Gay American Composers and Benjamin Britten

Homosexual American Composers of the 20th Century

Due to their specified social circles, based on their sexual orientation, gay American composers of the 20th century were able to create a specific genre of their own that delved deeply into their desires and political turmoil, more so than most heterosexual composers of similar backgrounds.
Through my research I have come to discover that many of my favorite American composers were and are homosexual. Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Gian Carlo Menotti (Italian-born American), Francis Poulenc, and Stephen Sondheim are celebrated American composers who happen to also be gay. I believe that there is a connection between them due to their preferences. When people have a certain political belief, they tend to stick together; such as the democratic and republican parties. The same goes for religions. People of the same religion generally travel and inhabit areas in groups. Being gay is a type of culture, one that brings people closer due to their beliefs, personal feelings and in some cases, the inappropriate stigma against them.
When a group of people comes together, and the individual allows said group into their lives, the influence is apparent. If multiple artistic individuals come together, these individuals feed off of each other??™s talent, wisdom, philosophies and ideals. I believe that being a homosexual composer in the 20th century was an extremely difficult situation, and I believe that music by these gay American composers reflects a special type of vulnerability, but overall strength that was very rare back then. We truly see into the hearts of these composers because of their gay social influences.
Hubb??™s book, The Queer Composition of Americas Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity, starts of introducing Aaron Copland as ???America??™s most prominent composer???. That is a lofty title for any person to live up to. The introduction discusses the Army??™s praise of him as ???quintessentially American???. The Army was also aware of his Jewish heritage and his Russian immigrant parents; yet they are unsurprisingly close-lipped about his homosexuality. This sentiment reflects the two-faced disposition of the military. Gay people can be recognized if they end up being famous or are artistic entities, but if a person is romantically or sexually involved with someone of the same sex, they are banned from fighting for their country. The ???Don??™t Ask, Don??™t Tell??? will not allow people to fight, or include a person??™s sexuality in their autobiographical information. ???The composer celebrated here as a national treasure and nationalist figure, were he alive today, would be subject to dishonorable discharge from the institution that now brandishes- selectively, to be sure- the facts of his work, career, and life in its production of American patriotism and nationalism for the new millennium.??? (Hubbs, pg 2). It is fascinating how easily a society can accept certain facets of a person and ignore traits they dislike. From Britten to Copland, it is important to understand what makes these composers tick. Why did they write the way they did, and what were their influences and stories behind their greatest works Out of all of the aforementioned composers, Benjamin Britten chose a story with subject matter relatable to artists in his social network.
Benjamin Britten was and is a highly admired gay American composer. His list of
accomplishments includes composer, conductor, violinist, pianist and lover. He was a strong individual who was very true to who he was, openly proclaiming his love for Peter Pears, his lifetime partner. These two men were not only partners in love, but partners in art. While Britten was a prolific composer, Pears was a gifted tenor. A notable interpreter of Franz Schubert??™s Lieder, Pears almost always sang with Britten as his accompanist. This partnership lasted for thirty years; naught but their own deaths separated them. Even then, both musicians were buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul??™s Church in Aldeburgh, alongside each other. Despite all of Britten??™s strength, he was able to sympathize with artists who were repressed by society. Artists unable to burst forth with their inner most passions found solace in Britten??™s musical interpretation of Thomas Mann??™s novella, Death in Venice.
Death in Venice is a tale about the artist and the nature of art. The main character, tenor role Gustav von Aschenbach, written for Peter Pears, is an artist whom has always held his desires and passions in check. Aschenbach represents the repressed artist, a man who without acknowledging his passions is unable to create truly inspired art. On the other hand, if he allows all of his passion to burst forth all at once, the artist and the people around him might get burned. (Brett, pg 109). Aschenbach, while on a trip to Venice, starts to drop his guard as he takes in all of the romantic sights of the city. Then, his world comes
crashing down around him as he sets his eyes on a young boy by the name of Tadzio. Aschenbach is thrown from one end of the spectrum to the other, from the cerebral to the physical end; from pure form and thought to pure emotion and physicality. He has become a base individual.
Aschenbach is a wonderful example of a man brought to ruin by his muse. Obsessed, Aschenbach follows the young Tadzio everywhere he goes, tailing the boy and his family throughout the streets of Venice. He describes Tadzio in mythical terms; to Hyacinth and Narcissus, and likens him to Greek sculpture. As he continues to follow Tadzio, he becomes more and more maddened, realizing in a dream that he loves the young boy. Britten represents Aschenbach??™s madness and realization of his feelings exceptionally well through the orchestration in Aschenbach??™s dream.
