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Pears, Sir Peter Neville Luardfree

(1910–1986)

Sir Peter Neville Luard Pears (1910–1986)

by Reg Wilson, 1967 [in the title role of Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten]

Reg Wilson / Rex Features

Pears, Sir Peter Neville Luard (1910–1986), singer, was born on 22 June 1910 at Newark House, Searle Road, Farnham, Surrey, the youngest in the family of three sons and four daughters (one of whom died in infancy) of Arthur Grant Pears, a civil engineer and later a director of Burma Railways, and his wife, Jessie Elizabeth de Visme Luard. Pears's parents were married in Bombay in 1893. Much of his father's working life was spent overseas, which meant that Peter had little contact with him until 1923, when Arthur Pears retired to live in England. Pears's mother too was often absent, though it is clear from his letters that his relationship with her was a fond one and sustained throughout his young manhood. His brothers followed naval careers, continuing a family tradition in which there was a strong service element: his mother's father had been a general. But there was another, altogether different strand in Pears's ancestry, that of the church and, more particularly, the influence of Pears's great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker reformer. A bonding with Quakerism continued throughout Pears's life and was reflected in his pacifism, his sense of values, and his virtues. There was indeed something of the patrician Quaker in his looks, manners, and deeds. His habitual charm and courtesy rarely deserted him.

Pears's childhood, even though it may have lacked the continuity of a settled home, seems to have been happy, as indeed were his schooldays at Lancing College, Sussex, which he entered as a classical scholar in 1923. At Lancing he became aware of his homosexual nature, though it was some years before it found fulfilment. In this respect he lived at ease with himself throughout his life. It was at school, too, that his musical and theatrical gifts and inclinations showed themselves. He was a capable pianist, took part in operatic and dramatic productions, and involved himself in the school's cultural life. He was an accomplished cricketer. As his schooldays ended, his love of painting seems to have begun: his taste and judgement aided him in the acquisition over the years of a notable private collection which included many examples of work by the best British artists of the period.

In 1928 Pears went to Keble College, Oxford, to study music, but again without a very clear musical goal in mind. For a while he had a post at Hertford College as temporary organist. But his Oxford career was short-lived. He failed his pass moderations, left Oxford, and never returned. He went back to his preparatory school, The Grange, Crowborough, in 1929, this time as a teacher, and resumed his interest in cricket. At this point Pears's instinct for music finally located itself in his voice. This led to his undertaking, for the first time, professional vocal studies at the Royal College of Music in London, initially on a part-time basis and then, in 1934, as a full-time student (he was an operatic exhibitioner). Again, however, he failed to complete the course. He left after only two terms, during which he participated in college operatic productions, to begin his professional career as a singer, with the BBC Singers (1934–7) and, in 1936, the New English Singers, with whom he made his first visit to the USA. In finally making his commitment specifically to a singer's life, he was helped by Nell Burra. She was the twin sister of Peter Burra (1909–1937), a close friend of Pears at Lancing and Oxford, whose life Pears briefly shared in 1936 and 1937. It was a friendship with a momentous consequence for Pears and indeed for the history of British music.

Burra, a gifted writer on the arts, had met the young composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) in Barcelona in 1936, and the two men became friends. This was before Pears and Britten had met. It was Burra's untimely death in an air accident in 1937 that brought Pears and Britten together. Their remarkable partnership had its inception in April of that year when, as Burra's friends, they jointly sorted out his personal papers. Thus the end of one friendship was the beginning of another; and thereafter the careers of Pears and Britten were inextricably linked, as were their lives (they began to share a flat in 1938), though it was not until 1939 in Canada that the love of each for the other finally declared itself. It was sustained over thirty-six years. Pears had left England for North America with Britten in the same year and they did not return until 1942, when both men—convinced pacifists of long standing—sought and received exemption from military service, provided that they continued their wartime work as performing musicians.

Already in 1938 Pears had professional experience of opera as a member of the chorus at Glyndebourne, and in that year he was described by a fellow artist as 'tall, fair-haired, reserved and poetic-looking', most of which characteristics remained unchanged. Britten's phenomenal development as a composer for the opera house, which had begun in the USA, inevitably brought with it a comparable development in Pears, for whom Britten wrote an extraordinary number and variety of leading roles in almost all his principal operas, from Peter Grimes (1945) to Death in Venice (1973). It was in this last opera, dedicated to Pears, that Pears made his début at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1974, at the age of sixty-four. But while it is true that Britten's operas shaped Pears's destiny as an opera singer, it must be remembered that Pears, on his return to England from America, had established himself independently as a notable member of the Sadler's Wells company, appearing in such roles as Alfredo in La traviata, Ferrando in Così fan tutte, the Duke in Rigoletto, Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, and Vašek in The Bartered Bride. His performances attracted critical attention for their exceptional musicality and intelligence, and admiration from Britten, who was often in the audience. It was his growing confidence in Pears's theatrical and vocal skills that enabled Britten to write the title role of Peter Grimes with Pears's voice in mind (he had at one time thought of Grimes as a baritone). The famous world première of the opera on 7 June 1945 placed the composer in the front rank of musical dramatists of his time and Pears as his principal interpreter.

