Tenor and partner of Sir Benjamin Britten, and born in Farnham
Peter Pears is best known for his long partnership with the composer Benjamin Britten, but he was a talented, well known musician in his own right. As an excellent singer, actor and teacher, Pears made an outstanding contribution to music; he and Britten were a driving force of creativity in both their professional and personal lives.
His Early Years
Peter Pears was born in Farnham, Surrey, on the 22 June 1910 to Arthur and Jessie Pears. He originally attended school at The Grange, near Crowborough, Sussex, but in 1923 he moved to Lancing College. It was here that he developed a passion for music and he joined the college chapel choir, as well as taking part in chamber ensembles as a pianist.
He went to study music at Keble College, Oxford, in 1928 but failed his first year exams. As a result he left and went to teach music, Latin, maths and history at his previous school, The Grange. This nurtured his passion for the education of others. In 1934 he enrolled at the Royal College of Music and started a successful singing career. He sang as a tenor in the BBC Singers, and in 1936 joined the New English Singers touring the United States and Canada.
‘A Life of the Two of Us’ – Pears Meets Britten
Pears met Benjamin Britten in 1937 after the death of a mutual friend, and the two soon formed a close personal and professional partnership. It was in 1939, while they were travelling the United States that their relationship developed into the romantic life partnership that continued until Britten’s death. Of his relationship with Benjamin Britten, Pears said: “It isn’t the story of one man. It’s a life of the two of us.”
After war broke out, they were advised to stay in the US and lived there for over 2 years. Whilst there, Pears took a number of singing engagements, and even formed his own vocal ensemble, ‘The Elizabethan Singers’. The couple returned to England in 1942 and both immediately registered as conscientious objectors, feeling they could better help people through their music.
Pears’ big break came when he performed in Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1945. Britten wrote a number of roles especially for Pears, including the title role in ‘Albert Herring’ in 1947, Captain Vere in ‘Billy Budd’ in 1951, and the Madwoman in ‘Curlew River’ in 1964. Britten dedicated several works ‘To Peter’, including the ‘Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo’, and ‘Death in Venice’ in which Pears performed.
Theirs was a strong and loving relationship which formed the backbone of Pears’ personal and professional life. Testimony to this is the collection of letters housed in the archive of the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. One letter written in 1974 by Pears to Britten recalls:
‘And I can never be thankful enough to you and to Fate for all the heavenly joy we have had together for 35 years.” My darling, I love you – P.’
Pears and his Love of Teaching
Britten and Pears dedicated a great deal of their lives to teaching and educating others in the world of music. In 1947 they started the Festival of Music and the Arts in Aldeburgh, the small Suffolk town they had made their home, which continues to this day. The inaugural programme featured Surrey’s E.M. Forster. Pears had a real passion for making music and the arts as accessible as possible, and from as early as 1951 regularly taught at the famous Dartington School, a leader in progressive education and promotion of the arts.
In 1957, Pears was awarded an OBE and he was later knighted in 1978, for his contributions to music and the arts. In 1972, Britten and Pears set up the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies, a venture he continued to dedicate his life to even after Britten’s death.
From 1957 until Britten’s death in 1976, Britten and Pears lived and worked together at The Red House, Aldeburgh.
Pears was also an avid collector of art, musical instruments and books, gathering an impressive collection now held at The Red House, home to the Britten-Pears Foundation, a public research facility http://www.brittenpears.org.
After Britten’s death, Pears continued to work with the school and the foundation. He died on the 2 April 1986. Their professional partnership was one of the greatest the world of music and the arts had seen and their personal relationship one of the most loving and dedicated.