‘Darling Honey Bee...’ The 365 personal letters between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

‘You expect to hear the roar of their success and achievements but instead you read the timpani sound of their affections’

‘To read these letters is to climb up a wall and peer into the secret garden of two giants.’ From domestic dramas and dachshunds to ideas for the Aldeburgh Festival, a new book captures the lives of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in their own words.

Context and perspective are everything. Earlier this week we learned in the EADT how Suffolk music teacher Helen Ruddock had, as a girl, turned down lessons from composer Benjamin Britten because he was aloof and she just didn’t like him. Now we learn more about the relationship between “Benjie” and Peter Pears, his partner in music and life. Their intimacy was marked by phrases like “Darling Honey Bee” and “My own darling Poppet”. But, then, most of us are more than one person inside, aren’t we?

We know about the “dearest old things” and suchlike because of a new book. It presents, for the first time, the surviving 365 letters, cards and telegrams that pinged between the two from 1937 to 1976.

“These letters show how two huge artists who were so often parted, survived,” says actor and director Fiona Shaw in the foreword to My Beloved Man. “There is no question of either of them changing their natures, one an extrovert performer, the other a quiet composer – scruffed necks pulled apart by their gifts which were their attraction – and both paying the price, dealing with the necessity of long parting with an unrestrained frankness that allowed them to be together, intimately creating a hermetically sealed world.”

It’s Fiona – who played Mrs Dursley, Harry Potter’s aunt, in the films, and directed Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne – who coins the phrase about peering into the secret garden of giants.

“You expect to hear the roar of their success and achievements but instead you read the timpani sound of their affections. It is the terms of endearments, the ‘Honey buns’, the ‘My darlings’, that remind us we have encroached on their lives.”

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There’s stuff about requests for train times and evidence of quarrels – “reprimands for mistimed calls and bad moods, the vibrant, intense need to make up, and heart-stopping, delightful, random declarations”.

For Britten, regular written communication was “life & breath”.

Fiona Shaw reflects: “It is astonishing that these men created a totally realised domestic relationship that has remarkable contemporary immediacy during a period when it was illegal to love someone of your own sex.”

While it does feel as if we’re steaming open the envelopes and reading the letters while the house is still quiet, the editors of the book make it clear both men wanted their story to be told. Tenor Pears hoped in 1979 that eventually “the climate [would] be right for publishing some of the most marvellous letters that one can imagine, that [Britten] wrote to [him]” so their relationship would be described “clearly”. Britten, meanwhile, had hoped friend and publisher Donald Mitchell would write his biography and “tell the truth about Peter and me”. The editors say that although “a certain amount of insight may be gained into the genesis and development of Britten’s music, more compelling is the detail that the letters give of day-to-day activities both professional and domestic, conveyed in sometimes clumsy grammar and frequently idiosyncratic spelling.

“Their personalities emerge through the often hastily written but usually legible cursive script. The speed of writing is often suggested by the endless dashes that punctuate their sentences, appearing in place of colons or full-stops.

“They do little to hide when they are irritated with each other and certainly do not refrain from incidental spitefulness when referring to friends, musical colleagues or, particularly in Britten’s case, when making derogatory remarks about other (usually English) composers.

“Their letters are also interspersed with occasional lightheartedness, wit and a shared sense of humour.

“Both men were gregarious, enjoying the company of others either at home or on holiday, but they also highlight in their correspondence the reality that theirs was an intimate world of mutual dependence.” They add: “The correspondence shows a shared belief that, as outsiders together, they were often in opposition to the society in which they lived. ‘We are after all queer & left & conshies [conscientious objectors] which is enough to put us, or make us put ourselves, outside the pale,’ Pears asserted.”

There are some mildly flirtatious phrases, “and some risqué references appear now and then, especially in the early days, but the letters are not remarkable for their racy content”.

Britten and Pears got to know each other properly after the death of a mutual friend in the spring of 1937, going together to his cottage to sort through some of his belongings.

Their friendship, the book editors suggest, was built on shared interests: “going to concerts and films, dinner and weekend parties, playing tennis and impromptu late-night song recitals”.

That autumn, Britten wrote in his diary of Pears: “He’s one of the nicest people I know, but frightfully reticent.” By the following March they’d rented a London flat together – the Lowestoft-born composer had been lodging with sister Beth, who got married that January.

Before long, the gradual descent into war “is clearly a contributing factor in their decision to leave for North America… During the crossing, lasting just over two weeks, they grew ever closer, and by the time they arrived in Toronto in June 1939, they had fallen in love”. It marked the start of “what they themselves came to regard as their 37-year marriage”.

