Such an Artist
to Write for

Benjamin Britten’s relationship with Peter Pears completely altered the creative course of his life. He began composing vocal music inspired by Pears’ voice in 1940, and while he also wrote for other performers over the following decades, Pears remained his most constant and significant ‘muse’.

Such an Artist to Write For explores the remarkable relationships between Britten and his artistic collaborators, and reveals the powerful role that Pears, in particular, played in Britten’s compositions.

‘Being Beauteous’ from Britten’s Les Illuminations, dedicated to ‘P.N.L.P’ (Peter Pears’ initials). Sung by Pears

“I was attracted, even in those early days, by his voice”

Britten, 1967

Peter Pears was both the source of inspiration to Britten, as his lover and life-partner; but he was also the original performer, or creator, of Britten’s music. The fact that he recorded these pieces further enhances the association of his particular voice with Britten’s music: with the result that subsequent tenors performing this music have the ‘Pears’ sound ringing in their ears.

Britten’s ‘attraction’ to Pears’ voice was a lifelong passion. He composed hours of music for Pears to sing, hearing his partner’s voice time and again in the notes on the page. He even composed music best to suit Pears’ particular vocal range. As such, he effectively wrote his music ‘on’ Pears who edged into the territory of collaborator.

The Works

In November 1974 Britten wrote to Pears: ‘you are the greatest artist that ever was…What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for?’. Pears replied ‘it is you who have given me everything, right from the beginning…I am here as your mouthpiece and I live in your music.’ That Pears ‘lived’ in Britten’s music is evident in the sheer amount of it there is. Here, we reveal just how much music Britten composed for Pears, and what effect his partner had on his composing career.

“My inclination is to start from the vocal point of view”

Britten, 1961

While Britten composed quite a lot of vocal music before meeting Pears, it was after their relationship began that vocal music overtook non-vocal music in his output – and by quite some distance. The first graphs show the percentages of vocal versus non-vocal works in the pre-Pears era (including Britten’s childhood works), and the Pears era. 

Music for Pears

Operatic roles for Pears

‘Peter Grimes’ in Peter Grimes (1945)

‘Male Chorus’ in The Rape of Lucretia (1946)

‘Albert Herring’ in Albert Herring (1947)

‘Captain Vere’ in Billy Budd (1951)

‘Essex’ in Gloriana (1953)

‘Quint’ in The Turn of the Screw (1954)

‘Aschenbach’ in Death in Venice (1973)

+ major roles in all three of the Church Parables (1964, 1966, 1968)

Songs for Pears

Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940): 7 songs

Serenade (1943): 6 songs

The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945): 9 songs

Canticle I: ‘My Beloved is Mine’ (1947)

Canticle II: ‘Abraham and Isaac (1952)

Winter Words (1953): 8 songs

Canticle III: ‘Still falls the Rain – The raids, 1940, Night and Dawn’ (1954)

Three songs from The Heart of the Matter (1956)

Songs from the Chinese (1957): 6 songs

Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente (1958): 6 songs

Nocturne (1958): 8 songs

Who are these Children? (1969): 12 songs

Canticle IV: ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1971)

Canticle V: ‘The Death of Saint Narcissus’ (1974)

A Birthday Hansel (1975): 7 songs

+ 2 single songs (Um Mitternacht and Birthday Song for Erwin)

+ 60 folk songs

The Recitals

The 1950s was Britten’s busiest decade, during which he composed an astonishing 69 works. For Pears, he composed four song cycles, two large-scale vocal works (Canticles II and III) and major roles in three operas: Vere in Billy Budd, Essex in Gloriana and Quint in The Turn of the Screw. The performing schedule for both Britten and Pears was similarly hectic. Britten was Pears’ principal accompanist (only taking a break for illness in 1954) and the concert programmes here vividly illustrate how much their creative partnership was in demand on the recital stage.

In this film, Dr Lucy Walker explores Britten and Pears’ recital partnership further, including the international reach of their performance schedule, during the hectic 1950s.

“I live in your music”

Pears to Britten, 1974

Over the course of their 37-year long relationship Britten wrote hours of music for Pears to sing and got to know his voice incredibly well. The song cycles were shaped to best suit the particular characteristics, strengths and idiosyncrasies of Pears’ voice. The expressive capabilities of what Britten called his ‘flexible’ voice were put to the service of both the music and the poetry of Britten’s song cycles.  This interactive show the exact notes that Britten composed for Pears in the song cycles. The circles show the occurrences of individual note in the songs – the larger the circle, the more times that note appears. Over time, as Pears got older, the general range of the cycles dropped to accommodate Pears’ changing voice. As the interactive shows, Pears’ influence on Britten’s compositional life extended into the very notes on the page.

Click here to view the interactive.

Allan Clayton on Britten’s Music for Tenor

In this film, tenor Allan Clayton discusses the operatic roles and song cycles Britten wrote for Pears, and the challenges of singing such ‘bespoke’ music, composed for such a very particular performer.

“I am most completely and hopelessly committed to the people I write for”

Britten, 1967

After Pears, the person for whom Britten composed the most was the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. In the 1960s, when he took something of a break from song-writing, Britten produced six works for ‘Slava’. The talents of many other people over the years also inspired Britten to write for them, including some of the most famous and successful artists of the twentieth century.

Sophie Wyss

Hedli Anderson

Antonio Brosa

Dennis Brain

Kathleen Ferrier and Nancy Evans

Jennifer Vyvyan

Julian Bream

Mstislav Rostropovich

Galina Vishnevskaya

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Janet Baker

Osian Ellis

“I can never be thankful enough to you and to Fate for all the heavenly joy we have had together for 35 years. My darling, I love you – P.”

Pears to Britten, 1974