In the dream-dance sequence, the character Tadzio, a young and voiceless dance role, dances around Aschenbach with multiple other young male dancers while Aschenbach looks on feverishly. The climax of the dream is reached in the implicit representation of the rape of Tadzio. (Mitchell, pg 135). This act is goaded on by the drums, rolling softly at first, and then erupting loudly in rhythmic abandon. Aschenbach can no longer contain himself and resolves to openly pursue Tadzio, while attempting to keep out of sight of the boy??™s mother. The use of drums represents the primitivism of man. Besides drums, woodwinds are used as consistent symbols of primordial chaos and pestilence. It is also no coincidence that when the truth of Aschenbach??™s feelings are realized in the words ???I love you!???, the orchestra responds to his claims with the most primitive and old practices in music; the drone. It is sustained on a woodwind instrument; a representation of the primitive reeds that man began to make music on. With these old world sounds, Britten embodies the archaic and base desires of an artist when he finally encounters his muse. It is maddening, and if not controlled properly, can lead to the artist??™s ruin.
When you feel the power behind Aschenbach??™s declaration of love in E major, there is no avoiding the declaration of love Britten is making to his partner Peter Pears. Since the role of Aschenbach was written for him, Pears was able to sing the words to Britten; words they spoke to each other time and time again. This is a very personal and romantic situation, when the words are taken out of context of the opera. It was very risky as a composer to write about such situations as love between two men, let alone the love of a man for a vastly underage, and male, recipient. This is a personal ???coming out??? drama, constructed around the aging author??™s abandoning himself to a vision of beauty embodied in an adolescent male; a beauty that he was unable to fully acknowledge, let alone enjoy before his death. (Brett, pg 125). I believe this is Britten??™s way of saying to Pears, ???I am so happy to be able to tell you that I love you, and happy that we have spent all of these years together, as partners and as each other??™s muses???.
Despite their love, it is intriguing how fascinated Britten was with the young male form. Britten was obsessed with the young male form, but that does not coincide with his
choice of partner. Pears was born 3 years before Britten; his senior throughout their days. Then why did Britten have such an interest in young men Was this a sentiment that he shared with his lover And if not, was it a trait of Britten??™s that Pears was displeased with Death in Venice was a way for Britten to express his latent pedophilic nature. Since the opera was based on a novella written by another man, he was not held accountable for any undertones in the text left by the author. He was able to sympathize with Aschenbach and give him a voice without becoming too vulnerable to the critical whispers of society.
In Death in Venice, it is easy to see which character Britten sympathizes with the most. While Aschenbach sings throughout the entire opera, without any prima donnas or competing baritones to sing over, he is always the center of attention as the protagonist. While Aschenbach is given a voice, the young boy Tadzio is unable to verbally express himself. He is solely represented as a piece of meat that prances around stage provocatively, then inwardly scorned by Aschenbach for being unattainable. Without any other characters to label as such, it is fitting to label Tadzio as the antagonist. He is preventing the protagonist from getting what he wants, but not of his own volition. Despite this, it is frustrating how the audience is given the opportunity to sympathize with a creature as base as Aschenbach, but cannot be given the chance to understand Tadzio??™s opinion of Aschenbach.
Throughout the opera, it is made obvious that Tadzio sees the older writer following him. The young boy even smiles at Aschenbach, which sends the writer into an orgiastic mindset. It is upsetting and heart-wrenching how the innocent acts of a young child can incite such passion in the twisted mind of a pedophilic artist; how a boy that most likely does not yet understand the concept of love, let alone the act of physical love, can be preyed upon by a much more knowledgeable and experienced man. Aschenbach is not put off by the boy??™s innocence; no, he is enthralled by it. In this work, Britten was putting a pedophile into favorable light. Why What was he trying to accomplish with this opera Perhaps this opera helped Britten with an attraction that he once felt. Incidentally, despite his older lover, Mitchell states, ???Death in Venice embodies unequivocally the powerful sexual drive that was Britten??™s towards the young (and sometimes very young) male. (Mitchell, pg 21). There is more to the mind of Benjamin Britten than meets the eye.