Philip Brett, a UCLA musicologist who shook the foundations of his discipline by advocating the importance of gender and sexuality in the study of music, died of cancer Oct. 16 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 64.
In 1976, Brett provoked the ire of traditionalists when he openly discussed the homosexuality of Benjamin Britten, one of 20th century England’s most prominent composers, arguing in lectures and a scholarly paper that Britten’s hidden sexual identity permeated his works.
Since then, many scholars have embraced Brett’s approach, giving rise to the field now known as the new musicology, a branch of scholarship that broadens the understanding of musical compositions through feminist, gender and cultural studies.
“He was the first person to discuss the relationship of musicality and homosexuality within a musicological venue,” said Byron Adams, chairman of the music department at UC Riverside. “It was radical and incredibly courageous.”
Brett also was an authority on the music of the English Renaissance, a Grammy-nominated choral conductor and an accomplished keyboardist.
Born in Edwinstowe, England, he was the son of a coal miner and a schoolteacher. Recognizing his musical abilities, his parents gave him piano lessons and enrolled him in a choir school when he was 7.
At 15, Brett went to Cambridge University, earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from King’s College. After he did research at UC Berkeley, he was invited to join its faculty in 1966. He would spend nearly all of his 36-year career in the UC system.
Shortly after he relocated to the United States, the contemporary gay rights movement was born during a 1969 riot at the Stonewall bar in New York City. Brett began a period of self-examination and, in 1973, came out as gay.
In 1976, when the American Musicological Society asked for papers about American music or European composers in America, he combined his musicological training and his newfound gay identity to write about Britten, who had composed one of his greatest operas, “Peter Grimes,” in California.
Although Britten had lived openly with tenor Peter Pears for many years, his homosexuality was treated as an open secret in music circles. It certainly was not considered a suitable topic for scholarly inquiry.
“No one could talk about this,” recalled UCLA musicologist Susan McClary, who, at the time, was trying to break new ground in feminist music criticism. “In the ‘70s, Philip started raising these issues, to the ire of the English. They were appalled.”
Brett’s critics, according to McClary, “said, ‘OK, maybe Britten is gay, but that can’t have anything to do with his music.’ Philip insisted it did. The stories Britten picked out and the way he delineated characters had to do with his conceptions of sexuality.”
Brett’s paper on Britten was rejected by a prominent journal, whose editor dismissed the piece as a personality study. It was finally published in 1977 by London’s Musical Times. The only editing change was to put “gay” in quotes -- “on the grounds,” Brett later told an interviewer, “that not all the readers would know the use of the word.”
Thirty years ago, his insistence on the importance of sexuality in understanding music caused some of Brett’s oldest friends to repudiate him. But he maintained his position and grew in stature, producing dozens of papers and several books on the topic.
Today, “Peter Grimes” is widely viewed as an allegory of the homosexual as outsider. In another sign of the sea change in musicology, young scholars eagerly debate the effects of sexual identity on the works of such musical geniuses as Schubert and Handel. And the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the reigning encyclopedia of classical music in the English language, now has a lengthy entry on gay and lesbian music, co-written by Brett.
“The closeting of Schubert is of a similar order as the papering over of Wagner’s anti-Semitism,” Brett wrote in an essay for “Queering the Pitch, the New Gay and Lesbian Musicology,” a 1994 volume he co-edited with Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas.
Brett also helped found the Gay and Lesbian Study Group of the American Musicological Society, which in 1996 established an annual award in his name to honor exceptional musicological work in the field of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and transsexual studies.
Brett spent 25 years at Berkeley before accepting an appointment at UC Riverside in 1991. Over the next decade, he was chairman of Riverside’s music department and served as dean of humanities, arts and social sciences. Last year, he accepted a position at UCLA.
While there, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete a book on Britten’s operas, which remains unfinished. He was considered the world’s foremost authority on Britten, about whom he wrote a highly praised, 26-page essay for the 2001 edition of the New Grove dictionary.
He also was known for his work on 16th century composer William Byrd. Brett was general editor of “The Byrd Edition,” a 20-volume collection of the composer’s music, and personally edited 10 of the volumes.
A gifted performer, Brett played the harpsichord and a small Renaissance organ. Principally a choral conductor, he won a Noah Greenberg Award in 1980 for his productions of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” and Jacopo Peri’s “Eurydice” and a Grammy nomination in 1991 for a recording of Handel’s “Susanna” with the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.
He is survived by his longtime partner, UC Riverside professor George Haggerty.
Memorial contributions may be sent to the Philip Brett Award in Lesbian and Gay Musicology, c/o American Musicological Society, 201 S. 34th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104-6313.