Today is the centenary of Peter Pears’s birth, one of Britain’s great 20th century tenors, and the lifelong partner of the composer Benjamin Britten. Though Britten was a more committed diarist, Pears too kept a journal, when on holiday or abroad rehearsing. Over the years, these were often reproduced for fans in Aldeburgh Festival publications, but they were not published as a collection until the 1990s. They provide an engaging picture of Pears’s and Britten’s professional and private lives together.
Pears was born in Farnham a century ago today on 22 June 1910. He was schooled at Lancing College, Sussex, and then studied music at Keble College, Oxford, for a year before dropping out. He also studied voice at the Royal College of Music for two terms. His professional career began with the BBC Singers in 1934. By 1937, he had met the composer Benjamin Britten with whom he formed a lifelong partnership, both professionally and personally. During the war, they spent three years in the US, returning in 1942 when Pears began to develop his career as a soloist.
Pears made his operatic debut in The Tales of Hoffman before, in 1945, singing the title role in Britten’s famous opera Peter Grimes. Thereafter, Britten wrote many tenor roles into his operas, specifically for Pears. According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, Britten regarded Pears as the ‘greatest artist that ever was’, and dedicated several works to him, including Death in Venice, his operatic swansong, in which Pears took the role of Aschenbach.
Pears also made a name for himself singing Lieder, English song and oratorio. Otherwise, he taught, commissioned new music, and collaborated with Britten and others in the founding of the English Opera Group, the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. He died in Aldeburgh in 1986. Wikipedia and the Britten-Pears Foundation have more biographical information, as does The Daily Telegraph which is remembering his centenary today.
Not a committed diarist like Britten (see Britten’s firecrack crits and The Diary Junction), Pears nevertheless did keep diaries when abroad. Some of these were published or partly published in various ways during his lifetime, but twelve of them were first put together as a collection in 1995 and published by The Boydell Press in conjunction with the Britten-Pears Foundation - Travels Diaries 1936-1978, edited by Philip Reed.
The first diary dates from 1936, the year before his friendship with Britten began, when he went on tour to North America with the New English Singers. Other diaries record a long tour to the Far East and encounters with the gamelan music of Bali and the Japanese Noh theatre; visits to Russia as guests of Rostropovich; and attendance at the Ansbach Bach Festival when Pears was at the height of his career. Also recorded are holidays in Armenia, the Caribbean and Italy, a concert tour through the north of England, and accounts of the rehearsals and performances of the New York premieres of Billy Budd and Death in Venice.
Here are two extracts from the Armenia journal. This first appeared in the 1966 Aldeburgh Festival Programme Book. Later the same year, Pears had a 1,000 copies of the journal printed privately, and distributed them as Christmas gifts.
18 August 1965
‘After our expedition to Pushkin’s memorial, Ben spent 24 hours in bed with tummy in extremis. Every imaginable remedy was proferred and taken, Alka-Seltzer, Enterobioform, manganese in solution and stewed pomegranate leaves. All of which, in ensemble, proved effective and Ben was OK in 48 hours. Well enough, yesterday, to go for a gentle drive down the river past Dilidjan to Idjevan, through high mountains of bare rock on the west side and craggy bristling rocky precipices all covered over with forest on the east side. Superb trees of all sorts, and willows in the rushing, clear pebbly water. Our driver has been chastened and we went seldom more than 30 mph. It was, of course, much more pleasant and we could really look at this superb and ‘horrid’ country.
Ben’s two days’ hors de combat, one in bed and one on the sofa, produced, as it so often does, intense creative energy. He has now just written his 5th Pushkin song, and Galya, who is to sing them, heard them for the first time this afternoon. She was deeply affected, as I knew she would be, and wants to get at them at once. Slava, too, was highly excited. I am pegging on at the translations.
Last night after dinner we had heard a record of Edik Mirzoyan’s Symphony for Strings and Timps on a very bad gramophone which didn’t give the work much chance, to his distress. It has some nice sounds and is felt and tense, though the last movement was played too slow and sounded ineffective. Tonight another leading residing composer is going to play a piece of his to us.’
28 August 1965
‘Saturday, the day of our departure. Our three weeks in this lovely and - now - sunny valley, where we have been spoiled by everyone, had to exact one boring duty before we left, and instead of spending our last morning with Gilbars and her puppies, or baking on the balcony, or finding a new wild-flower (I found an orchid, but not a very beautiful one, I thought), we had to listen to an endless tape of an Armenian composer, Edgar Oganessian, the director of the theatre in Erevan. Pretentious, bombastic, rhetorical, with minimal ideas and a maximal display of pseudo-energy, listening to it in a fairly comfortable chair paralysed one’s hind-quarters and made every muscle contract with bored fury. We got quickly away and solaced ourselves at an early lunch with what we call Moscow-mineral-water, i.e. vodka (water in Russian is voda, without the k). Farewell kisses to all, the chauffeur, the manager (Marcel), our superb cook, Hadjik, who had cried with indignation at the idea of a tip, our little nut brown cleaner who had not been kissed by a man for 25 years, I think, and off we had to go to Yrevan and the Britten Festival.’
And here is one extract from the diary Pears kept while in New York preparing for his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Death in Venice. This too was first published in an Aldeburgh Festival Programme Book, of 1975.
5 October 1974
‘Ben called early, very clear to hear.
I did go to the rehearsal at 10:30 of Act I, and I started well and got most of it right. Then suddenly at about 11:45, I lost memory, courage and all, and left the rehearsal in despair. However, before doing so I made a date with Richard Voitach, the understudy for Steuart Bedford and a junior conductor on the Met staff, to work with him on D in V at 4 o’clock. We spent a MOST VALUABLE 1 3/4 hours on the opera, which restored my confidence and made me feel much BETTER. A nice helpful man. The Met’s acoustics are so good that a small voice like mine well-protected will sound perfectly clear and good! Let’s hope so. . .
Was stopped by a boy with a beard as I left Met who had heard D in V at Aldeburgh. Madly enthusiastic. Had just seen Don Giovanni matinee. ‘How was it?’ ‘Well, it was was well conducted.’
6:30. Home to a gin and my view over Central Park. The trees darken, the lights go on, the other side (East) looks like a chalk cliff, with a pale glow above. Reminded me of the olive trees below Delphi!!
Still taking ANTIBIOTICS. Back to Milton. Paradise Lost: splendid scene of Lucifer massing his forces, who move ‘in perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood of flutes and soft recorders’. Poor instruments! Do they belong the devil?’