In my first real music history class, I was confronted with a disturbing fact: I couldn’t name a single British composer. In a get-to-know-you exercise our professor asked us about our homes and histories, and then connected them to music. You’re from Louisiana? Tell us about the history of cajun and zydeco! Your family came from France? Name some French composers for us. Circling around the room, my professor stopped at me.
“Where are your ancestors from?”
“As far as I’m aware, my ancestry is almost entirely English.”
“Name a British composer!”
I was startled. I ran through a list of composers in my head, feeling very put on the spot. Mozart? No, of course not, Mozart was from Austria! Beethoven was German, so was Brahms. Dvorak was Czech. Copland, Korngold, Barber… all American. Why couldn’t I have been French? All of my favorite composers are French!
“That’s right,” my professor said with a smile, seeing my struggle. “No one ever remembers the British!”
Just a few short years later, to my embarrassment, of course, I learned about Delius, Elgar, Holst, Britten… I’d heard their names and music before but didn’t really know anything about them, including where they were actually from.
This Friday is the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and, even in this important year, not much time has been set aside for the British composer. 2013 is a biggie in the world of classical. It’s also the centennial of the premiere performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the bicentennial of both Wagner and Verdi’s births. That’s a lot of competition for a comparatively unknown British composer.
Sure, the Big Five set aside a couple of performances for Britten. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2013-14 season contains three sets of performances that add Britten to the repertoire, although his works are simply included, not highlighted. Even these performances aren’t advertised for Britten; instead they are meant to celebrate Mozart and Mahler. Some of the other members of the Big Five do a better job — the New York Philharmonic has two programs specifically dedicated to the composer, one for adults and one to introduce a younger audience to his work. But even between all five, (Philadelphia, New York, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra), there are only a total of 16 programs for the composer at America’s most popular classical venues, or an average of three per venue. Compare that to Philly’s month of Tchaikovsky or Cleveland’s three-week Beethoven / Shostakovich celebration and it’s as if Britten isn’t having a birthday at all.
Obviously, orchestras don’t pick their programs arbitrarily. Popularity has a lot to do with it, sure. Orchestra directors need to attract a large enough audience to actually fund their orchestra. But a lot of thought goes into choosing repertoire; programs are curated like an art exhibit. Cleveland’s Beethoven / Shostakovich celebration, for example, is meant to explore music’s capability of expressing something as intangible as the idea of freedom. But it’s not as if all there is to Britten is his birthday. Britten is as worth hearing today as he was last year or will be next season. And what’s particularly disappointing about the underwhelming coverage of the Britten anniversary is that audiences are missing out on a really fantastic love story.
Britten composed for love. Yes, like any composer he wrote for love in a transcendental sense — his love of music — but he was also inspired by love in a more traditional fashion. As a young man, Britten met and became lifelong partners with British tenor Peter Pears. Besides Beethoven’s mysterious Elise, we don’t hear of many muses in music. Male muses are even rarer still. One of the most unforgettable operatic singers of the 20th century, Pears and Britten were a good match. Pears didn’t have what would be considered a classically beautiful voice. There was something more real, more raw, to his sound than a traditional painstakingly perfected voice. It was unique, and Britten found both the voice and the man inspirational.
After beginning as professional friends, Pears quickly became Britten’s muse; Britten dedicated numerous works to Pears, including his Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. And almost all of his operas were written specifically with Pears in mind — he was the lead in Peter Grimes and Death in Venice and also performed in both War Requiem, Billy Bud, and many, many more.
Keeping all of that in mind, are we today even able to listen to Britten’s works as they were intended? The Beatles weren’t The Beatles without John Lennon and Paul McCartney collaborating. Maybe this is why our interest in Britten has waned over the years. Maybe the passion of his operas are lost when a tenor other than Britten’s muse tries to step in.
Today, the Britten-Pears Foundation has been established to continue to preserve the legacy of this longstanding artistic collaboration and relationship. On the foundation’s website, there is a Pears quote repeated multiple times. Pears said of his partner, “It isn’t the story of one man. It’s the life of the two of us.” Something about that statement I find profoundly resonant. It is simultaneously selfless and self-aware. We can’t celebrate the life and work of Britten, without acknowledging the hugely influential role Peter Pears played in it. And from the looks of the few performances bothering to acknowledge Britten at all this season, the story simply isn’t being told.
Britten and Pears met in 1939 and it was only a matter of months before they began living together — a situation that must have raised some suspicions and questions of decency for the times. Their life together was faced with adversity. Susie Gilberts, in her book Opera for Everybody: The Story of English National Opera, outlines the disturbing response Britten and Pears faced when the decision was made to cast Pears as the lead in Peter Grimes:
Serious trouble had begun when the eleven-week period of rehearsals began on 22 March 1945 in Liverpool. “Simmering resentment,” [Joan] Cross [the opera’s artistic director] later wrote, “Boiled up into open hostility.” Britten and Pears “were sneered at as Joan’s pansies.”
So great was the opera company’s resentment of their relationship, that the performance was almost canceled. A boycott was threatened. Luckily, no one followed through and the English audience proved loyal. Peter Grimes premiered to a full-house. It was one of the first national operas to be performed since the end of the First World War and the audience loved it.
Interestingly enough, early drafts of the opera show that Pears’s role, Peter Grimes, had a romance with his male apprentice. That plot point was omitted from the final score. A post-WWI audience probably wasn’t ready for homosexual themes. And after the bullying they’d received from within the company, it likely seemed a practical edit.
You’d think that in our modern more liberal world that more people would celebrate these men and their success. But even today, what’s written on their relationship seems to gloss over the truth a bit — most histories you read on the pair refer to them as having a life-long personal friendship. Is it still taboo, even now? It’s certainly not beside the point or unnecessarily scandalizing: These were two men who lived with each other for over 30 years; and the fruit of that relationship was the production of some of the most influential compositions of the 20th century. To celebrate the life and work of Benjamin Britten, we must fully acknowledge the role Peter Pears, the love of his life, played in Britten’s success. • 21 November 2013