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  • Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays
  • Heather Wiebe (bio)
Philip Brett: Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays, ed. George E. Haggerty, introduction by Susan McClary, afterword by Jenny DoctorBerkeley: University of California Press, 2006295 pages, $60.00, £38.95 (hardcover); $24.95, £15.95 (paperback)

Philip Brett's untimely death in 2004 was a great loss to the musicological world. That loss was compounded by the fact that he had been set to write a long-awaited book on the music of Benjamin Britten, of which his incisive entry in the New Grove Dictionary served notice. In its place we have this lovingly compiled set of essays, bringing together a representative sample of his work on Britten, from a groundbreaking interpretation of Peter Grimes in 1977 to a 2001 talk on the composer's relationship with Auden. The volume makes for a powerful record of Brett's contribution to Britten criticism and to musicological approaches to sexuality in general. It is difficult for us now to recover the pioneering character of his work, but the 1977 essay—published a year after the composer's death—broke a more or less total silence on issues of sexual orientation in Britten's music.1 The relevance of a composer's sexuality to any reading of his operas was especially clear in Britten's case and was crucial to the development of the "music and sexuality" [End Page 130] debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s, debates which Susan McClary recalls somewhat nostalgically in her introduction. Brett's work—rarely polemical, always subtle and closely argued, firmly rooted in clear biographical evidence and musical readings—emerges as some of the most enduring to come out of those debates. In part, this is because he insisted on a relationship between Britten's music and his sexuality that was not entirely direct. To deal in easy equations, Brett said, would diminish Britten's achievement: his searching exploration of the social and political implications of homosexual experience.

The twelve short essays in this volume deal mainly with Britten's operas. While the later essays tend to be synthetic, addressing broad themes in his life and music, seven focus on individual operas, including Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd, The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Of these, it is Peter Grimes that most captures Brett's imagination. The subject of three essays, this opera also heavily informs readings of the others. In "Britten and Grimes" (1977), he constructs around Peter Grimes a notion of "internalized oppression," an idea drawn from Dennis Altman's 1973 study Homosexual Oppression and Liberation. Brett writes, "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" (18). "Internalized oppression" remains a theme through the last writings in this volume (especially in "Pacifism, Political Action, and Artistic Endeavor" from 2001) as well as in Brett's New Grove entry on the composer. This is not, though, to suggest that he provides a one-dimensional account of Britten's career—far from it. He identifies significant shifts: in the early 1950s, a move from "the oppression/liberation theme" to both the workings of the closet—issues of secrecy and the unsayable—and the "dynamics of power within social relationships" (112, 114); after the War Requiem, a severe and inward-turning phase (with which Brett was less concerned [124]); and a return to opera and the themes of the closet in the late operas, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice. Nonetheless, for Brett, Britten's sense of victimization and his concern with the mechanics of oppression remain central.

When Brett turns to musical detail, the notion of "internalized oppression" becomes especially useful as a pivot between biographical and musical readings. His critical method is elegantly straightforward, working through characterizations and plot events with attention to thematic manipulations and tonal relationships, particularly in the earlier...


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