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Philip Brett

Professor of Musicology

Los Angeles



Philip Brett, Distinguished Professor of Musicology at UCLA, died of cancer on October 16, 2002, a day before he was to turn 65. He spent his entire teaching career in the University of California system: at Berkeley from 1966 to 1991, at Riverside from 1991 to 2001 (where he served as chair and associate dean), and at UCLA for only one extraordinary year. Philip is survived by his registered domestic partner, Professor George Haggerty, chair of the Department of English at University of California, Riverside.


Philip was born in Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire on October 17, 1937; his mother was a teacher and his father a collier. After having attracted attention for his unusual talents as a choirboy, he went to study at King’s College, Cambridge, where he received all his academic degrees (B.A. with Honors, 1958; M.A., 1962; Ph.D., 1965). At Cambridge, he worked with notable figures such as the musicologist-performer Thurston Dart, and he counted novelist E. M. Forster among his friends.


As a scholar, Philip excelled in many areas of specialization. His dissertation focused on the songs of Elizabethan composer William Byrd, and over the course of his entire career he produced a critical edition of Byrd’s music; he was working on one of the final volumes of this series on the day he succumbed to his illness in late September. Philip also was a much-honored conductor: he received the American Musicological Society’s Noah Greenberg Award in 1980 for his pathbreaking performances of Jacopo Peri’s Euridice and Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and his recording of Handel’s Susanna was nominated for a Grammy in 1991. Throughout the remainder of his career, he was involved in major performances and recordings of early music, with occasional forays into contemporary repertories. He prepared, for example, the world premiere recordings of Lou Harrison’s La koro sutro and Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, both of which testify to his sensitivity and skill as a conductor.


Moreover, Philip has long been regarded as the leading authority on the operas of Benjamin Britten: he contributed the volume on Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1983 for the prestigious Cambridge Opera Handbooks, and he had published in subsequent years a brilliant series of journal articles on Britten’s life and works. His entry on Britten in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians has been singled out for particular praise. A few months before his death, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which would have allowed him to finish his long-awaited book on Britten’s operas.


Brett is most widely remembered, however, for his pioneering efforts in introducing gay studies into musicology. His work in this area began in 1977 with the publication in the Musical Times of “Britten and Grimes”: the first scholarly essay to broach the issue of Britten’s sexual orientation and its possible relevance to the interpretation of the operas. At the peak of his career, he courageously — and over the indignant protests of colleagues — initiated the field of gay and lesbian musicology, now a thriving subdiscipline. In 1996, the Gay and Lesbian Study Group of the American Musicology Society instituted the Philip Brett Award “to honor each year exceptional musicological work in the field of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender/transsexual studies. . . in any country and in any language.”


In addition to dozens of scholarly editions of English Renaissance music and pathbreaking articles in a wide variety of fields, Philip was author of Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes (Cambridge 1983) and co-editor of Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (Routledge 1994), Cruising the Performative: Interventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality (Indiana University Press 1995), and Decomposition: Post-Disciplinary Performance (Indiana UP 2000).


But to those who knew him, Philip contributed far more than his brilliant, innovative scholarship. He brought to the discipline of musicology and to the institutions in which he taught qualities of compassion and grace found all too rarely within the academy. He leaves behind countless younger scholars whose own scholarship would be unthinkable without his courage, imagination, musicality, and generous personal support. No one who ever encountered Philip Brett failed to be affected by his deeply humane spirit.


In the Renaissance music Philip conducted so beautifully, there exists a genre called the déploration, in which a composer commemorates the death of his mentor. We wish to close our own memorial by quoting one of these.


Don your robes of mourning

and weep great tears from your eyes.

For you have lost your good father.

Requiescat in pace.

Mitchell Morris

Susan McClary