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.

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