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Benjamin Britten’s home to open for exhibition on his ‘secret’ gay life

Nick Duffy December 8, 2016

The home that renowned composer Benjamin Britten shared with his partner of nearly four decades is set to be opened for an exhibition marking the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Earlier this year, the government granted landmark status to a number of sites due to their significance to the history of LGBTQ people in England.

One of them was Red House, the Suffolk home that composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, shared from 1957 until Britten’s death in 1976. Pears continued to live there until his death in 1986.

 

The Red House, which is now operated by the Britten-Pears Foundation, today announced a new exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Throughout nearly all of Britten’s life, homosexuality was illegal and socially stigmatised.

Queer Talk: Homosexuality In Britten’s Britain will reflect on the composer’s work, focusing on two pieces 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.”

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 1 February to 28 October 2017. A number of special event will take place across the year.

More: benjamin britten, composer, Gay, Music, musician, Television

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