Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, buried side by side in Aldeburgh, England(Photo: tournorfolk.co.uk)
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, buried side by side in Aldeburgh, England(Photo: tournorfolk.co.uk)

You can’t talk about Benjamin Britten without talking about tenor Peter Pears.

Peter Pears (1910-1986) and Britten were life partners from the time they met in the late 1930s. Most of the composer’s vocal music, including the big operas, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The turn of the Screw plus the song cycles Winter Words and Les Illuminations were  written for Pears.  Their most famous non-opera collaboration was probably the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings

It was said that any other tenor singing Britten’s music “too well” would run afoul of composer and muse. Britten and Pears gathered a circle around them, based at their home in Aldeburgh on the East Anglia coast. It was difficult to be admitted and was easy to be kicked out. The two men lived together openly for forty years, until Britten died. Everyone knew and no one said it. When a magazine came out to photograph the composer “at home” the one bedroom was photographed with its one double bed, though the house had two male occupants. This was a scandal:  homosexuality was illegal in England to the mid 1960s.

The musical world at least didn’t care about Benjamin Britten’s love life. His fame was such that the Queen attended the opening of Britten’s new concert hall, the Maltings. And the Queen was on the phone with sympathy when the hall burned to the ground two years later. (It was quickly re built, better than ever). The Queen Mum, who loved a good party was a frequent guest at Aldeburgh. Her seventieth birthday was commemorated by Britten’s charming A Birthday Hansel

Many people disliked Peter Pears. No one argued with the super musicians of the many concerts he gave, with Britten at the piano:

Benjamin Britten was Lord Britten of Aldeburgh by the time he died in 1976. Peter Pears retired from singing in his early seventies. This writer heard him twice at the Metropolitan Opera. Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice was of course written for Pears-this and all the operas have survived the tenor’s passing. The two are buried side by side in the Parish Church yard at Aldeburgh.

 

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