World premiere: the extraordinary love letters between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Britten and Pears in the garden at Crag House, Aldeburgh, 1957

Britten and Pears in the garden at Crag House, Aldeburgh, 1957 - Credit: Creative Commons

Conor Mitchell’s composition based on the love letters between composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears is having its world premiere at Cheltenham this month. Katie Jarvis talks to the Irish composer about homosexuality and those ordinary, extraordinary, letters 

Cheltenham Music Festival: July 8-16

The love letters are beautiful; charming; lyrical. ‘I live for Friday, & you,’ one of them reads, yearningly. In another, the beloved is ‘pearly bottomed, creamy-thighed, soft-waisted.’ 

It is clear these two loved completely: soul – and sinuous body. 

But let the camera pan out – from postman on bicycle, pushing another longed-for envelope through the door of a Suffolk farmhouse – to the world beyond that isolated, red-brick hideaway. 

And, suddenly, the scene becomes more brutal. A post-war Britain where the deep and lasting love between two correspondents – composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears – was damned; illegal. Their 39-year relationship – which began in 1937 – would mostly remain illicit; it wasn’t until 1967 that the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts between men over 21 in England and Wales. 

Yet despite the ever-present danger, the words between them, tumbling onto page after page, sparkle with joyful, unalloyed ordinariness. 

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at the Old Mill, Snape, in 1943

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at the Old Mill, Snape, in 1943 - Credit: Creative Commons

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‘I find it very odd,’ says Conor Mitchell, the distinguished Belfast composer commissioned with turning this correspondence into a song cycle. ‘When you read the letters of a lot of other [gay] people at the time, they’re generally worried about being imprisoned, or about friends who’ve been imprisoned; secrecy is paramount. But, with these two, that doesn’t seem to enter into it at all.’ 

Indeed: the title of the piece Conor has penned – to be premiered at this month’s Cheltenham Music Festival – plays beautifully with that enigma. Look Both Ways should be a paranoid warning; an earnest instruction to be wary of every prying eye. In fact, it’s a quote from a 1944 letter from Britten telling Pears, ‘Take care of yourself – look both ways in crossing roads, wrap up well, & don’t get your feet wet – because you belong to me!” 

Sheer, blissful domesticity. 

Yet an enigma it remains. ‘If a letter was intercepted, it’s quite clear what was going on. And I wonder where that [openness] comes from. Is it the emotional stability they have with each other? Or is it that they felt they were above that?’ 

Possibly. But being high profile gave no immunity: 1952 was the year Alan Turing was investigated for ‘acts of gross indecency’; in 1953, the newly knighted John Gielgud was arrested in public toilets in Chelsea. 

‘When the piece was commissioned, some people might have been looking for a kind of smoking gun – a giant statement about the legalisation of homosexuality; or some worry about being discovered. 

‘But, actually, that never factors into the correspondence,’ Conor says. ‘It’s just incredibly normal. And that, in its way, is quite shocking.’ 

Conor Mitchell

Conor Mitchell conducting The Belfast Ensemble - Credit: © Neil Harrison Photography

THERE IS A genius in commissioning Conor Mitchell to write this piece. (Actually, it’s genius in many ways.) While Britten and Pears were no homosexual rights activists (‘And I’ve previously been quite harsh on them for that. Now I realise, maybe, it’s just that they were settled in their world and they didn’t see it as their fight’), Conor has used his own profile to take injustices centre stage. Literally. When he created Ten Plagues with Mark Ravenhill, a modern opera/song cycle, it was ostensibly about the bubonic devastation of 1665. Yet, written especially for Marc Almond to perform, it shone a parallel light on the AIDS crisis of the 80s. 

As if that wasn’t enough, in 2020 it seamlessly morphed into a powerful lockdown production. 

‘I love plays and operas where we show we’re not as new as we think we are,’ Conor says. ‘And Marc Almond was a physical reminder of surviving the entire [AIDS] period. That Marc was still singing and had not died of AIDS… I hadn’t even really processed how powerful his physical presence would be.’ 

