This month Clef Notes is taking a look at composer love stories. Benjamin Britten’s life and work was greatly affected by his own love story. Britten met tenor Peter Pears in 1936 and they ended up living together until his death in 1976. Pears inspired much of Britten’s operatic roles and song cycles and the two collaborated regularly in performance.
Britten and Pears carried on a homosexual relationship during a time in history when this was looked down upon by society. This perhaps explains thematic undertones of his famous opera Peter Grimes, during which a fisherman is driven to suicide by the community around him. This opera became the first major English opera since the days of Henry Purcell.
Homosexuality is another theme found in some of Britten’s work. One such example is his opera Death in Venice, based on the work by Thomas Mann. The plot revolves around a writer who becomes infatuated with a young boy. Britten perhaps felt a certain connection to Mann’s work, as he also experienced attraction to the innocence of youth. Death in Venice was his last opera. Pears performed the leading role, however Britten was unable to attend the premiere due to the illness that would eventually take his life.