It was not only as a singer that Pears and his unique voice had an influential role to play in Britten's operas. In one of them, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), he collaborated with the composer in converting Shakespeare's text into a libretto. He was also the inspiration of the long series of song sets and song cycles that Britten composed between 1940 (the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo) and 1975 (A Birthday Hansel), a legacy of song perhaps without equal in the twentieth century. This rich fund of songs reflected the prowess of Pears and Britten as performers. They established themselves as one of the most celebrated and accomplished voice and piano duos of the post-war period, with an extensive repertory that included much of the work of Henry Purcell (when his songs were by no means the staple diet of recital programmes) and the great nineteenth-century classic song cycles—for example, Schubert's Winterreise and Schumann's Dichterliebe—in interpretations which themselves achieved classic status, and have been preserved on gramophone records. His partnership with the lute virtuoso Julian Bream became almost as celebrated, perhaps especially for performances of the Elizabethan master John Dowland, of incomparable sensitivity and skill from both singer and accompanist. Of equal note was Pears's Evangelist in the passions of Heinrich Schütz and J. S. Bach, roles to which he brought not only a predictable sensitivity but also an overwhelming sense of immediacy, as if he were a participant in the drama that was being unfolded. This was musical ‘theatre’ of an unusually exalted order.

Pears's life was inextricably interwoven with Britten's; until he suffered a slight stroke in 1973 as a result of his heart operation Britten was virtually the only pianist to accompany Pears. It involved strenuous recital tours at home and abroad, recording and broadcasting, and planning the policy of the English Opera Group (of which Pears was a co-founder, in 1947), and the programmes of the annual Aldeburgh festival (of which too he was a co-founder, in 1948). He played a leading role in both organizations as a performer and a stimulating, highly individual impresario.

Peter Pears was appointed CBE in 1957 and knighted in 1978. He received honorary degrees from several universities, and Keble College, Oxford, made him an honorary fellow in 1978. From 1957 he and Britten lived together in the Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk. After Britten's death in 1976 Pears continued to live in the house until his own death there on 3 April 1986. He was buried beside Britten in the churchyard of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Aldeburgh.

It was Britten's name, as opera and song composer and pianist, that was inevitably most closely associated with Pears's. But his distinctive interpretations of roles other than Britten roles will not be forgotten: his Tamino in The Magic Flute, Idomeneo (in Mozart's opera), David in The Mastersingers, and Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida by William Walton, were all marked by the exceptional musicality and intelligence that characterized him as a singer and, above all, by his exceptional response to, and articulation of, words. He was as sensitive to the sounds of words as he was to pitches. It was a gift that enabled him to bring even a ‘dead’ classical language to life, as in his masterly performance as Oedipus in Igor Stravinsky's opera–oratorio, in which he collaborated with the composer. He was an enquiring and adventurous singer too, as the long list of first performances by living composers other than Britten amply demonstrates, among them commissions which he himself generously funded. His commitment to the singer's life and art, which had begun so tentatively in the 1930s, found further reflection in his later years when he was an active teacher in the Britten–Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. This he had co-founded with Benjamin Britten in 1972, and, after the incapacitating stroke he suffered in 1980, which brought his career as a performer virtually to an end, he devoted more and more of his time to it. It was entirely appropriate that he should die at home at Aldeburgh, the focus of his personal and musical life for so many years, having completed, the day before, a full day's teaching at the school—a course, as it happened, on Bach's passions—passing on to future generations his own unique experience of music, of creative partnership, of the spectrum of the arts, and of life itself. It was the totality of all of these that coloured and informed Pears's voice and made it the unique instrument that it was. There were some who found it difficult to come to terms with its peculiar timbre. But his admirers worldwide rightly regarded it as a vehicle of civilization and sensibility without equal among English singers of his time.

Sources

  • C. Headington, Peter Pears: a biography (1992)
  • M. Thorpe, ed., Peter Pears: a tribute on his 75th birthday (1985)
  • Letters from a life: selected letters and diaries of Benjamin Britten, 1913–1976, ed. D. Mitchell and P. Reed, 2 vols. (1991)
  • personal knowledge (1996)
  • The Times (4 April 1986)
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Britten–Pears Library, Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, papers
  • King's AC Cam., letters to G. H. W. Rylands

Likenesses

  • K. Green, double portrait, oils, 1943 (with Benjamin Britten), NPG
  • photographs, 1945–67, Hult. Arch.
  • Fayer, photograph, 1950–59, NPG
  • G. Ehrlich, plaster cast for bronze head, 1963, NPG
  • R. Wilson, photograph, 1967, Rex Features Ltd, London [see illus.]
  • A. Newman, bromide print, 1978, NPG

Wealth at Death

£641,777: probate, 30 Jan 1988, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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