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The Gracious Muse: Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

a black and white photo of two chaps in a garden one of them holding a dog

Britten and Pears in the garden at Crag House, Aldeburgh, 1957. Photographer: unidentified.

While their current exhibition exploring the creative role of the muse is in lock down, Dr Lucy Walker, Curator at Britten Pears Arts, talks about the relationship of Benjamin Britten and his life partner Peter Pears

‘Music from my fourth year began to be the first of my youthful occupations. Thus early acquainted with the gracious muse who tuned my soul to pure harmonies, I became fond of her, and, as it often seemed to me, she of me.’ (Ludwig van Beethoven)

In the world of classical music, composers can be inspired by a voice either as foundational material for a particular work, or as preferred exponent after the piece has been completed. Notable examples are the Francis Poulenc/Denise Duval partnership, or that of Samuel Barber and Leontyne Price.

At times the contribution of the ‘muse’ takes on the form of concrete collaboration. Singer Juliet Fraser, who has worked with numerous contemporary composers, is often in fact the initiator of the collaboration and ultimately the co-creator of the resulting work: ‘I have found myself seeking out new forms of collaboration, hoping to fuel my development and increase my sense of agency.’

She remarks that despite this the performer is often seen as lower down the standard ‘hierarchy’ of creativity in the eyes of the public, regardless of the level of performer involvement.

a portrait photo of two seated chaps

Britten (right) and Pears (out of focus) sitting in a school auditorium in Budapest, April 1964. Photographer: unidentified.

Peter Pears, who could legitimately be described as Britten’s ‘muse’, stands somewhere in the middle: he was both the source of inspiration to Britten, as his lover and life-partner, as testified by the extraordinarily romantic letters the couple shared; but also he was the original performer, or creator, of the works.

The fact that he recorded these pieces further enhances the association of his particular voice with Britten’s music: with the result that subsequent tenors performing this music have the ‘Pears’ sound ringing in their ears.

Britten’s ‘attraction’ to Pears’ voice was more of a lifelong passion. He composed hours of music for Pears to sing, hearing his partner’s voice time and again in the notes on the page. He even composed music best to suit Pears’ particular vocal range, adapting it as he got older.

a photo of three men standing next to a car

Britten and Pears with Aaron Copland, around July-August 1939. Photographer: unidentified

Britten wrote his music ‘off’ Pears who as such edged into the territory of collaborator. However, in an uncharacteristically bantering joint interview with Britten in 1961 Pears denied having any such involvement in the composition process:

[Interviewer] Peter Garvie: Peter Pears, can I ask you something? You’ve been so identified now with singing Mr Britten’s works, do you actually get in on the act of composition to try out passages to see how they are singable?

Pears: I don’t know that I do really very much. I think that in fact Benjamin Britten writes for the voice…
Britten: Jolly badly…
Pears: No, on the contrary—I wouldn’t put it like that. No, he writes…
Britten: …difficult music…
Pears: …not easily, but always rewardingly. I mean you have to work at it; it doesn’t come in one practice.

According to Pears, then, Britten did not consult Pears before or during the act of composition. Yet they may have been underplaying their collaboration, given the need at the time to be discreet about their close relationship.

Indeed, in 1967 Britten wrote a short piece on Pears for Audio Record Review, which opens with the offhand statement ‘Pears and I started working together I suppose because of similar musical interests, and being close friends because of convenience of environment…’ – somewhat underplaying the passionate declarations inherent in those early vocal ‘love letters’ to Pears, such as the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo and Canticle I: ‘My beloved is mine and I am his’.

a photo of three men walking arm in arm down a promenade

Pears and Britten with Francis Poulenc in Cannes, March 1955. Photographer: unidentified.

Pears was not the only artist to inspire Britten’s compositions. The performing talents of some of the most established performers of his generation were behind many of Britten’s other works, both vocal and non-vocal.

Even before the arrival of Pears, he composed a fair amount of vocal music for his favourite voices at the time – Sophie Wyss and Hedli Anderson. Britten later on provided song cycles for mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as well as the dramatic oratorio Phaedra (1975) for Janet Baker, one of the last pieces he composed.

Jennifer Vyvyan premiered as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw (1954) and Mrs Julian in Owen Wingrave (1970); in between these roles, in 1959, Britten invited her to play Tytania in the premiere of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream by flatteringly disclosing ‘I hear you in what I’ve written so far’.

Similarly, in 1954 he had written to Joan Cross (who created roles in five Britten operas) about her playing Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw: “As you know every note is written with you in mind”.

One singer in particular, who Britten only worked with for a few short years, inspired some remarkable music: Kathleen Ferrier was the first Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia (1946), sang the alto part in Canticle II (1952) and performed in the premiere of Spring Symphony (1949).

a photo of a woman and two men seated on a grassy bank

Britten, Pears and Galina Vishnevskaya on holiday in Armenia, August 1965. Photographer: unidentified.

After her tragically early death in 1953, Britten wrote a moving tribute to her, describing how he had been ‘impressed immediately by the nobility and beauty of her presence, and by the warmth and deep range of her voice’. At the other end of the expressive scale was Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, a flamboyantly dramatic personality who Britten clearly adored, and for whom he composed The Poet’s Echo, setting Pushkin in the original Russian in 1965.

Vishnevskaya’s husband, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, was the person for whom Britten composed the most after Pears. In the years following their first meeting in 1960, at which Rostropovich demanded a piece, Britten obliged with a sonata, three suites and a whole symphony.

Guitarist Julian Bream, not shy in approaching composers for commissions, was given Britten’s beautiful Nocturnal after John Dowland (1963); while for harpist Osian Ellis he composed his delightful Suite for Harp (1969). An early inspiration was Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa who was the first performer of Britten’s Spanish-inflected Violin Concerto back in 1939.

As a mature composer, Britten nearly always composed for a person, or a purpose. He found performing artists inspiring, and wrote generously for their talents, as he put – quite strongly – in an interview in 1967:

“I don’t think I ever write an opera without knowing before I start who is going to sing the roles. That goes for all the other music I write too; I am most completely and hopelessly committed to the people I write for… I like to have their particular voices, their fingers, their harps, their lutes, in my mind when I write for them.”

a photo of two men looking through a telescope on a snowy viewing platform in Switzerland

Britten and Pears in Switzerland, 1947. Photographer: Hanssler, Zurich.

For the performers in question, Britten’s music was a gift: something created specifically for them; a flattering portrait of their performance style. And of course it did them no harm to be associated with such a prominent composer.

While Pears sang many works for other composers, and had a well-established career of his own, his reputation was undoubtedly boosted by his early association with Britten. But the same is true the other way around: without Pears, Britten’s entire life in composition would have been very different indeed.

This article is an abridged version of the introductory essay from the book of the exhibition, Such an Artist to Write for: Inspiration and Collaboration. See more on the Britten Pears Foundation website

venue

The Red House, Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Benjamin Britten was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He wrote a huge amount of incredible music and wanted everyone to enjoy it. He was born in 1913 and raised in Lowestoft, and Suffolk was the backdrop for nearly his entire life. At The Red House in…

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