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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Benjamin  Britten

Benjamin Britten 1913to –1976

English composer and conductor, and one of the most prominent figures of 20th century British classical music, known for works such as the War Requiem and the opera Peter Grimes. He received his earliest music education from his mother, and wrote his first composition when he was five. He later attended the Royal College of Music, where his teachers were wary of him having too much technical skill. After graduating, Britten was hired to score a series of documentaries. There he met the poet W. H. Auden, who became an artistic mentor, and encouraged the rather orthodox Britten to be more accepting of his homosexuality. Two years later, in 1937, Britten met the tenor Peter Pears through a mutual friend, and in 1939, the relationship turned romantic. Though not very political, Britten had been a dedicated pacifist since childhood, and as World War II began stirring in Europe, he and Pears followed Auden to the United States. It wasn’t until reading a poem describing his hometown that Britten became homesick and decided to return to England, where he registered as a conscientious objector. The poem also inspired his first opera, Peter Grimes, which opened in 1945, and featured Pears in the lead role. It was a commercial and critical success, and credited with resuscitating the tradition of British opera. Britten’s reputation was cemented, and the work that followed included several operas, the popular Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and the founding of the Aldeburgh Festival which still runs today. Though successful in his time, Britten was excessively sensitive to criticism. He was known for cutting off ties completely with anyone who insulted or offended him, or ceased to be useful. But Britten’s “corpses” never included his partner Pears, for whom he wrote most of his works. And despite a threatening visit from the police in 1953, they were more or less permitted to live together openly. In 1962, Britten composed one of his best known works, the War Requiem, which featured Pears alongside a German baritone and a Russian soprano—though the soprano was barred from the premiere by the Soviet authorities who found the themes of world unity too controversial. One of Britten’s last works, Death in Venice, saw Pears performing a deeply personal opera that dealt with illness and repressed homosexuality. Britten died a few years later in Pears’ arms, having passed up a burial at Westminster Abbey so that he could eventually be interred alongside his partner.

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