Queer Talk: Homosexuality in Britten's Britain
1 February – 28 October 2017
An exhibition exploring the gay composer's life and work takes place in the house that he shared with his muse, collaborator, recital partner and lover, Peter Pears.
Sadly for Benjamin Britten, for most of his life homosexuality was illegal and – even after the law was changed in 1967 – socially stigmatised. Yet, in spite of this, in 1947 he composed an extended solo vocal work, Canticle I 'My beloved is mine and I am his', which he performed with his partner, the singer Peter Pears. He followed this in 1951 with the opera Billy Budd, with an all-male cast, which modern audiences may recognise as having homoerotic overtones.
Unlike other men in their situation (more than 1,000 homosexual men had been put in prison by the mid 1950s), Britten and Pears did not face arrest, although there were rumours that Britten was interviewed by Scotland Yard in 1953. However, with Britten bravely showcasing works like these, and as the pair fairly openly cohabited, their relationship became something of an open secret. They chose not to out themselves after the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, but in an interview after Britten's death Pears made it quite clear they had been a couple.
Britten's pioneering compositions are the subject of this exhibition which explores the social climate that surrounded their creation. It is shown at the home Britten shared with Pears for over 39 years in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, which was relisted by Historic England in 2016 in recognition of its role in LGBTQ history.
Th exhibition draws comparisons between Britten and Pears' experience and that of other high-profile gay figures. On display are 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. Art from Britten and Pears' collection of work by gay artists is also on display, including works by Duncan Grant, John Craxton and David Hockney.