Former Berkeley Music Chair Philip Brett

By Davitt Moroney, Department of Music


30 October 2002 |

Philip Brett, who taught at Berkeley for 25 years (1966-91), died of cancer at his home in Los Angeles on October 16, 2002, one day before his 65th birthday. His scholarly work was of far-reaching importance in many areas, and his commitment to making a place in the musicological world for gay and lesbian scholarship was recognized by the American Musicological Society (AMS) in 1996 by the founding of the Philip Brett Award in Lesbian and Gay Musicology.

He was an inspiring teacher of undergraduates and an exceptionally generous friend and mentor to graduate students. Audiences who heard his many concerts in Hertz Hall, as conductor of the Repertory Chorus, saw a highly committed musician whose performances called up powerful emotions. His concerts demonstrated that erudite intellectual thought can be expressed through live artistic performance, and they made explicit his view that music can have a moral force.

Philip Brett was born in 1937 in Edwinstowe, England, and studied at King’s College, Cambridge. His doctoral dissertation (1965) on the songs of William Byrd prepared him for his later role as general editor of Byrd’s complete works, in 20 volumes. This was both a lifelong labor of love (he was working on the final volumes three weeks before his death) and a monument of traditional musicological scholarship.

Later he also devoted much energy to Benjamin Britten’s music, but here the slant was different. He perceived a link between the two composers: both had been victims of oppression. In 16th-century Anglican England, Byrd was a Catholic whose friends were fined, harrassed, arrested, imprisoned, or executed. In 20th-century England, Britten was homosexual at a time when this could mean being fined, harrassed, arrested, or imprisoned. Discrimination and injustice were among the few things that could make Philip really angry.

Berkeley in the late 1960s had a liberating effect on him. He was always willing to speak in public at gay events on campus, “to show gay students and colleagues that they need not be afraid to be honest about their sexuality.” After meeting George Haggerty in 1974, his life changed. Their relationship provided Brett with the strength, over the next 28 years, to undertake a new scholarly journey, starting with the article “Britten and Grimes” (1977, based on a paper given at the national meeting of the AMS the previous year). This was the first time an openly gay musicologist had discussed in public a gay subject in such a scholarly context. At the time, it was a courageous act, and opened the door for many others who had been hesitating to take such a public step. (When an eminent colleague asked him whether “gay musicology” existed, he replied “No, but don’t you think it should?”) Younger scholars happily followed his lead, eventually collaborating with him to produce a sparkling collection of iconoclastic essays, “Queering the Pitch” (1994).

From then on, Philip’s attention moved inexorably towards a deeper study of the mechanisms of oppression. He was particularly concerned with the effects that active oppression, as well as passive accommodation to that pressure, can have on artistic creativity and performance. His article “Piano Four Hands: Schubert and the Performance of Gay Male Desire” (1997) provoked the expected antiphonal choruses of admiration and dismay.

After two years as chair of the Department of Music (1988-90), he left Berkeley for UC Riverside to join his partner, now chair of the English department there. The move made it possible for them to work on the same campus, an administrative rarity for gay couples ten years ago. During his years at Riverside he became chair of the music department (1992-99), Distinguished Professor of Musicology (from 1998), and Associate Dean in the College of Humanities (2000-01). In 2001 he moved to UCLA because of his close friendship with the scholars in that department.

Over the past 30 years, Philip Brett received numerous national and international awards and distinctions, including an NEH grant and a Noah Greenberg Award in 1980, and a Grammy nomination in 1991. He had recently been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship as well.

A memorial concert for Philip Brett will take place on campus next spring. Former students who would like to participate may contact the music department or write to

Tax-deductible charitable donations may be made to the “Philip Brett Award in Lesbian and Gay Musicology,” sponsored by the LGBT Caucus of the American Musicological Society, 201 S. 34th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6313. (Write “Philip Brett Award” in the memo section of your check.)


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