Alexandra Coghlan

The food of love | 30 June 2016

Their correspondence is the true libretto to Britten’s operas — passionate, moving and intensely musical

‘You are the most adorable man and artist, intelligent, gifted, simple, loving and noble… I am really very, very lucky to be alive with you around….’ The relationship between the tenor Peter Pears and the composer Benjamin Britten is part of our cultural and national furniture. A partnership spanning nearly 40 years drove each artist to the peak of his creative and expressive powers, producing works like Peter Grimes, Winter Words and the War Requiem, as well as their definitive recordings. But music is only half of the Britten-Pears story.

Before his death in 1976, Britten asked his friend and publisher Donald Mitchell to ‘tell the truth about Peter and me’. Both he and Pears were keen to turn a relationship lived behind closed doors — an open secret, but a secret nonetheless — into something real and admissible. The publication of their entire correspondence, 365 letters written from their earliest encounters through to the final year of Britten’s life, is something both passionately wanted.

Published here in full for the first time, these letters bear witness to a relationship in which love and creativity and romantic and professional lives are so tightly entwined that to try and separate them would make a nonsense of both. To read them is, as Fiona Shaw observes in her foreword, ‘to climb up a wall and peer into the secret garden of two giants’, an experience at once voyeuristic and involving.

‘I don’t think you ever realise how much you help me… you give me a loving critical confidence in every way.’ Composer and performer, artist and muse, lover and lover — the many strands of the Britten-Pears relationship all meet in Britten’s own music. Biographies have tended to stress the creative genius of Britten, reducing Pears to a supporting role; but what emerges here is a portrait of absolute creative co-dependence.

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