Celebrating the centenary of one of Britain’s finest singers
In life Peter Pears was always well regarded as a singer. Indeed he was often referred to as one of the most distinctive singers of his generation but he was always spoken of as part of a couple – both personal and professional – with Benjamin Britten. No sooner had someone uttered the name Peter Pears then they would swiftly add Benjamin Britten.
As the 100th anniversary of Peter Pears’ birth approaches, arts broadcaster and Aldeburgh resident Humphrey Burton is staging a special one-off edition of his winter Matinee Musicale series to not only mark the anniversary but also to give Pears the singer his due.
Burton admits you can never separate Pears from Britten, nor would you want to, but Pears was one of the greatest singers this country as ever produced and should be celebrated in his own right.
The event is to be staged at the Aldeburgh Cinema on Sunday and not only be illustrated with interview and performance footage from Burton’s own archive but Burton will be joined by five people who knew the singer well – John Evans, his personal assistant, Pears’ niece Sue Phipps, Jenni Wake-Walker, one of the Aldeburgh Festival production team from the late 1970s and Pears’ nurse Rita Thomson.
Burton said the aim of the afternoon was to not only celebrate the life of the one Aldeburgh’s greatest sons but to create an intimate portrait of a man “with rare personal qualities and outstanding artistic vision.”
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Burton marvels at the fact that although Pears was battling with the effects of a stroke, he continued to teach and indeed held a class on the very day he died.
“He was quite a remarkable man. Even though he had given up singing, he commissioned speaking works – works for narrator and piano.”
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Burton, as a young broadcaster with the BBC, first met Peter Pears in the mid-1960s, but was aware of him as a young schoolboy.
“I suppose I was first aware of him from about the age of 13 when I first heard Britten’s Serenade for Tenor and Horn. I heard this voice and I knew it belonged to someone very special.
“Then I went to see Peter Grimes when it first came on at Sadler’s Wells in 1945, so I am a very old Pears enthusiast.
“He had a very special kind of voice. He made so many parts his own not just Peter Grimes but Billy Budd, so when I came to Aldeburgh in 1963 to make the film for the BBC in honour of Britten’s 50th birthday, naturally you couldn’t do Britten without doing Pears as well.”
Although homosexuality was still technically illegal at the time, Burton said the film didn’t hide their relationship: “We described them in the film as partners in life as well as in music, which was incredibly brave at the time, which was our way of skirting round the issue but at the same time not hiding it.
“I never made a film specifically about Peter Pears but I did make three or four with Benjamin Britten and obviously Peter Pears played a large part in them.”
Peter Pears was born on June 22 1910 and studied music at Keble College, Oxford and served as organist at Hertford College, but left without taking his degree.
He later studied voice for two terms at the Royal College of Music before joining the BBC Singers in 1936 where he met Benjamin Britten. The pair gave their first recital together in 1937.
In 1938, the pair came to live in Suffolk, Britten’s home county when Britten bought The Mill, a property overlooking Snape marshes and in sight of what would become their concert venue The Snape Maltings.
Then, as war loomed closer, in the spring of 1939, they controversially decided to leave Britain for America. Their friend and poet WH Auden was already there and they agreed to join him.
“He was urging them to join him,” said Burton. “He sent letters saying that America was the future – that it was this tremendous land of opportunity.
“Britten and Pears were both very depressed about the situation in Europe and they thought they could make a new career for themselves in America.
“After three years they both wanted to return home. They came back to Britain in 1942, although both were conscientious objectors.
“They went before a tribunal and were excused fighting duties – although both contributed to the war effort through music and performances.”
Pears joined Sadler’s Wells opera company and became a travelling performer while Britten composed music for the concert hall and for wartime films.
During the latter stages of the war Britten started composing Peter Grimes, having been inspired by the tempestuous Suffolk coast.
Then in 1948, along with friend Eric Crozier they founded The Aldeburgh Festival, which they launched with the premiere of Albert Herring which was originally staged in Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall.
“Apparently it was Peter Pears’ suggestion that they stop touring and stage their own festival at home and within a few months they had organised a week-long celebration of music and the arts.”
Sunday’s event will start off with Humphrey Burton’s own impressions of Pears, gained over 30 years of knowing and working with him.
“It’s very much in the classic mould of the Matinee Musicales, me talking from personal experience and illustrated by film clips from the various programmes I have made over the years.
“But where this one varies is that we have some very well placed guests who can talk authoritatively about Peter.
“I will be talking to John Evans about Peter. He came to The Red House, Britten and Pears’ home, as a research assistant, was director of the masterclasses at Snape and was later appointed as Peter Pears personal assistant.
“He lives in Oregon now but as luck would have it, he is coming to England for his sister’s wedding in Cambridge on June 1, so we snapped him up.”
He said that Sue Phipps, a college friend from 60 years ago, is not only an Aldeburgh resident but is also Pears’ niece.
She agreed to attend to talk about her uncle – not only from a family point of view but also as his agent and manager.
“I didn’t want this to be a one-man show. I want the audience to gain as wide and as detailed a picture of this extraordinary man as possible.
“So I then made contact with Jenni Wake-Walker who used to do the programming for the festival in the late 1970s and even played piano duets with Pears at the final concert that Britten was well enough to attend.
“Jenni will talk about Pears’ amazing taste and how the festival developed after Britten died.
“It was very much Peter’s festival for the ten years after Britten died and Jenni worked very closely with him, shaping it for the future.
“They brought in famous names like Yehudi Menuhin but also were very keen to support and promote young composers and young musicians and they had started the Britten-Pears School before Britten had died in order to keep the flame of British music alive.
“Finally we have Rita Thomson who was not only Peter’s nurse but she also looked after Benjamin Britten when he became ill.
“I think she will confirm that Britten was a much more compliant patient than Pears was. Britten knew he was ill and wanted to take care of his health whereas Pears didn’t want to be fussed over and wanted to keep busy.”
The interviews would be interspersed with clips from Burton’s own documentaries and excerpts from performances.
“Pears will be seen singing and talking, so he will have a very strong presence at his own celebration.”
Burton described Sir Peter Pears as undoubtedly one of the finest singers that this country has ever produced.
“He can be an acquired taste but his singing is outstanding and he made some many roles completely his own.
“Many people have argued that Britten wrote for Pears. Pears was Britten’s muse but if you look, many other great singers have played these roles – Ian Bostridge and Andrew Kennedy and have done well with them – so Britten didn’t write them for only Peter to sing but Peter is the only one who really inhabited the parts and made them his own.”
He added that there is no suggestion that Pears ever interfered or offered suggestions during the composing process.
“Britten knew exactly what he wanted. He knew what Pears could do and I don’t think they sat huddled round a piano trying things out.
“Britten was very meticulous in every thing he did. He wrote the score and Pears then went away and learnt it, as any singer would.
“I understand that the famous pianist and accompanist Graham Johnson was hired as a young man to teach Pears a Britten score that had just been written.
“In other words it wasn’t Britten who went over it with him, it was a young accompanist who had the time to devote to these rehearsals.
“But Peter Pears had the natural voice for Britten to compose for.”
n Humphrey Burton’s Sir Peter Pears’ Matinee Musicale is at Aldeburgh Cinema on Sunday at 4.30pm. Tickets, priced at �10, are available from Aldeburgh Cinema box office 01728 452996.