Edward Benjamin Britten was born on 22nd November 1913, which happens to be the day of St Cecilia (patron saint of all musicians), in Lowestoft, Suffolk. In his early years, the sounds of the sea and the First World War surrounded him and became his earliest influences, and his mother holding concerts at the house meant Britten was constantly exposed to the “big names” of the industry. He produced his first compositions at the tender age of five, and although he was not treated as a prodigy, he was very prolific; 731 manuscripts have been found with pieces written between the ages of just six and nineteen.
Peter Neville Luard Pears was born on 22nd June 1910 and grew up in Farnham, Surrey. He sang regularly as a child in chapel choirs and also took part in chamber ensembles as a pianist. He started reading Music at Oxford in 1928 but left after failing the first year, and returned to his first school, The Grange, teaching Music, Latin, Mathematics and History. His passion for singing continued and he was having lessons on a part-time basis, before leaving in 1934 to study singing at the Royal College of Music. This launched his professional singing career as he auditioned successfully for both the BBC Singers and the New English Singers in 1936.
So these men embarked on their composing and singing careers and met because Britten came to work with the BBC Singers in the same year Pears had joined. This marked the beginning of their professional relationship, and soon after meeting they became lovers also.
Britten and Pears seem to have complemented each other perfectly, meeting aged 23 and 26 and remaining together until death. Many people seem to think of Britten as a stubborn and angry person, but his sensitivity was evident in his treatment of Pears. In an interview for Tony Palmer’s 1979 film Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was, Pears described their relationship as as “passionately devoted and close”. He also commented on Britten’s “extraordinary quality of trust, and faith, and love”.
Despite their closeness, though, Pears was constantly overshadowed by Britten, and it still seems that his contribution to their creative partnership is not well understood. The Britten-Pears Foundation, however, was set up to celebrate them as a pair, and describes Britten as “one of the great composers of the twentieth century” and Pears as “one of its outstanding tenors”.
In terms of Britten’s music, it is hard to evaluate the effect Pears had, as he was present for the majority of Britten’s career – but we can safely say the impact was huge. While some have argued that the presence of Pears led to Britten exploring other compositional avenues less fully than he might have done, the system of Pears working alongside Britten worked so well that it made sense to cherish and take advantage of this relationship. Britten was adept at writing music which he knew would be sung well by Pears.
And of course, the concentration of Britten’s output on the tenor voice led to the creation of some amazing tenor parts, and we have Pears to thank for this. Numerous opera roles include Peter Grimes and Albert Herring (title roles), Quint (The Turn of the Screw), Captain Vere (Billy Budd), Sir Philip Wingrave (Owen Wingrave), as well as song cycles such as Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (1943), and Nocturne (1958). In the case of the role of Grimes, Britten knew Pears’ voice so well that the aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” is mainly on an E above middle C, which was considered to be Pears’ best note.
Pears said of Britten, “He probably made me. It was because he wrote such marvellous songs for me which I could sing to his satisfaction, that I have done what I have done”.1 It is indeed questionable what sort of career Pears, who was unnoticed as a soloist before he met Britten, would have had without his partner. Trevor Harvey, a British conductor who lived with Pears in the 1930s, suggested that all of Pears’ success “must have been due to Ben” – “He was frankly pretty lazy and I very seldom ever heard him practising... and he didn’t seem to have any great ambition”.2 Combined with Pears’ own doubts about his voice, it is indeed difficult to imagine Pears enjoying any comparable success as a performer had it not been for Britten. One area in which Britten’s influence was perhaps less beneficial to Pears, on the other hand, was Pears’ own composing – a pursuit he abandoned soon after meeting Britten.
But there is no doubt that Pears was a brilliant and heavy influence on the music of Benjamin Britten. For a start, Britten was very unsure of his own work – in America in 1941 he had what Humphrey Carpenter describes as a “near-breakdown”, partly caused by “a sudden drying up of musical creativity” and Britten himself said that at this time he was “in quite a psychological state”.3 However, upon returning to England with Pears he found his inspiration in the voice of his partner, with the next major work being Peter Grimes. As well as Pears assisting Britten with his voice, Britten’s preferred compositional method seems to have also involved close collaboration with Pears: the couple would take walks and plan out the compositions together. Pears also gave technical feedback on the vocal writing and suggested improvements for instrumental works following premières. Pears was crucial: from the initial idea to performance, it was a joint effort.
There is such a huge amount going on for the Britten centenary that it can seem overwhelming, for experts and new fans alike. On Bachtrack there are numerous events to browse through all over the world, and you can see all upcoming Britten concerts here. The Sinfonia da Requiem is particularly well represented, with performances listed in Oxford, Stockholm, Ohio and Hong Kong, and the Violin Concerto is being performed in Boston, Bristol, Cardiff, Zurich and Vienna. Britten is truly an international figure these days – we’re listing Les Illuminations in five different countries, and the Simple Symphony in five, including Malta. Even the lesser-known Double Concerto for violin, viola and orchestra is being played in San Francisco. Other highlights include concerts at Britten’s old school Gresham’s in Norfolk, from pupils as well as external professionals, which will feature a number of lesser-known early works from his time at the school. The Hong Kong Arts Festival’s Britten 100 Project also has three concerts in early 2013 dedicated entirely to his work.
The britten100 website is an excellent place to see the latest news surrounding the celebrations and also video tributes from some famous Britten fans. For more information about Britten and Pears specifically, have a look at the Britten-Pears Foundation site. It will of course be worth keeping up with Aldeburgh Music as well; they have a huge number of Britten events lined up at his spiritual home, lasting the whole of his anniversary year.
Although Pears’ centenary fell in 2010, it is important not to forget him when enjoying the numerous upcoming Britten celebrations. Whether reading a book, attending, organising or performing in a concert, or even spending special Britten 50p pieces, don’t forget Pears; after all, as he said, “It isn’t the story of one man. It’s a life of the two of us”.
1 November 2012
Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1992)
Mervyn Cooke, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Christopher Headington, Peter Pears: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1993)
Imogen Holst, The Great Composers: Britten (London: Faber and Faber, 1966)
Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, ed., Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, vol. 1 (1923–39) and vol. 2 (1939–45)
John Bridcut, Britten’s Children (BBC, 2012)
Tony Palmer, Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was (DVD; Tony Palmer Films, 1979)
1Peter Pears, in Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was.
2Notes from an interview of Trevor Harvey by Donald Mitchell, 15 December 1980, London.
3Carpenter, p. 161.