Why I’m not signing the petition to reinstate Pears’ name to the Britten Foundation

Dropping Benjamin Britten’s partner’s name Pears from a soon to be merged organisation managing the composer’s estate has caused people to get hot under the collar. But it’s not evidence of ‘straight-washing’.

First, the issue.

There’s a petition doing the rounds. It was reported in Gay Star News. Also in the East Anglian Daily Times.

The Britten-Pears Foundation is merging with Snape Maltings in a business development which should really have happened years ago and which benefits both the Britten estate, the Aldeburgh Festival and the Snape operation.

But there’s a problem: the new name for the organisation post-merger isn’t the Britten-Pears Foundation like it used to be, but the Benjamin Britten Foundation.

Gay men are up in arms, so too a number of straight people.

Why? Because Pears – Britten’s lifelong partner and creative muse – isn’t referenced in the future-focussed branding.

A few people registered surprise, some unease (myself included) when the announcement was made. But a few others have run with it, set up a petition. That kind of thing.

The claim? That Britten’s homosexuality is being ‘straight-washed’. The petition’s originator is clear that he doesn’t think that was the intent , but still the claims are made. Dropping Peter Pears from the name of Britten’s estate is evidence of ‘straight-washing’.

Ben Baglio, from Aldeburgh, who launched the petition added: “Britten and Pears’ relationship meant a huge amount to gay people everywhere.
“They were an ‘out’ couple in an era where it was illegal. It seems a bizarre decision to me.”

East Anglian Daily Times, 19 April 2019

Just so that we’re clear, Britten and Pears were far from an ‘out’ couple when the pair were alive. Being ‘out’ as we know it today would have been regarded as a massive risk.

That they lived together was something of an open secret and a reflection of local attitudes relaxing at the time. But being out would have risked arrest.

In addition, speak to anyone who lived in the town when Britten and Pears were alive and stories would be recounted with predictable dewy eyes. Both of the men would have been described as ‘friends’. A running joke ensued amongst the students who visited the Britten-Pears School in the late nineties: a local euphemism begging for ridicule.

As a gay man myself you’d surely expect me to be signing up, banging the drum and making arrangements for the march. Maybe I’m just a shit homosexual. Maybe I’m letting the side down.

But Pears isn’t being ‘dropped’. His name, role, or equivalence isn’t being exorcised. He’s not being overlooked. Noone’s being denied.

Leading on Britten’s name isn’t evidence of low-level homophobia. The two organisations are merging. Implicit in that is the assumption that at some point even Britten’s name will drop from the name.

As far as I can see, what Snape and Aldeburgh need to do is raise the profile of Britten. They need to drive more people to the location the composer adopted as home. Of course, Pears plays a crucial part in Britten’s output and his worldwide reputation, but the likes of Snape and Britten Foundation aren’t selling their product to those in the know, whether they’re classical music enthusiasts, experts or locals.

They’re reaching out to the people who haven’t considered visiting Britten’s home, or the Snape Maltings site. Those people are going to be unaware of who Britten was, and by extension completely unaware of who Pears, his partner, was.

And sure, whilst Pears inspired much of Britten’s work, his legacy – his estate – is Britten’s achievement, fuelled by various muses of which Peter Pears was undoubtedly his most significant. Not featuring Pears in an organisation’s name isn’t a conspiracy, isn’t homophobia, and doesn’t need a petition to turn around either.



5 thoughts to “Why I’m not signing the petition to reinstate Pears’ name to the Britten Foundation”

  1. Ok, so here’s the thing. We live in a time when rationalising, slimming down, clarifying and converging is all the rage, and sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it changes the real truth of something important that needs to be protected. . I gather this whole name change thing is all about differentiating from “BPF” to something else, as BPF has obviously already been used and they need to find something different. But there simply MUST be another way to keep their names together and honour the real history and truth of their lives.
    We live in a world where truth seems to be be increasingly cheap and dispensable, and everyone simply autocorrects to new truths every day, maybe every hour.-a Trumpian Dystopian reality if you like..
    But the reality of. Britten and Peter is that they were a TEAM. They could apparently be quite destructive, but actually they lifted each other up and lifted so very many of us up. Those of us, including yourself, who know and love the organisation and respect the truth of how it was formed know that Britten and Pears are inseparable names because of the reality of the truth of their lives. I’m sad to see you accepting this change and I urge you, with deep respect, to think again.

    1. Thanks for posting Nick. I appreciate you taking the time. So many people don’t. Sometimes it can feel like shouting into a void.

      From a personal perspective – and this may shock you though that isn’t the intent – it’s always been about Britten for me. Pears has been there of course. The love between them was evident in the imagery I’ve pored over (as I imagine you have too). I acknowledge Pears role, but also seen Britten as the dominant force. I don’t for a moment think that is the thinking behind the name change. My hunch is that its a legal consequence.

      I suspect my stance on this – and remember I was uneasy about it in my first post – is rooted in my personal experience now. I have always resisted change. It’s always resulted in a level of unhappiness which is difficult to bear. So I hold my hands up and admit that having confronted the ‘thing’ I’ve always resisted – the idea of change – I now prefer change. I look for the benefits of it. I try to see how others have arrived at this particular position.

      1. I also want to push back on the ‘slimming down is all the rage’ point. We live in a time post-financial crash (still!) when the money that was previously available isn’t now. I felt that shift at the BBC when the pensions scandal effectively led to the sale of various BBC assets in its estate and ultimately to the sell-off of various production divisions which weren’t functioning as efficiently as licence fee payers expected. There simply wasn’t the money available there once was. Converging was a strategy for preserving.

        I don’t write to justify the BBC’s strategic decisions nor the BPF’s or Snape’s. But isn’t it possible that convergence is a good thing?

        1. In my first post I said this”We live in a time when rationalising, slimming down, clarifying and converging is all the rage, and sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it changes the real truth of something important that needs to be protected.”
          This changes the truth and is an answer to a problem that just needs more thought and a different outcome.

      2. But John, it’s not about the love, it’s about honouring the reality of their joint achievement. Nobody is asking for Peter Grimes to be renamed as having been written by Britten and Pears, but surely the school, the Festival and the organisation itself must reflect how it was created, and how Britten would have wanted them to have been.
        The music stands on its own. The Foundation is the joint work of Britten and Pears and I would venture to say that it would not exist in the same way had Britten not had Pears.

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