When I planned to teach a course at Westminster Choir College about Benjamin Britten’s vocal music in the Fall, I knew that gender/sexuality studies would play a role in our evaluation of his works. But I certainly wasn’t planning to discuss something as topical and unsettling as the recent tragedy at Rutgers. Our campus is a half hour away from RU (my alma mater), and a number of students were understandably shaken by hearing about Tyler Clementi’s suicide.
The technological tools for communication may have gotten more sophisticated; but the people using them, if they act selfishly, can be in danger of disconnecting from their better impulses. Sadly, in this instance, the consequences were heartbreaking.
With Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets and his opera Peter Grimes staring up at us, we began to discuss their texts. We then pondered the connection between the poems and some biographical background: Britten and Pears’ early collaboration, their trip to America, and eventual partnership. In my initial lesson notes, I’d pointed out that theirs was a relationship that was frowned upon in many corners, and would still be illegal for more than two decades after they returned to Great Britain. I asked: what resonances to Britten’s life can be found in the poetry of Michelangelo?
My plan was to then turn to a discussion of how Britten depicts these texts and alludes to personal biography in the musical details of these songs.
But in light of cyberbullying and prejudice, the continued homophobia in American society seemed an unavoidable topic: one I didn’t want to foist on the class but certainly wasn’t going to avoid if they decided to broach it. Delicately, one of the students brought up Tyler Clementi’s suicide. I was touched by how sensitively and maturely the other students in the class responded. They thoughtfully discussed the issues surrounding this terrible event, reflecting on how it affects their future work as teachers and musicians. They also reflected on how it should serve as a wake up call for their current lives, challenging them to speak out against teen suicide and try to be compassionate friends to their peers.
They pointed out that whether it is homophobia, racism, social, financial, or academic pressures that are troubling them, many young people are under duress and in need of compassion: both community support and sometimes professional help. As we saw this week, it’s far too easy for someone to be treated with prejudice and cruelty, even today. As some of the students pointed out, among young people we sadly must say, “Especially today.”
I’ll remember many of the comments made by the students on Friday. Although, to respect their privacy, I won’t share their more personal observations, there was one comment that brought us back to the music in eloquent fashion. It was the suggestion that Britten, indeed through the works we were studying that very day in class, could teach us a great deal about prejudice.
“What Britten sought, throughout his life, to portray in his music, was that if you treat someone like an outsider, we all suffer as a society: none of us can grow.”
Although we didn’t have time to find all of the musical intricacies in the songs, I’m very grateful for that lesson.