'We are after all queer & left & conshies [conscientious objectors]which is enough to put us, or make us put ourselves, outside the pale, apart from being artists as well." So wrote tenor Peter Pears to his lifetime companion Benjamin Britten in 1963 -- somewhat disingenuously, since by that time neither Britten's politics nor his homosexuality had prevented him from rising to the top of the British musical establishment.
Critics and scholars squabbled over Britten's worth throughout his lifetime, but they all assumed that art was beyond sex. Within a year of his death in 1976, however, a tense debate about the artistic implications of Britten's love of men and boys had begun.
A quarter-century later, Britten resembles Patroclus in The Iliad: He's the body in the middle of the field that everyone's fighting over. As of now, the advantage seems to have passed to gay and lesbian scholars who see Britten as perhaps the most important figure in the gay history of classical music.
The revisionists scored a major coup two years ago, with the publication of the august New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (second edition).In an essay twice the length of Peter Evans's entry in the first New Grove, Philip Brett examined the composer's entire career through the prism of his sexual identity (Brett also co-wrote a new entry on gay and lesbian musicology).
The operas above all have become exhibits for the case that Britten's sexuality, and his related sense of shame and injustice, affected not just his choice of texts and subjects but also key aspects of his music. The debate has spilled into the opera house, where some performances of Peter Grimes or Death in Venice now flaunt the sexual energies that Britten never dared to express openly.
A recent Covent Garden production of The Turn of the Screw, for instance, ended with a dying kiss between the boy Miles and Quint, one of the malevolent adult ghosts who spend the opera trying to control Miles and his sister Flora. The gesture seemed to endorse Brett's assertion in The New Grove that the opera "directly explore[s]child sexuality and homoeroticism," and their repression in Victorian England. (Brett, who wrote the notes to a new Virgin Classics recording of the production, describes the opera as Britten's "richest in dramatic tension and personal allusion.")
Other producers have held firm to Arnold Whittall's claim (in 1982) that the opera contains "no significant public resonance or social perspectives." Christopher Newton, stage director of the Canadian Opera Company production of The Turn of the Screw opening in Toronto on Tuesday, said he believes homoeroticism has nothing to do with the piece.
"I don't see that as the centre of it at all," he said. "The ghosts are trying to relive their [heterosexual]passion, and they do it through the children. . . . In my mind, the children have watched Quint and Jessel. They know more than they should. . . .
"When you deal with a genius like Britten, every aspect of his life and creative work is of interest. But [homosexuality]is something that he lived with, not that he was necessarily dealing with in his work."
Strict separation between the art and the life was the norm in cultural scholarship a few decades ago, and the tradition lodged deeper in music than in visual art or literature. Identity politics and postmodern critical theory caught up with the scene only during the nineties, as gay and feminist scholars began to exert upon Western art music the kind of broad social analysis formerly reserved for music from non-Western cultures.
"Classical music -- no less than pop -- is bound up with issues of gender construction and the channelling of desire," writes Susan McClary in Queering the Pitch, a mid-nineties anthology of essays about gay and lesbian musicology. In Britten's case, according to the new view, desire was prohibited both by law (homosexual acts were illegal in England) and by internalized repression. The composer's shame, and his idealization of the innocence lost with the end of childhood, made him sensitive to wounded innocents of all kinds -- but especially when the victims were young and boyish. Hence his attraction to operatic sources such as Herman Melville's Billy Budd and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, whose schoolboy hero expires (in the novella) with "the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss."
The public sexualization of Britten by scholars as prominent as McClary and Brett (a renowned authority on English renaissance music) represents a nightmare come true for those who have spent decades grooming the composer's image as an Everyman sort of genius. It has also shredded the genteel tissue of euphemism that allowed even the frankly homoerotic lust of Death in Venice to be described in asexual ("Dionysian") terms only.
It remains to be seen whether Brett's claims (hailed in The Daily Telegraph as "astounding gobbledegook" by Britten biographer Michael Kennedy) about the musical import of the construction of Britten's sexual identity are as extensive as advertised. Unfortunately, Brett's work on a book-length study of Britten's operas was cut short by his death last month of cancer, a day shy of his 65th birthday.
At the very least, the new scholarship has given us a compelling alternative view of the man The New York Times called the most important musician of the 20th century. The genial establishment figure has been redrawn as a secret subversive, toiling from within to expose the cruelty and hypocrisy of a social order to which he couldn't help but submit. This Britten looks to be a close cousin of Dmitri Shostakovich, who also gave the appearance of knuckling under (to Stalin) while loading his works with symbols of resistance. In both cases, you don't have to analyze the scores to feel the sense of injustice stirring within them, as their makers raged beyond words against trials they did not deserve.
The Canadian Opera Company's sold-out production of The Turn of the Screw opens Tuesday at the DuMaurier Theatre Centre in Toronto.