Peter Pears at Aldeburgh

The centenary of the English tenor’s birth is an opportunity to study his controversial musical legacy

When Benjamin Britten was convalescing from heart surgery in 1974, he wrote an impassioned letter to Peter Pears, his partner of 35 years, who was in New York to sing the main role in Britten’s opera Death in Venice.

It reads like the testament of a man who has had a brush with death. “My darling heart (perhaps an unfortunate phrase – but I can’t use any other) – I do love you so terribly, not only glorious you, but your singing … You are the greatest artist that ever was … What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for?”

Coming from someone whose upbringing, lifestyle and music were emotionally bottled up, the letter is uncharacteristically effusive. There is no doubt his partnership with Pears had extraordinary qualities. Together they had created an important musical oeuvre. Together they had shown how two homosexuals could lead public lives with dignity at a time when it was illegal to be gay. But wasn’t Britten being a little misty-eyed in acclaiming Pears as “the greatest artist that ever was”?

Britten died two years later, Pears a decade after that. Posterity has decided that, of the two, Britten was the historically important figure. He was the composer and creator, Pears the interpreter. Britten’s music lives on in myriad interpretations, and seems good for centuries to come. Pears’ interpretations, bequeathed to us by recordings, have an old-fashioned feel. They tell us a lot about Pears’ vocal limitations – to which love may have made Britten blind. It was a cultivated, unnatural sound. If you never heard him live you may wonder what Britten found so attractive. His recordings emphasise a wobble. The voice lacks resonance. No one could describe it as classically beautiful.

But what no one can deny is the “presence” of Pears in so much of Britten’s music. The way it was written, the choice of texts, even the use of specific notes – all are intimately connected to Pears the man, the aesthete, the possessor of a distinctive vocal instrument. Without Pears as Britten’s muse, we would not have all those great tenor roles, from Peter Grimes to von Aschenbach in Death in Venice.

The centenary of Pears’ birth on June 22 gives the music world an opportunity to examine the Pears legacy. A series of concerts, talks, films and exhibitions at the Aldeburgh festival and in London spotlight Pears as an artist in his own right, and pose questions about his wider significance. Without Britten, would Pears have had a career of such importance? Without Pears, would Britten have composed music of greater variety? And does Pears’ example help or inhibit English tenors today?

“Britten’s greatest music is his vocal music, and it was almost all inspired by Pears,” says the tenor Neil Mackie, who studied with Pears. “Peter’s favourite notes were F sharp and G, and a lot of Britten’s music lingers around there. If passages Britten had written were impossible for him to sing, they were adjusted to suit his voice.”

The sound of Pears’ voice was controversial. Even in his lifetime it was widely parodied, famously so by the comedian Dudley Moore. Some musicians believe Pears may have inhibited Britten’s creative range, and that he had a negative effect on subsequent generations of English tenors. “If Britten had fallen in love with a Domingo or Pavarotti,” says Robert Tear, who worked for Britten’s English Opera Group and sang most of Pears’ roles, “you wonder what music he might have written. Even when he dips a toe into the Italian world, as in the Michelangelo Sonnets, it’s out of bounds for the non-English tenor.”

Tear, who had a strained relationship with Pears and still refers to him as “the green-eyed monster”, says all Pears’ vocal mannerisms are written into Britten’s music. “You can’t sing it any other way. Even today, English tenors are very Pears, very English, very public school, and they take their Britten with them to Schubert and Schumann. They limit themselves mentally and vocally. They are not prepared to give it balls.”

Pears’ style, of course, was the opposite of ballsy. In other ways, too, Pears was not universally admired. Some saw him as the “evil genius” at the heart of the composer’s circle, notorious for its vicious atmosphere. Britten’s music was “his”; if other tenors had a success with it, they were liable to be frozen out.

But even Tear acknowledges that Pears was an outstanding communicator, particularly in the way he used words and shaped phrases. “Seeing him, you weren’t aware of the vocal infirmities,” says FT music critic Richard Fairman, who heard Pears frequently in the 1970s. “He was an imposing man, and his voice was big enough to sound commanding. The minute he stood up he had a presence.”

The question facing Britten tenors today is how far they should take note of Pears’ example. The “Pears effect” weighed on successors such as Tear, the late Philip Langridge and Antony Rolfe-Johnson but younger singers such as Ian Bostridge, who has sung most Pears roles but never heard him in performance, see Pears’ recordings as a useful creative tool, as long as his mannerisms are avoided. Pears sounds old-fashioned, Bostridge thinks, partly because of his patrician English accent, “which can be alienating to modern ears. What gives a person an individual style is more their limitations than anything else, and Britten was very aware of that. He used the beautiful parts of Pears’ voice, creating a stress in the approach to the top that made an emotional impact.”

That, says Bostridge, is why a Pears interpretation can still be admired. “No one can sing Quint [in The Turn of the Screw] like Pears did. The way he used his registers to slip and slide – it has nothing to do with the constricted sound he is associated with. It actually sounds very liquid.”

Mark Padmore, another Britten tenor, says there was a time when one recording of a work was seen as definitive, “and that certainly applied to Britten and Pears. But because of the number of recordings we have now, it’s no longer necessary to think of their versions as gospel.”

Pears’ legacy lives on in other ways – in his focus on young artists (“always supportive but an incredibly tough taskmaster”, says Mackie), in the works he premiered by composers other than Britten, and in the way he opened up a repertoire, including Dowland and Schütz, that English tenors now take for granted. In the eye of posterity Britten may hold the crown, but it is impossible to think of him without the towering presence of Pears at his side.


Pears at Aldeburgh

Sir Peter Pears co-founded the Aldeburgh festival. This year’s programme (June 11-27) pays tribute to him in his centenary. Among the events are: For Peter: A Centenary Exhibition for Sir Peter Pears, at The Red House, Aldeburgh; Peter Pears: A Celebration on June 24 at Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, a recital with Iain Burnside and Robert Tear; and A Peter Pears Celebratory Recital on June 14 at the Royal Academy of Music in London, with Britten’s Five Canticles sung by three generations of Britten tenors.,

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