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Illuminating A Queer Aesthetic

By Struan Leslie

Sam Cater, Circus Ensemble and Aurora Orchestra, Illuminations, Aldeburgh Festival 2016 (photo by Mark Allan)

In 2016 I conceived and directed a new theatre work that premiered at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival fusing a string orchestra, a soprano and a bespoke circus ensemble: Illuminations. The conceptual germ for this production was Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations - his settings of fragments, selected by him, from Rimbaud’s collection of prose poems of the same name.  The creation of this work is an expression of my relationship to a shifting Queer Aesthetic as it develops through time from the ancient world to the present day and highlighted in Britten and Rimbaud's work.

Illuminations included additional music by Britten and works by Debussy and John Adams. The music, along with Gary McCann’s set and costume design and Chris Davey’s lighting, creates the environment for a dreamscape.  The dreams are those of the soprano who, prior to singing the Britten, has lain asleep on a bed, precipitously cantilevered on top of a wardrobe.  The circus ensemble, the characters in her sleeping visions, climb out of the cityscape of bedroom furniture towering around her, dance, visit her bed, and even evoke time itself, as they swing pendulum-like above her.  When she awakes it is with the fanfare of Les Illuminations. She stands and sings, telling us ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage  ‘I alone hold the key to this wild spectacle’.

Sarah Tynan and Eric McGill, Illuminations, Aldeburgh Festival 2016 (photo by Mark Allan)

This ‘key' is very personal to Britten and the setting of these poems by Rimbaud. Dedications of the songs reveal many aspects of the queer aesthetic they inherently hold within them. 

‘… so young Apollo anguish’d;
His very hair, his golden tresses famed
Kept undulation round his eager neck.’

From Hyperion, by John Keats (1818-19).

The first work in the evening is Britten’s exuberant and tension filled Young Apollo. Written for piano and string orchestra it was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation soon after he and the tenor, and soon to be lover, Peter Pears arrived in Canada where they began their self-imposed exile in North America from 1939 until 1942. 

The Keats poem was not Britten’s only inspiration. His muse was Wolfgang Scherchen, a young German man living in the UK, son of the Conductor Hermann Scherchen. “Wulff”, as Britten called him in his letters, had first met Britten in Siena where, during a rain shower, they had shared a mackintosh, one sleeve each.  But it was not until 1938 that they began their relationship when Wulff was living with his mother in Cambridge, having left Nazi Germany. This relationship was still very much in progress when Britten left the UK with Pears.

Wolfgang (Wulff) Scherchen
Image provided by Britten Pears Arts

Wulff was still in his thoughts in North America. Britten wrote to him that his new work was inspired by Keats writing about Apollo’s ‘golden tresses’ and ‘limbs/celestial’. He finished the letter saying ‘you know whom that’s written about’. 

After its premiere, Young Apollo was withdrawn. It was  not performed again until the Aldeburgh Festival in 1979, and was only published in 1982, six years after Britten’s death.  The withdrawal is linked in time to the burgeoning of the relationship between Britten and Pears.

Benjamin Britten (right) and Peter Pears in NYC.   Image provided by Britten Pears Arts (

After Britten’s death Peter Pears was increasingly open about his sexuality and by implication about Britten’s. Those ‘in the know’ would have been able to ‘read’ the ‘queer’ signifiers in their work and lives. For others the truth remained implicit or encoded.

‘Young Apollo’ has a musical dynamic revealing that Britten was clearly still smitten with Scherchen. The music turns over and over, up and down with its playful almost silent movie animation, capturing the thrill and excitement of first love much as Apollo did with Hyacinthus and Adonis. In a programme note from the premiere Britten wrote ‘Apollo stands before us … quivering with radiant vitality’. Musically it is written in A Major - Britten’s ‘Apollonian’ key - which he also uses at the end of his life in his opera Death in Venice in music related to the young boy Tadzio, whom the elderly writer von Aschenbach observes on the beach.

Young Apollo by Albert Bruce-Joy © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This reference to the myth of Young Apollo with the ideal, perfect body also places him very clearly as the god of same sex relationships. He is also, in Keats’ poem, taking over from the old Titans as the Sun god. This brings together a number of elements to form a much bigger narrative in Britten’s life, a narrative which has its roots in a queer aesthetic.    

Britten, a composer now seen as gay, finding affinity with Rimbaud as a queer writer and felt motivated to set his work Illuminations as song. Rimbaud was not the first queer author to inspire him. Others, including Michaelangelo, Verlaine and Auden, had also attracted Britten’s attention.  And his work has in turn attracted other queer artists and auteurs like myself to create productions and interpretations of his work.   What is underlying these choices? Common themes? An affinity of ideas? An aesthetic? A Queer Aesthetic? 

