable merchant,
and even more unrealistically by marrying Ellen. Balstrode perceives
clearly enough that a new start with a new apprentice will lead only to the
old tragedy again, and Peter's acceptance of this unpalatable truth an act
later is the pivotal moment of the drama (see example 1.3). And yet the
most terrifying dramatic realization of his self-hatred is reserved for the
last scene when, after recalling fragments from the opera in his delirium,
he catches the sound of his persecutors calling his name through the fog.
The Borough by this time has become a surrealistic caricature of itself as
an oppressive society engaged in that ultimate fantasy of the oppressed-the
manhunt. And Peter's response is to shout back at them, not abuse,
but his own name-first in anger, but then as his energy subsides, in the
self-loathing that longs for dissolution and death. On the appearance of
Ellen and Balstrode he curls up, as it were, into the womb-like state he
associates with Ellen in his fantasy, and sings the melody first heard just
before the Storm Interlude in Act I. This time the optimistic orchestral
accompaniment is replaced by the fog-wreathed voices of his distant
hunters, and he completes the descent from the rising ninth previously
left unresolved.

Easily unnoticed, but highly significant, is the staccato figure (example
1.4) separating the lyrical arcs-modified in this last statement to emphasize
the pathetic minor seconds more strongly. It is audibly an inversion
of the angry crowd's motive in the courtroom Prologue. Bearing in
mind that Britten combines an unconscious melodic gift with a highly
conscious and responsible working-out of thematic connections, this can
be taken not merely as a sign of Grimes's alienation but as a musical clue
to his perverse relationship with the Borough through the inverting and
turning inward of the outward forces of oppression. The true tragedy of
Grimes, then, can be heard in his most eloquent moment of fantasy.

With this in mind, we can return to the question of why critics like
Shawe-Taylor tend to be so uncomfortable about Grimes. Hans Keller
provides one answer by observing that there is something of a Grimes in
each one of us, though most have outgrown or outwitted him to the extent
that they cannot or will not recognize him (105). Perhaps there is a
more specific reason. The situation that gives rise to the oppression of
Grimes-poverty and the nineteenth-century British apprentice system-is
hardly relevant to opera-going audiences today, and it is consequently
underplayed in the libretto. Instead, Peter's dreaming, visionary
side is played up. We can safely take him as a symbol and the story as an
allegory.

(Continues...)





Excerpted from Music and Sexuality in Britten
by Philip Brett
Copyright © 2006 by The Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface
George Haggerty
Introduction
Susan McClary

1. Britten and Grimes
2. “Grimes Is at His Exercise”: Sex, Politics, and Violence in the Librettos of Peter Grimes
3. Grimes and Lucretia
4. Salvation at Sea: Britten’s Billy Budd
5. Character and Caricature in Albert Herring
6. Britten’s Bad Boys: Male Relations in The Turn of the Screw
7. Britten’s Dream
8. Eros and Orientalism in Britten’s Operas
9. Keeping the Straight Line Intact? Britten’s Relation to Folksong, Purcell, and His English Predecessors
10. Pacifism, Political Action, and Artistic Endeavor
11. Auden’s Britten
12. The Britten Era

Afterword
Jenny Doctor
Appendix: Philip Brett’s Britten Scholarship
Works Cited
Index

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