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How classical music is finally taking Pride in its LGBT+ composers

The Barbican's Classical Pride is the first mainstream event to celebrate the achievements of LGBTQ+ composers, despite classical music owing them a massive debt

Pears and Britten outside Crag House with their dog Jove as a puppy. Photographer: unknown

Pears and Britten outside Crag House with their dog Jove as a puppy. Photographer: unknown

Two immaculately dressed men, both sporting tailored tweed jackets – one wearing a cravat, the other in a knitted roll-neck – are caught on camera in an uncharacteristically casual pose. The taller man, hair swept off of his face by a breeze, cuddles a miniature dachshund, gazing affectionately towards her bright eyes. The next man looks directly at the lens, his expression relaxed.

The picture is black and white; the story is colourful: here are Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Clytie the sausage dog, shown at their home in Suffolk around 1954. If Clytie was on TikTok today, her posts would be about her dads getting ready for the next Aldeburgh Festival and the latest musical star to have called in for tea. But despite their decades-long relationship that began in 1939, the composer and tenor never directly addressed this family life in public, focusing instead on their on-stage partnership. That’s because until 1967, homosexual acts were a criminal offence – and mainstream social acceptance was a distant dream.

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Nevertheless, as one of England’s star composers, Britten found an artistic space in which to creatively explore and support his romantic life, writing dozens of songs for Pears, as well as operas that gave him leading roles. Britten’s music is performed everywhere, but nowhere does it have more impact than in Aldeburgh, where the duo established an annual festival in 1948. This year’s instalment (9-25 June) includes a song trail (14 June), taking audiences on a promenade around the town, marking Britten’s dalliances with cabaret and sacred poetry. The morning culminates with a recital by Roderick Williams, fresh from his appearance at the coronation, where he sang Confortare, arranged by John Rutter, and provided his own piece, Be Thou My Vision – Triptych for Orchestra.

Britten’s 1940 song cycle Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo was among the first music dedicated to Pears. It is the centrepiece of Welsh tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s new album Unveiled (out 23 June), a programme featuring poetry and music by LGBTQ+ artists that will be performed in concert (29 June) as part of Wigmore Hall’s Pride event. “The final two sonnets are a huge outpouring of eternal love – I’m singing them in an English translation by Jeremy Sams and the effect is immediate,” says Thomas, “You only have to read some of the letters between Pears and Britten to know how much they loved each other.” [Correspondence was published in 2016’s My Beloved Man: The Letters of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears; the title refers to a note Britten wrote in 1942.]

The collection also includes the world-premiere recording of Ruth Gipps’ Four Songs of Youth, set to texts by Rupert Brooke and music by Llŷr Thomas using poems by Andrew McMillan – who was inspired by Matthew Bourne’s all-male production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – and Songs for Achilles by Michael Tippett. “That cycle is unambiguously homoerotic,” says Thomas, “Tippett had already written a gay relationship in [his opera] The Knot Garden, so he was bold artistically, despite personal struggles.”

Pride celebrations have taken place across the UK since the first British Gay Pride Rally was held in London in 1972. But although queer composers and musicians have obviously contributed to music ever since humans first started making sound art, the Barbican’s Classical Pride (7 July) is the first event to expressly mark their achievements.

Nick Grimshaw will present a concert curated by conductor Oliver Zeffman, featuring pianist Pavel Kolesnikov (who also has an Aldeburgh Festival residency this year), Nicky Spence and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with works including Bernstein’s Candide overture, Caroline Shaw’s Is a Rose and Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, performed by Kolesnikov and his partner – on stage and off – Samson Tsoy. All proceeds from the concert will go to the Terrence Higgins Trust, Amplifund and Rainbow Railroad.

Aldeburgh Festival runs 9-25 June. Wigmore Hall Pride Event is on 23 June. Barbican Classical Pride is on 7 July.

Listen to… John Corigliano: Complete Solo Piano Music by Philip Edward Fisher

John Corigliano album cover

From his first symphony referencing the Aids crisis, to the soundtrack to the 1998 drama The Red Violin, John Corigliano’s etched melodies and precise splashes of colour have inspired a generation of composers. His complete solo piano music has just been recorded by Philip Edward Fisher – with the Albany Symphony Orchestra appearing on the dramatic 1968 concerto. Fisher balances the excited, visceral explosions with delicate lyricism throughout.

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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