Meet the tenor, Renaissance man, teacher, traveller, patron and home-maker.
The partnership of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears inspired some of the most important works written for tenor, securing Pears's reputation as one of the great singers of the twentieth century.
Britten and Pears at Snape, 1967. Photo: Brian Seed.
Peter Neville Luard Pears was born in Farnham, Surrey, on 22 June 1910, the youngest of Arthur and Jessie Pears’s seven children. His father was a civil engineer who spent much of his professional life abroad. Although his parents were often absent from his childhood, Pears was able to make strong and long-lasting friendships and seems not to have been lonely.
He spent a happy school life, first at The Grange near Crowborough, then at Lancing College in Sussex, which he entered in 1923. Before long he became heavily involved in Lancing’s musical activities, particularly as a member of the choir in the College chapel.
In addition to singing he often took part in chamber ensembles as a pianist. At school he gained an interest in Classics, and also a love of sport, particularly cricket, for which he would maintain a lifelong interest.
Pears entered Keble College, Oxford, to study music in the autumn of 1928, but failed the first-year Pass Moderations exams. He embarked on a teaching career, returning to his old school, The Grange. Here he developed an increasing interest in singing. As well as Music, he also taught Latin, Mathematics and History.
Pears took vocal lessons on a part-time basis, then in 1934 enrolled full-time at the Royal College of Music in London, studying with Dawson Freer, for what would prove to be only a two-term career as a student. He participated in several of the RCM’s operatic productions. This gave him the confidence to audition successfully for the BBC Singers and, in 1936, the New English Singers, thus launching his professional singing career.
In 1937 Pears met Benjamin Britten through Peter Burra, a mutual friend. From this developed one of the century’s most important musical partnerships. In the spring of 1939 Pears and Britten travelled to North America, initially for a few months. When war broke out they were advised to stay in the US, where they remained for two and a half years. During this time their professional relationship grew into a personal one that would last the rest of their lives. These were also years of great artistic growth for both. Pears took numerous singing engagements and even established his own vocal ensemble, the Elizabethan Singers.
Britten and Pears returned to England in 1942 and, in line with their shared commitment to the ideals of pacifism, both registered as conscientious objectors, believing that they could best serve their fellow human beings in time of war through their music.
In addition to touring with Britten, Pears worked with Sadler’s Wells during the war years, appearing in a wide range of operatic roles. However his breakthrough was undoubtedly as the title character in Britten’s Peter Grimes, first performed at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945. Grimes was only the first of what would prove to be a series of significant roles that Britten wrote especially for Pears. These included: the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia (1946), the title role in Albert Herring (1947), Captain Vere in Billy Budd (1951), Essex in Gloriana (1953), Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw (1954), the Madwoman in Curlew River (1964), and Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice (1973).
Pears shared Britten’s belief in the importance of making music, art and literature widely accessible. In the summer of 1947, while in Lucerne on a tour with the English Opera Group, he proposed what seemed at first like an eccentric idea: to hold a Festival of Music and the Arts in Aldeburgh, the small Suffolk fishing town the pair had just moved to. Within a year the first Aldeburgh Festival was held, with Pears taking a significant part not only as a performer but also as an artistic director—a role he would maintain for nearly forty years.
The Festival provided Pears with an ideal opportunity to share his great interest in fine art, with exhibitions—often featuring works from his own, extensive collection—a focal point. Although he is probably best remembered as the principal interpreter of Britten’s music, Pears also championed the work of other composers, and formed significant working partnerships with musicians other than Britten.
When his singing career ended in 1980 after he suffered a stroke, he commissioned several works for speaker and instruments, continuing to delight audiences with his musical readings. Pears’s many achievements as a musician were recognised officially through numerous honorary degrees. He was made a CBE in 1957 and awarded a knighthood in 1978.
Pears was an astute commentator on, and teacher of, music, whose insight into the workings of the voice from a performer’s point of view proved valuable to his role as an educator. He took part in courses as both teacher and pupil at the Elmhirsts’ famous school in Dartington as early as 1951 and from that time onward maintained an abiding interest in passing on the benefit of his knowledge and experience.
In September 1972 Pears and Britten arranged a study weekend for singers at Snape. This was the genesis of the Britten—Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies, an enterprise in which Pears continued to take a guiding hand after Britten’s death. Realizing the significance of the archival collection amassed by both himself and Britten, Pears also welcomed researchers to the Library at The Red House in Aldeburgh and presided over its official opening as a public research facility in May 1980. His devotion to teaching is clear from the fact that, despite his later years being hampered by the effects of the stroke, he kept up his responsibilities at the Britten–Pears School. He was, in fact, working there on 2 April 1986, the day before his death.
Pears’s love of art, literature and education paved the way for a significant legacy, much of which remains in evidence amid the collections at The Red House.