Abomination: A DUP Opera

Abomination: A DUP Opera - Credit: outburstarts.com

Then there’s Abomination: A DUP Opera of 2018, in which Conor Mitchell took the words of (among others) Iris Robinson – the DUP MP who labelled homosexuality an ‘abomination’ in a live radio interview – and set them to versatile, emotional music: an outstandingly bold, satirical, deeply moving work. 

Therein lies true power: claiming something offensive and ugly; capturing it for yourself; and turning it into beauty and funniness… 

‘I felt that was a really important moment in gay rights in Northern Ireland,’ Conor reflects. ‘It wasn’t so much that the politicians [Robinson and others] had said that; it was that they said it publicly and they were never challenged. They didn’t lose their jobs; nobody said anything; if anything, people agreed.’ 

Conor Mitchell

Conor Mitchell conducting The Belfast Ensemble - Credit: © Neil Harrison Photography

And there’s the opera he’s currently working on, with The Belfast Ensemble, bringing to the stage the Manhattan trial of disgraced Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein. 

It’s been a delicate process of artistry and respectful examination of the trauma victims endured. But it’s not about moralising. As Conor points out, there’s nothing theatrical in standing on stage and stating the obvious. 

‘And that’s not why I wanted to make it. It was the correlation between patterns of behaviour in sexual abuse and the potential expression of that in music. 

‘That’s what I wanted to do. 

‘I saw Harvey Weinstein’s abuse as being a kind of theme and variations. It was the same thing over and over again, but a little bit different. It became hidden in plain sight.’ 

Conor Mitchell

Conor Mitchell - Credit: © Neil Harrison Photography

HIDDEN IN plain sight. That’s an interesting phrase – in a completely different sense – for Look Both Ways, too. 

Does he think Britten and Pears ever intended their letters to be seen by a wider audience? 

‘In the case of Peter Pears, I don’t think so; I think they [his letters] are private and written from the heart.’ 

But Britten? 

‘Britten was obsessed with his own legacy. He kept pieces of paper from childhood. He gave himself his own opus numbers and catalogued his entire life from a very early age. And he edited his own archive, constantly. So you always get the sense that Britten would have been aware that, at some point, these letters would be read.’ 

Goodness – what a commission. A series of seemingly irreconcilable contrasts to be gathered, digested, and turned into a musical work. Letters that are both secret and open; domestic and dangerous; and which chronicle a long relationship that burned with passion; that delighted in the mundane; that explored the biggest questions human beings can ever ask: about art, about music, about love. No small matters, then. 

How on earth did Conor approach that? 

‘I had to find some kind of corner that, in a sense, turned me on either theatrically or musically. What I knew it couldn’t be was biographical because it would have lasted 20 hours.’ 

Conor Mitchell

Conor Mitchell - Credit: © Neil Harrison Photography

That corner – the one that Look Both Ways explores – is a fascinating one; one that takes the audience back to the 1940s. The Benjamin Britten we have come to know isn’t, as yet, the grand man of British music. Instead it’s Peter Pears (nowadays, in many ways, the lesser partner in musical history) who is the dominant voice in the relationship. 

‘He was this very urbane, effervescent, very handsome and tall man, who was very witty – and he was the chief correspondent. This singer, who was touring the world, singing song cycles; and who, I suspect, felt a little bit uncomfortable being so rural [at their home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk]; writing back to a Benjamin Britten who is trying to develop his own musical language. 

‘That separation, and the difference in those men, felt a good starting point. Just before the end of the war, just after the war: that whole period felt very exciting. Because they were young men in their 20s.’ 

And Look Both Ways reflects the repertoire Pears was singing all around the world – Schumann, Noel Coward, Cole Porter – as he penned his letters home. Assuring his lover: 

It’s so boring here in New York! I wish I was back in Suffolk. ‘Probably lying to Benjamin Britten a little’. And Britten replying with news of his health; or tidbits about redecorating the living room. 

Words of love in a climate that disdained them. Mundane words of fortitude and courage. 

Ordinary, extraordinary, letters.

Conor Mitchell’s new piece Look Both Ways is being premiered at Cheltenham Music Festival on July 16; cheltenhamfestivals.com/music