What is it that leads a composer or artist to these choices?

Such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy” - Oscar Wilde at his second trial.

In 1938 the society in which Britten and Scherchen - younger - and soon after Pears - older - were falling in love was not an easy one if you were queer. The term gay was still not in common usage at this time and some argue that continued to be the case until the 1960's. In the UK in the early 1930’s Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy had to be sung by a woman because it was deemed too risky to be sung by a man. The need for secrecy and covert patterns of behaviour were essential, and for many this created the notion of being an ‘outsider’ looking in on the mainstream.

On the periphery of society where queers find themselves, partly through exclusion, but also for self-protection, a glance to the left and the right revealed Christopher [Isherwood] and his Kind.  A demi-monde operated in all areas and strata of society.  Some, like Isherwood, went to Berlin, where the world of the outsider, as portrayed in his novel I Am a Camera, was less hidden and more accessible, at least in the years prior to the Nazis Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Arts) Exhibition in 1937.  In London the small salon-like parties of Britten, Pears and friends and colleagues allowed for the exchange of those glances and also for the sharing of  ideas and references; even for the creation of  a new ‘language’ in the cant slang of Polari. Wilde’s sentencing to two years hard labour for indecency was still very much a living memory for some in society as a whole.

Isherwood, in placing himself as a camera, is a manifestation of a queer who is ‘reading’, and will later be read by, the World. Using the lens to frame and focus on what you see and how you wish to be seen, this approach presented the camera’s gaze [gays], to be a representation of their own world. This is the process that the photographer/visual artist Robert Mapplethorpe followed in the late years of the 20th century in the creation of a portfolio of both explicit and coded images of queerness in all its possibilities.  From his Hyacinth, as Apollo’s tragic lover, to Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, S&M couple.  Each of these images refer from different perspectives, to classical imagery and mythologies as well as to homoerotic and heightened imagery and queer codes. 

The queer eye is attuned to a particular way of seeing and reading. “The Queer” here is really anyone being, or identifying as being, outside heteronormativity

‘Reading’, as Rupaul says, ‘is Fundamental’.  Rupaul may have popularised the phrase recently but, as an understood notion it has been around for rather longer.  A queer aesthetic is constructed by queer-identifying people, mostly for each other to read, using a shared language. The vocabulary of queer aesthetic has changed over time but it is usually identifiable, whatever the historical timeframe.

Isherwood subsequently went to America with Britten’s friend and collaborator, Auden, in January 1939, with Britten and Pears following in May of that year.  

The composition of ‘Les Illuminations’ straddles both the UK and North America. The first two songs that were to be part of the cycle ‘Being Beauteous’ and ‘Marine’ were performed by soprano Sophie Wyss in Birmingham in April 1939. She premiered the full cycle in London in January 1940. It also straddles Britten’s personal and creative life - past, emergent and yet to come.

In ‘Antique’, the God Pan appears, like Apollo, a mythological character who speaks to the queer world, though not through his beauty but rather through his mischievous and promiscuous spirit and through his rule breaking.  The song is dedicated to Wulff Scherchen. Young Apollo now becomes this Pan who will ‘at night wander softly moving this thigh, then this other thigh, then this left leg.  A desire for a different sort of ideal man perhaps?

 ‘Interlude’ follows to reprise the opening cri de coeur, now sotto voce,J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’.  It is dedicated to Elizabeth Mayer. She was hostess to Pears and Britten while they were living in Long Island, New York. Britten’s mother had recently died and Mayer became a guiding surrogate for him. The mother figure who eases us into the next stage of life, towards what every mother hopes for their gay son, stability and safety – is perhaps, another archetypal queer experience.

Sarah Tynan and Craig Gadd, "Being Beauteous", Illuminations, Aldeburgh Festival 2016, (photo by Mark Allan)

So it is in ‘Being Beauteous’, dedicated to Pears, with him being the vision appearing as ‘a beautiful being of majestic stature’ and ‘the canon I collapse upon’, solid and stable after a period of instability where ‘colours which belong to life deepen, dance and separate themselves around the vision, on the path … our bones are covered a new with a body of love’.

That love is Queer Love and it is present in Illuminations because it is there in the work and life of Britten and Rimbaud. Throughout their, and our, lived experience, striving to make sense of it all, a constantly evolving Queer aesthetic emerges as a means to communicate with each other. In these times, where the definitions of Queerness have expanded, this aesthetic greatly enriches the possibilities to ‘read’ and be ‘read’, to be seen - wholly and differently - in the world.

Posted on:Wednesday 8th July, 2020