Zach Castle

2/28/14

Alex Ross’s chapter on Benjamin Britten showcases several aspects of Britten’s life, his
childhood, and hinted at by the title, Peter Grimes. Let us begin with a specific aspect of
Britten’s life: his homosexual orientation and his contribution to the world of music, especially
that of composition. Ross argues that homosexual men account for a large amount of musical
composition of the last hundred years, being the 20th century to present. Ross focuses on this
aspect of Britten’s life and then gives more statistics of Britten’s homosexuality while relating it
to things such as classical music and gay culture, saying that opera dared to go where some
pop music wouldn’t in the early 20th century, and so forth. Some writers and biographers of
Britten’s life would not touch upon this topic, but it was a huge part of Britten’s life; after all his
partner, Peter Pears, helped him write many of his pieces for the opera Peter Grimes and some
of his other works. Revealing Britten’s homosexuality allows Ross to unveil many statistics that
he otherwise could not have. All in all, it can be said that Ross’s argument here is that his
sexual orientation did not prevent him from flourishing in the musical world, and in life in
general. This quote is evidence of Ross’s argument: “Much else about Britten was at odds with
Cold War social norms: his pacifism, his leftism, and especially his homosexuality.
Nonetheless, Britten succeeded in becoming a respected national figure, a focus of British
pride.”
I will now turn my attention to the relationship between Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich,
a famous composer who lived in the same era as Britten. Ross argues that Britten uses sounds
of Shostakovich, if you will, such as the “Lady Macbeth-like Passacaglia in Peter Grimes
shows.” Ross continues to talk about Shostakovich and his music, featuring specific pieces and
their properties, tying it all back to Britten’s Peter Grimes. This goes to show that friendships


that Britten made in the music world helped him out in his own compositional works. Even when
there is a language barrier it can be overcome, as in the case of Britten and Shostakovich.
Now back to the beginning of this chapter. In the beginning, Ross gives the history and
whereabouts that Britten’s Peter Grimes originated from. The landscape of the area in which
Britten was born and surrounded by, Aldeburgh, is reference, as well as the features of the
landscape. This is then tied into Britten’s speech in Aspen, Colorado in 1964 in which he said “I
want my music to be of use to people, to please them… I do not write for posterity.” Britten
wrote for the people which he was surrounded by, and the and the landscapes in which he was
born. Ross gives several examples of this in the chapter, and relates the music to the
landscapes, such as “The first orchestral interlude in Britten’s opera brings the coast to life.
High grace notes imitate the play of light on the water; booming brass chords approximate the
thudding of the waves. It is rich, expansive music…” Ross is clearly a fan of Britten, and quite
frankly, so am I.
All in all, Britten did not let his homosexuality hold him down from prosperity in life. He
wrote for his people, a humble act which many composers find difficult to do. Britten’s
friendships along the way and his life partner Peter Pears made him and his music what it came
to be, as well as his childhood and where he grew up.

Footnote:
This paper did not cover the entire paper as a whole, rather than points Ross made that I
feel are significant to Britten’s life as a whole. I hope you enjoyed what you read and
this paper is acceptable based on your criteria of the assignment. Have a great time in
London!

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