“It’s a Life of the Two of Us”: Britten, Pears, and Narratives of Erasure

Peter Pears; Benjamin Britten by Kenneth Green (1943), National Portrait Gallery

On March 22nd, 2019, the Britten-Pears Foundation —the legacy of composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears— announced a merger with their sister organization just a few miles down the road, Snape Maltings. A merger long in the making, the press release discussed how this had always been the two’s goal: to have the home of the Aldeburgh Festival under the same organizational umbrella as what would become their archive, their library, and their home, the Red House.

In the years I’ve spent both at the Red House and at the Maltings, I have always felt a slight disconnect between Aldeburgh and Snape. I would often chalk it up to my usual desire to project my New York City-based sense of physical distance onto an English landscape. Despite being only six miles away, they felt worlds apart. Landscape plays a large part in this personal separation. Surrounded by the reeds of the Suffolk marshes and covered in mist that would roll in from the sea and settle on the land, the Maltings at Snape were a magical place. Having risen from the ashes after burning down in a fire two years after its opening, Snape Maltings has become one of those musical houses of the holy where devotees and pilgrims come to worship. The Red House, Britten’s and Pears’s home in Aldeburgh, invokes a different type of pilgrimage. For those who visit for the tour of the home, it is about experiencing the life Britten and Pears built together, not frozen in time but somehow still living, still radiating, still exuding their presence. (This is where I admit that the first time I went to the Red House as a baby musicologist over a decade ago, I cried when I saw the bed where Britten died in 1976, thinking about him being held by Pears in those last hours) For those like myself who come to do work in the archive or give performances in the library, it is a place of unending joy and discovery. It becomes so clear the plan both Britten and Pears had for their work beyond them. I often blush when I think about how pleasant my archival work has been in comparison to some of my colleagues. The Red House becomes a home to us just as it was a home to them. That drive on the A1094 becomes more than a winding country road. It is a journey between an earth and a heaven, the tangible and the transcendent. But despite the metaphysical distance between the two, it has always been clear that both Aldeburgh and Snape are and have been instrumental parts in Britten’s and Pears’s vision of the future, their musical future.

However, after the announcement was made, there was talk online about a key detail within this merger. The organization that would house the Britten-Pears Foundation, Snape Maltings and all of their entities would be called the Benjamin Britten Foundation. While the press release emphasized that this was a continuation of both Britten’s and Pears’s legacy, people asked if that could be possible when Pears’s name was being removed. The comments on the press release page testify to this friction. While there were some who supported the move, others voiced concern:

It seems to make sense but a pity PP has been dropped from the name. — Stephen Mead, 22 March 2019.

I also agree with the sentiment regarding the decision to drop Peter Pears’ name as a consequence of the recent merger of the two organisations. Sad. — Lynne Bentley, 1 April 2019.

Communications Manager Ella Roberts deftly responded to those comments but it seemed that her responses fell on deaf ears. Despite the insistence in the release that Pears would not be lost in this process, it seemed to many that a kind of erasure had already begun.

Erasure is an important word, one full of weighty implications. And the conversation around the merger’s new name started to focus on this concept, specifically that of queer erasure. The headline for Ben Baglio’s article about the merger read “Why is gay composer’s partner being erased from his foundation’s name?” and over several days, I found myself coming back to this again and again. Something about it never felt right and in trying to discover just why this was my reaction helped me to understand why I had been so concerned about the naming of this new foundation. In the days following the announcement, many people asked for my thoughts as well as sharing their initial feelings and in the first few days, I too thought that the removal of Pears’s name was a kind of queer erasure. But I stepped back from that feeling in order to try to evaluate it with some kind of distance. Just what do we mean when we invoke the politics of erasure?

Queer erasure as a concept has a cultural history, often applied to the kind of revisionism that has taken place in cultural objects such as movies, television, and books. There is a scholarly parallel as well, focusing on such issues as canon formation, archives, and institutional memory. Jamie Scot writes about the creation of the ONE Archives and the role this and other archival institutions play in the halting of queer erasure in academia. The story of the archive mirrors the ways in which underground and marginalized cultures protect and preserve themselves:

Starting with The Well of Loneliness in 1942, [Jim] Kepner soon amassed a large library of gay and lesbian related materials in his Torrance, California apartment, and began allowing researchers access to his collection … the collection was incorporated as the National Gay Archives in 1979 and then … the International Gay & Lesbian Archives in 1984.¹

The image of a library starting in someone’s home growing into a repository of foundational and, perhaps, hidden objects and histories shares a similarity with the story of the Red House. And this, to me, seems to actively conflict with the idea of an erasure-in-process.

For Baglio, what appears to comprise the heart of his argument is how the removal of Pears’s name decenters (or in his words, “straightwashes”) Britten’s own homosexuality. Baglio calls the decision “an insult to the LGBTQI community at large,” and that the renaming “sidesteps the issue of Britten’s homosexuality altogether.” The takeaway here is erasure, specifically the erasure of Britten’s own queerness. But this implication seems reductive, only allowing for a one-dimensional reading of both Britten and Pears, a reading that confines them to their homosexuality. Baglio mentions, albeit briefly, that the removal of Pears’s name “consigns Peter Pears to the status of an associate of Britten and denies his central role not only in Britten’s life and works, but in the work they did side by side,” but leaves this to once again highlight their status as gay men, rather than highlight in detail Pears’s own artistic legacy. My issue is not with Baglio here; his article reflects the issues that inflect discussions around artists from marginalized backgrounds. For example, how do we talk about Florence Price’s blackness and womanness without reducing her to those traits alone? (If you want to see how to do that, read this piece by Douglas Shadle) Britten, even Britten-as-composer, was more than his homosexuality and his relationship with Pears was more than a relationship between two gay men.

