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Philip Brett was distinguished professor of musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles from 2001-2002, 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.

His first publications were revisions, with Dart, of volumes from E. H. Fellowes' complete edition of English madrigals. 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.

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. He later expanded his interests in a more interdisciplinary manner, not only elaborating his arguments concerning Britten but also developing 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. 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 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.