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Philip Brett

Professor of Music

Berkeley, Los Angeles, Riverside



Philip Brett, distinguished professor of musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, died of cancer on October 16, 2002. He was a beloved member of three UC campus communities: Berkeley (1966-90), Riverside (1991-2001), and Los Angeles (2001-02), where, although he transferred only a year before his death, he and his work were already well known, and where several of his former students teach. He was an iconic figure in American musicology at large for his pioneering work on gay/lesbian issues.


Born in the English Midlands, a choirboy at Southwell Cathedral and a choral scholar and Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge University (1963-66), Brett came under the spell of Thurston Dart, the most influential British musicologist of his generation. His first publications were revisions, with Dart, of volumes from E. H. Fellowes’ complete—though never very scholarly—edition of English madrigals. Editing became a lifetime passion which he pursued with increasing expertise. On a traveling fellowship from 1962 to 1963, he studied briefly at Berkeley with Joseph Kerman, long enough to ground a relationship of inestimable mutual value that flourished after Brett joined the Department of Music in 1966. A stellar teacher and a supremely gifted musician, he played harpsichord and viols—and piano four-hands, as he tells us, unforgettably, in a wide-ranging, now classic essay on Schubert’s Grand Duo.


While a student, Brett tracked 50-odd scattered Elizabethan/Jacobean music manuscripts to a single documented scriptorium, and identified anonymous songs for voice and viols preserved in one MS. as late works of William Byrd. Thus his Cambridge doctoral dissertation disclosed an entirely unknown Spätstil repertory of a canonical composer. The genre itself was little known before he edited the whole corpus in Musica Britannica (1967); Byrd’s own songs he edited separately (1970). Among his many, often brilliant contributions to our knowledge of Byrd and other Tudor composers, one tour de force may be mentioned: his reconstitution of the six-part madrigal “Let Others Praise” from just three surviving broadside pages.


When Dart died, leaving the old Byrd edition in an incomplete and unsatisfactory state of revision, Brett took on the general editorship of a new Gesamtausgabe, notably refining principles of the scholarly editing of music in the 10 volumes he undertook himself. He had projected a monograph on Byrd’s songs and other music to English words, but work on The Byrd Edition drew him to the composer’s “other,” Latin music. His extensive, exhaustively researched prefatory matter to Byrd’s great liturgical anthology Gradualia (1987-97: to be issued as a monograph) enlarges and politicizes our picture of the composer’s great outcry on behalf of the persecuted recusant community. Brett moved as easily in liturgical studies as in philology and literary criticism, and the same musicality that warms his Schubert essay illumines his readings of Byrd’s motets. He was one of the finest English prose stylists among the musicologists of his time.


The events surrounding the Stonewall riots, where angry gays in New York fought back for three days against violent police harassment, proved to be a decisive turning point, in his life and in his career. After 1969, Brett increasingly “became disenchanted with musicology,” as he put it, on account of the “separation and conflict of my scholarly work and a concealed homosexuality.” Brett was a fine, devoted choral conductor—one of several CDs he made with the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus was nominated for a Grammy Award, and he received a Noah Greenberg Performance Award from the American Musicological Society (AMS)—and musical performance now offered him the opportunity to express strong emotions in a more communicative way than words could achieve. His music-making not only demonstrated that erudite thought can be expressed through live artistic performance but also made explicit his view that music can have a moral force.


Before the death of Benjamin Britten in 1976, the composer’s homosexuality was universally acknowledged but never mentioned in public or in musicological forums. Brett’s “Britten and Grimes” (1977) was the first scholarly article to consider the influence of a composer’s sexual identity on the music itself, and his study of Britten’s most famous opera, Peter Grimes (1983) became an instant landmark. Brett published many other articles on Britten’s other operas, both in scholarly journals and in program booklets and the like—and no less penetrating for that—as the basis of a full-scale study which he was developing at the time of his death. It would have been his magnum opus.


In 1991, soon after becoming an American citizen, Brett moved to Riverside to join his partner, Professor George Haggerty of the Department of English. He now expanded his interests in a more interdisciplinary manner, partly as the result of increasing collaboration with younger musical scholars working in the field of sexuality, but also largely because of his awareness that musicology, as an intellectual discipline, was lagging behind other fields. In these years Brett not only elaborated his arguments concerning Britten but also developed influential theoretical models for the study of sexuality in culture. His many publications in this area include several pathbreaking, coauthored collections: Queering the Pitch (1994), Cruising the Performative (1995), and Decomposition: Post-Disciplinary Performance (2000).


Brett did not restrict his political energies to his scholarship. He worked tirelessly and courageously to make sexuality an acceptable area of study within musicology. He was a courteous, though never a passive activist within the AMS; at the 1992 annual meeting he chaired the first session on composers and sexuality. The year 1989 saw the founding of the AMS Gay and Lesbian Study Group, which instituted the Philip Brett Award in 1999 for an “exceptional musicological work in the field of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender/transsexual studies.”


In 2001 Brett moved again, to UC Los Angeles. His last seminars, typical of the range of his scholarship, were on “Notation, Editing, and Textual Criticism” and “Music and Sexuality.” He had been an active, ever-responsible citizen of two UC campuses. At Berkeley, where he served as chair from 1988 to 1990, he was a tough advocate for musical performance in a department oriented toward musicology and composition. When Berkeley emerged in the mid-1980s as a center of the “new musicology,” Brett was at the storm center. At Riverside, serving as chair and as associate dean, he transformed the Department of Music into a rich and lively entity, which beneficently influenced the campus as a whole. In addition to his brilliant scholarship, his generous mentoring, and his courageous interventions, Philip Brett brought to the academy unusual qualities of compassion, grace, and gallantry. Few who ever encountered him failed to be affected by his deeply humane spirit.



Byron Adams, Riverside

Joseph Kerman, Berkeley

Susan McClary, Los Angeles

Davitt Moroney, Berkeley