How did a 1945 opera about events in 1830 lead to a lecture in 1976 that eventually sparked the creation of a new fellowship helping 21st-century grad students?
As World War II came to a close, the first production of Peter Grimes was staged in London. It came to be recognized as the operatic masterwork of its composer, Benjamin Britten, who described the tale of a Suffolk fisherman accused of killing his apprentice as “the struggle of the individual against the masses.”
Britten died in 1976. At a meeting that year of the American Musicological Society and in a scholarly article the following year, Berkeley music professor Philip Brett explored the interface between Britten’s sexual identity and his music — and ripped the veneer off the “don’t ask, don’t tell” of its time. Britten’s homosexuality was widely known but simply not mentioned in public or in academic contexts until Brett candidly examined its influence.
What Brett did in that lecture kick-started the entire field of musical scholarship about, and by, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, says Davitt Moroney Ph.D. Music ’80 one of Brett’s former graduate students. Brett, who was gay, died in 2002 after a long career at Berkeley and two other UC campuses. His influence is still strong, according to Moroney, who is gay and is a highly distinguished musicologist and Berkeley faculty member in his own right. Brett’s initial lecture and paper took bravery, Moroney says, and his actions “gave many of us the courage to come out in the 1970s, when it was not easy.” Brett remains a role model for students who might otherwise remain in the closet lest their careers suffer.
Brett’s specialty was Elizabethan music, but in studying Britten he examined the oppression the composer suffered when being gay in England was illegal and conviction meant a long prison sentence.
After Brett died of cancer in 2002, Moroney decided to help launch a fund in memory of his mentor, colleague, and friend, in order to support LGBT research on this campus. Joining him in spearheading the effort were fellow members of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the LGBT Community at Cal.
Now, more than three decades after Britten’s death and Brett’s milestone lecture and paper, and seven years from Brett’s own death, there are hundreds of scholars across the country actively doing LGBT-related research. And thanks to Moroney and many others, the Berkeley campus has its first fellowship endowment specifically designed to support LGBT-related research by grad students studying in any field.
The Brett fund was initially announced on the website of Berkeley’s main LGBT staff and faculty network, LavenderCal, and in under two months it had surpassed $10,000 in gifts, which meant it could be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Chancellor’s Challenge for Student Support. That was in 2009. Since then, contributions have been arriving steadily from staff, faculty, alumni, undergraduates, and graduate students, and their partners, both LGBT and not, and the fund has more than quadrupled.
More information about the fund is available at lavendercal.berkeley.edu; donations may be made at givetocal.berkeley.edu (search for “Brett”).