I find it difficult to agree with the narrative of erasure here for so many reasons. Britten and Pears have been retroactively afforded some of the privileges that allow for a continued queer storytelling: their status as British, white, male elites provides a frame in which talking about Britten and Pears as gay men is possible, permissible. This does not mean that queer erasure cannot and does not occur to all queer people. But historical negationism often favors the victors, regardless of the story, and race, gender, and class play a strong hand in who those “victors” are believed to be. The double portrait of Britten and Pears that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London is, I believe, a testament to this. So if this is not an instance of queer erasure, there needs to be something else that motivated my feelings of concern surrounding the removal of Pears’s name. I realized that my concern did center around a reductive reading of Britten. But unlike Baglio and others, it was not Britten-as-homosexual, but rather, Britten-as-genius.

Our conceptions of creativity are inspired by these 19th-century images: …the genius composer with the stub of a chewed pencil, working out a symphony in her head, while she lies in bed, sick and alone.²

We, as citizen-thinkers of the twenty-first century, are still beholden to the those intellectuals of the nineteenth century. Our ideas of genius, creativity, and innovation all stem from stories the Romantics told about themselves when coming face to face with the bourgeoning importance of the individual. And those who perform and study Western art music now are the most susceptible to those stories. Mahler composing in his solitary cabin at Steinbach am Attersee, Beethoven alone, writing furiously in his Viennese apartments, these images are fundamental in constructing the way in which we have come to understand not only the creative process but genius at work. It is always alone, sometimes tortured, even sacred at times. It removes any possible collaborators, performers, and even the audience. Composition as an act becomes communing with the divine and wrestling with the earthly — in solitude — to create a masterpiece. Work has been done, trying to counter, if not break that image but it persists. The canon is made up of composers who exemplify that lone genius myth, placing primacy on a specific if not embellished ontology. This kind of being removes the composer from the real world and the real world work of creating and performing musical works.

Britten’s greatest skill was as a collaborator, or rather, someone who was best inspired by the talents of others. This cannot be said of all composers; Britten’s ability to identify and isolate the foremost talents of the people with whom he worked was unparalleled. He wrote for people. Pears is the greatest and longest-running example of this: Pears served as a muse of sorts from song cycles to operas but was more than this. Pears was Britten’s co-librettist for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), worked on the English-language adaptation of Mozart’s Idomeneo, and of course, helped to create the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. But Pears was far from the only person with whom Britten would collaborate: singers such as Heather Harper, John Shirley-Quirk, Janet Baker, Alfred Deller, and Kathleen Ferrier, all singers who had a vocal quality that appealed to Britten (he often composed operatic roles for specific people and the specific qualities of their voices, envisioning a unique soundworld for his compositions that relied upon the performances of others); instrumentalists such as Dennis Brain, Mstislav Rostropovich, Osian Ellis, and Léon Goossens; and others such as John Culshaw, John Piper, and Imogen Holst, all people whose unique talents and strengths Britten was able to draw upon.

It is difficult to think about Britten without Pears solely based on the strength and impact of their collaboration. And that has always been what their names together have meant for me. As I mentioned, Baglio uses the term “straightwash” but for me, I think the analogous term is “geniuswash.” Just as Baglio states that he does not think that the straightwashing is intentional (but is inevitable nonetheless), I also do not think that the geniuswashing is intentional. But I do fear the repercussions. Our reticence as musicologists, musicians, music-lovers to give up on that solitary genius myth as a necessary part of determining what music is worthy of keeping, leads us down a path of narrowing the stories of our composers. The myth of the composer is reductive and reinforces a hegemonic viewpoint that is detrimental to the genre and only re-presents the worst take on who and what is musically valid and worthy. Britten was never alone. And the constant reiteration of that statement not only helps us understand Britten as a composer but helps to fight against the kind of musical gatekeeping that allows only certain types of composers into the canon.

I trust my friends and colleagues at the Britten-Pears Foundation. I know they are committed to the legacy to which Britten and Pears dedicated their lives. I know that Pears will not be forgotten or pushed aside. I also recognize that the merger and the naming may be rooted in practical, administrative, and logistical reasons to which I am not privy. But I do wonder what the name “Benjamin Britten Foundation” suggests to those unfamiliar with the composer. Does it tell the story of one whose artistic and compositional life was so deeply enmeshed with others or does it reinforce the idea of one man and one man only, creating art in monastic conditions? The story of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears is compelling not just because they loved each other (an amazing thing, to be sure) but because they were together in all things. As artists, impresarios, teachers, supporters, creators, they were together. And that union stands as a reminder to all of us who continue to look upon composers and their ilk as tortured, solitary geniuses to move away from the hagiographical and the deification. Their union stresses the very real world in which art lives and is created. It demystifies the creative process while simultaneously enlivening it. It makes them, their music, and their musical vision accessible to all of us and, in the end, I believe that is what Britten and Pears would have wanted.

¹ Jamie Scot, “A Revisionist History: How Archives are Used to Reverse the Erasure of Queer People in Contemporary History,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 1 (2014), 205–209.

² R. Keith Sawyer, “Writing as a Collaborative Act,” in The Psychology of Creative Writing, eds. Scott Barry Kaufman and James C. Kaufman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 168.

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Musicologist, historian, public intellectual, digital humanist. Thinker of things and writer of words.

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Imani Mosley

Imani Mosley

Musicologist, historian, public intellectual, digital humanist. Thinker of things and writer of words.

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