In 1974 – a couple of years before he died at 63 – Britten wrote from Aldeburgh to Pears, singing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in Death in Venice:

“I’ve just listened to a re-broadcast [on the radio] of Winter Words (something like Sept. ’72) and honestly you are the greatest artist that ever was – every nuance, subtle & never over-done – those great words, so sad & wise, painted for one, that heavenly sound you make, full but always coloured for words & music.

“What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for? I had to switch off before the folk songs because I couldn’t [bear] anything after – ‘how long, how long’. How long? – only till Dec. 20th – I think I can just bear it

But I love you,

I love you,

I love you —— B.”

In a TV film shown less than a year before his death in 1986, at the age of 75, Pears was asked what had been his greatest happiness.

“Unquestionably of course my life with Ben. I mean Ben was for the best part of forty years my nearest and dearest. And… I can’t be thankful enough for that… it was just a gift from God, something I didn’t deserve. It was a gift.”

My Beloved Man – The Letters of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, edited by Vicki P. Stroeher, Nicholas Clark and Jude Brimmer, is published by The Boydell Press at £25

The pain of being apart

…a dreary journey, a frightful city, a bleak room, a landlady like the Ugly Duchess, no hot water, fire which won’t burn, nothing but sausages till Tuesday, & then coping with emergency rations – the list is endless. & above all no you – I don’t think you really know how much I need you and want you always.

Pears to Britten, Glasgow, May 24, 1942

A minor quarrel

Here am I – wasted a bob on wiring you, & then cut short a pleasant evening with Stephan Spender to be back at 9.30 in time for your call – to find you’d rung at 9.10 (if I’d taken a taxi I should have been in in time for that call – so that much for good resolutions).

I then cajolled the exchange into giving me a call by 10.15 (there being over an hour’s delay), which the sweet things did by 10.10 – &, if you please, ‘Mr Pears has just gone out.’ No wonder I’m cross. Why the hell can’t you organise your time a bit – Why the hell don’t you do what you say, be in till 10.15 – why the hell – well, & so on. And all because I wanted to speak to you so badly.

Boohoo. Boohoo.

Britten to Pears, June 1, 1942

A minor quarrel

Here am I – wasted a bob on wiring you, & then cut short a pleasant evening with Stephan Spender to be back at 9.30 in time for your call – to find you’d rung at 9.10 (if I’d taken a taxi I should have been in in time for that call – so that much for good resolutions).

I then cajolled the exchange into giving me a call by 10.15 (there being over an hour’s delay), which the sweet things did by 10.10 – &, if you please, ‘Mr Pears has just gone out.’ No wonder I’m cross. Why the hell can’t you organise your time a bit – Why the hell don’t you do what you say, be in till 10.15 – why the hell – well, & so on. And all because I wanted to speak to you so badly.

Boohoo. Boohoo.

Britten to Pears, June 1, 1942

My opera stinks!

Honiest, bunchiest.

It was lovely to hear your voice over that unspeakable machine last night & Saturday. Sorry I was so involved on Sat. & so depressed on Sun. – but the latter is a thing which usually happens when I’m away from you; so we’d better not be apart too long. or I may shrivell altogether up in my depression.

My bloody opera stinks, & that’s all there is too it. But I dare say that I shall be able to de-odourise it before too long – or I’m hoping so. The week-end was a bit hectic – helping organise the concert, the artists, & the village after.

Britten to Pears, June 12, 1944

The poverty is heart-bleeding

Life here seems much the same as it was – shops filled with things, & prices lower than in England. Poverty seems enormous; I’d forgotten what real rags on people look like, & find it heart-bleeding. The infinite number of dirty & charming small boys is moving – do you remember? – selling papers, violets, or God-knows-what.

If we can buy things to bring back, we don’t yet know, but I believe the customs are strict to a degree. Dismal as life is in England now, I find this terrific difference between rich & poor (& the rich are now very rich, because of the boom in visitors) even more dismal – very old fashioned.

Britten to Pears, from Dublin, December 1947

The Suffolk addresses

The Old Mill, Snape: This disused windmill, converted by his sister’s father-in-law in 1937, was Britten’s early base

Crag House, Crabbe Street, Aldeburgh: Britten and Pears moved here in 1947. The composer relished the view of the sea, though being local celebrities, on a public road, became a pain

The Red House, Aldeburgh: The men moved to this old farmhouse in November, 1957, after swapping houses with artist friend Mary Potter

Chapel House, Horham, near Eye: Bought in 1970 as a retreat. Britten wanted to escape the noise of aircraft flying over Aldeburgh from the Bentwaters airbase near Woodbridge. The Red House would always be their main home, though.

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