PREVIEW: Queer Talk: Homosexuality in Britten’s Britain

Besi Besemar December 10, 2016

Britten and Pears at the Old Mill, Snape, c. 1943: (c) Britten-Pears Foundation

New exhibition will profile the life and creative output of Benjamin Britten, one of the twentieth century’s finest composers, during the period of social change that led to the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Queer Talk: Homosexuality In Britten’s Britain will take place at The Red House, the home in Suffolk that the composer shared with the tenor Peter Pears – his muse, collaborator, recital partner and lover for 39 years.

The house was one of a number relisted earlier this year by Historic England in recognition of its role in LGBT+ history and is now home to the Britten-Pears Foundation, which welcomes visitors to experience its special sense of place.

Britten and Pears at Kebajoren, Djakarta, Jan 1956
Britten and Pears at Kebajoren, Djakarta, Jan 1956

Throughout most of Britten’s life, homosexuality was illegal and socially stigmatised. Queer Talk will focus on two extraordinary works that Britten created against a backdrop of widespread debate on homosexuality: the 1951 all-male opera Billy Budd (1951), and the extended solo vocal work Canticle I ‘My beloved is mine and I am his’ (1947) an open declaration of Britten’s love for Pears and a work they performed together.

The exhibition will explore the social climate of the 1950s, as well as drawing comparisons between the experience of Britten and Pears with other high-profile figures who found their personal lives at odds with the law of the time. Letters by Alan Turing, manuscripts and edits of EM Forster’s homoerotic novel Maurice and photographs of Noël Coward and his long-term companion Graham Payn will be displayed.

Exhibition curator Lucy Walker, said: “Unlike other men in their situation, Britten and Pears didn’t face arrest (although there were rumours that Britten was interviewed by Scotland Yard in 1953) and, to some, their relationship was an ‘open secret’, particularly as Britten composed so much and so openly for his male ‘muse’ and on the subject of male love. But before 1967, having been together nearly 30 years, it would have been impossible for them to admit in public they were a couple, and they remained discreet on that matter even after then.

“The Queer Talk exhibition presents the situation facing Britten and Pears in the 1950s and 1960s, and looks at how Britten in particular kept resolutely quiet on the subject of his private life but at the same time produced a number of works that—to modern eyes—seem to be obviously homoerotic in subject matter.

“Britten and Pears lived through an extraordinary period of change in social attitudes towards homosexuality, and that change continues today; we hope that visitors to the exhibition will find the circumstances surrounding their personal and creative partnership allow a deeper understanding of their incredible legacy.”

Homosexual acts between men had been illegal since the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, with arrests and prosecutions increasing after World War II. By the mid 1950s, more than 1,000 men were in prison in England and Wales.

Britten and Pears in Dilidjan, Armenia, August 1965
Britten and Pears in Dilidjan, Armenia, August 1965: (c) Britten-Pears Foundation

After a number of high-profile prosecutions, the government set up a departmental committee under Sir John Wolfenden to review the law. The publication of his report in 1957 prompted much debate and a wide range of responses, which the exhibition will depict through contemporary local and national newspaper cuttings, local police reports and television programmes.

The exhibition will also feature a 7-metre timeline charting Britten’s significant relationships, his ‘queer’ compositions and the progress of LGBT rights from the 1900s to the present day.

Queer Talk will run from the February 1 to October 28, 2017 alongside a programme of special events and activities across Aldeburgh. They will include study days and recitals at Britten and Pears’ home, The Red House, Aldeburgh, as well as collaborations with LGBT+ History Month, the international Aldeburgh Music Festival, Aldeburgh Cinema and Poetry in Aldeburgh.

Britten and Pears near Snape Maltings, May 1975
Britten and Pears near Snape Maltings, May 1975: (c) Britten-Pears Foundation

Event: QUEER TALK: Homosexuality in Britten’s Britain

Where: The Red House, Golf Lane, Aldeburgh, IP15 5PZ

When: February 1 to October 28, 2017


Low Season: The Studio, Library, exhibition rooms and Gardens will be open from: Wednesday February 1 – Monday, March 27: Tuesday to Friday, 1pm – 4pm

High Season: The Red House and the whole site opens to the public from: Tuesday March 28 – Saturday October 28 Tuesday to Saturday, 1pm – 5pm

The Red House is open for free-flow viewing from 2.30pm (last entry 4.30pm) with guided tours available at 2pm (book in advance) except during the Aldeburgh Music Festival

For more information, click here: