Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Sound of Queer Music

Think of “gay” music and whose name springs to mind? Elton John? k d lang? Tchaikovsky? Philip Brett? Who?!

Tomorrow would have been Philip Brett’s 75th birthday. Sadly, he died ten years ago today, one day before his 65th birthday. In the world of musicology (the scientific study of music) Philip Brett (pictured right) was one of the most influential, pioneering and controversial scholars. A miner’s son from Edwinstowe in the heart of Sherwood Forest and a Southwell Minster chorister, Brett became the Professor of Musicology – the top tune tutor – at the University of California. He was even nominated for a Grammy award.

In 1976 he shocked the American Musicological Society (AMS) by saying during a lecture that Benjamin Britten’s homosexuality influenced his compositions. Some professors walked out saying his lecture was “pornography”. But today Brett’s work has become accepted and has influenced hundreds of scholars into researching the lgbt links and influences in the music of other composers and songwriters.

It was actually the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969 that was pivotal in Brett’s life and career. The riots sparked a blinding revelation, ignited by the sight of the abuse the Stonewall rioters received from the New York police. He wanted to do something. He recognised that society as a whole owes a great deal to the creative input from the lgbt community and here it was being persecuted and abused, so Brett, who was a member of the music faculty at the University of California at the time, decided to do two things which he thought would show both his support for lgbt rights and reveal to the musical world the contributions made by the lgbt community. These things were
1)      to come out publicly, and
2)      to begin research into the lgbt influences in music.

It was while studying at Cambridge (where he met and became friends with E. M. Forster) that Brett earned a one-year advanced graduate course at the University of California, Berkeley. After receiving his PhD he returned to Berkeley and stayed there for 24 years. He became Professor of Musicology in 1978.

What made him leave Berkeley was his wish to be with his partner since 1974, George Haggarty, who was Professor of English at the University of California’s campus at Riverside. Philip became Dean of Humanities at Riverside, and Distinguished Professor of Musicology the year before he died. Both Philip and George were members of the university’s lgbt group, LavendarCal.

The AMS, after recognising the academic value of Brett’s ideas and coming to terms with the concept of sexuality in music, asked him to found their Gay and Lesbian Study Group in 1989. In 1996 the Study Group instituted an award for the best publication or research paper on lgbt musicology. They named it the Philip Brett Award and is still awarded annually. Subjects of the winning publications range from Tchaikovsky to Dusty Springfield, and from opera to American vaudeville.

In June 2009 Davitt Moroney, one of Brett’s students (now a music professor at the same university himself), succeeded in gathering enough funds from Lavender Cal and other supporters to persuade the university to set up a new research fellowship into lgbt studies in any academic area. The fund is named after Brett.

Even though Brett’s reputation isn’t wide-spread, it still exerts an important influence on the development into how lgbt factors affect the arts. Davitt Moroney says there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be lgbt research into other sciences such as chemistry, physics or mathematics (ironically, there’s another Edwinstowe connection here, because Alan Turing’s father was also born there).

Philip Brett died of cancer at the age of 54 in 2002, leaving his partner of 28 years Professor George Haggarty.

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