The 2020 exhibitions at The Red House explore the rich and fascinating theme of ‘inspiration’. In 1974, Britten wrote a letter to Pears expressing his gratitude for what Pears had given him over the decades: “What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for?”. Pears was not, however, only a ‘muse’, but a true collaborator. Our gallery exhibition this year examines in detail the powerful effect Pears’ artistry had on Britten’s entire career: from the sheer amount of music he inspired in him, to their professional recital partnership, to even the notes on the page.

Pears was the person for whom Britten composed the most; but Britten nearly always wrote for particular performers, many of whom spurred him on to explore new musical landscapes. The exhibition pays tribute to the remarkable talents of Mstislav Rostropovich, Julian Bream and Janet Baker among many others.

The exhibition will open on Tuesday 3 March and will run until Sunday 1 November. For more information about opening times please see our Visit page.

Gracious Muse (or, Such an Artist to Write For/Paint/Film/Choreograph…)

By Dr Lucy Walker

‘Music from my fourth year began to be the first of my youthful occupations. Thus early acquainted with the gracious muse who tuned my soul to pure harmonies, I became fond of her, and, as it often seemed to me, she of me.’ (Ludwig van Beethoven)

Asking any creative artist ‘where they get their ideas from’ is likely to cause a groan or a sarcastic quip. ‘Schenectady’ was the habitual response of writer Harlan Ellison, while John Cleese gave an elaborately satirical answer when interviewed about his 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda:

‘People often ask me where I get my ideas from. And in fact it’s from a little man in Swindon called Bickley, Mr Bickley, and I asked him once where he got his ideas from and he gets them from a Mrs Phelps in Lowestoft. But she absolutely refuses to say where she gets hers from. It’s a mystery to us all.’

Yet inspiration has to come from somewhere, even if its precise source is elusive. In ancient Greek culture, inspiration was given a form: the nine muses, who embodied their art forms as well as inspiring practitioners of them. These goddesses, like celestial heads of department, were responsible for a range of cultural areas: epic poetry, history, flutes and lyric poetry, comedy, tragedy, dance, love poetry, sacred poetry and astronomy. That they were all female is no coincidence, as throughout Greek mythology the notion of ‘inspiration’ was related to a kind of ‘feminine’ hysteria, or possession; and the muse is nearly always referred to as ‘she’. As Stephen Downes writes, ‘the passionate poet’s masculine identity is challenged by his assuming characteristics associated with those of an hysterical woman’ – and therefore the female muse must be ‘tamed’ or controlled by a male artist. Much later on, the ‘muse’ of (male) artists was often female – such as Lizzie Siddall for the pre-Raphaelite painters; or Adele Bloch-Bauer for Gustav Klimt. Characteristically, the feminist writer Germaine Greer flips the gender perspective, writing that in fact the muse ‘penetrates or inspires [the male artist] and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind.’

Muses can be ‘ideals’, can symbolise the ‘taming’ of an artistic ‘possession’, or can be the more active source of generating creativity. A choreographer once remarked that they choreograph ‘off’ a particular dancer – the craft of both dancer and choreographer fuse to create the work. In the world of cinema, the muse can mirror or effectively represent the film’s director. As such, and while there are plenty of examples of male director/female muse combinations that have a more complex dynamic (Ingmar Bergman/Liv Ullman, for example, or more problematically Alfred Hitchcock/Tippi Hedren), the ‘muse’ is just as often male. In Martin Scorsese’s films, Robert de Niro and later Harvey Keitel were both inspiration to and alter-ego of the director; as Keitel put it ‘you’re always playing the director, who’s always playing you’. Christopher Nolan frequently casts Cillian Murphy, Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio – not only his avatars of tortured masculinity on screen, but bearing a patrician, high cheek-boned resemblance to the director himself. And cinema is one of the few areas in which women visibly work with their own muses – such as Kirsten Dunst for director Sofia Coppola.

In the world of classical music, composers can be inspired by a voice either as foundational material for a particular work, or as preferred exponent after the piece has been completed. Notable examples are the Francis Poulenc/Denise Duval partnership, or that of Samuel Barber and Leontyne Price. At times the contribution of the ‘muse’ takes on the form of concrete collaboration. Singer Juliet Fraser, who has worked with numerous contemporary composers, is often in fact the initiator of the collaboration and ultimately the co-creator of the resulting work: ‘I have found myself seeking out new forms of collaboration, hoping to fuel my development and increase my sense of agency.’ She remarks that despite this the performer is often seen as lower down the standard ‘hierarchy’ of creativity in the eyes of the public, regardless of the level of performer involvement.

Britten (right) and Pears (out of focus) sitting in a school auditorium in Budapest, April 1964. Photographer: unidentified.

‘I was attracted, even in those early days, by his voice’ (Britten, 1967)

Peter Pears, who could legitimately be described as Britten’s ‘muse’, stands somewhere in the middle: he was both the source of inspiration to Britten, as his lover and life-partner, as testified by the extraordinarily romantic letters the couple shared; but also he was the original performer, or creator, of the works. The fact that he recorded these pieces further enhances the association of his particular voice with Britten’s music: with the result that subsequent tenors performing this music have the ‘Pears’ sound ringing in their ears.

Britten’s ‘attraction’ to Pears’ voice was more of a lifelong passion. He composed hours of music for Pears to sing, hearing his partner’s voice time and again in the notes on the page. He even composed music best to suit Pears’ particular vocal range, adapting it as he got older. As tenor Allan Clayton has described, Pears was most comfortable singing in a vocal range most tenors struggle with (around D/D sharp/E, just above middle C). Clayton, along with many others, also admires Pears’ ability to move from an ‘ethereal’ head voice, down to a stronger, robust chest voice; and his articulation of words was second to none. These attributes, Clayton adds, are to the fore in the song cycle Nocturne, which showcases the best qualities of Pears’ style of singing.

Britten and Pears in the garden at Crag House, Aldeburgh, 1957. Photographer: unidentified.

Along with the song cycles, Pears had major roles in seven of Britten’s operas: again the roles adapted over time to best suit Pears’ age and changing voice. The role of Aschenbach in the final opera – though long and demanding – has a lower vocal range overall than, say, Peter Grimes (which has a famously extended passage around that ‘difficult’ E above middle C). Furthermore, in playing Aschenbach, a creative artist struggling with the opposing forces of cerebral order and bohemian chaos, Pears embodied Britten’s own preoccupations on stage.

As with the choreographer earlier, Britten wrote his music ‘off’ Pears who as such edged into the territory of collaborator. However, in an uncharacteristically bantering joint interview with Britten in 1961 Pears denied having any such involvement in the composition process:

[Interviewer] Peter Garvie: Peter Pears, can I ask you something? You’ve been so identified now with singing Mr Britten’s works, do you actually get in on the act of composition to try out passages to see how they are singable?
Pears: I don’t know that I do really very much. I think that in fact Benjamin Britten writes for the voice…
Britten: Jolly badly…
Pears: No, on the contrary—I wouldn’t put it like that. No, he writes…
Britten: …difficult music…
Pears: …not easily, but always rewardingly. I mean you have to work at it; it doesn’t come in one practice.

According to Pears, then, Britten did not consult Pears before or during the act of composition. Yet they may have been underplaying their collaboration, given the need at the time to be discreet about their close relationship. Indeed, in 1967 Britten wrote a short piece on Pears for Audio Record Review, which opens with the offhand statement ‘Pears and I started working together I suppose because of similar musical interests, and being close friends because of convenience of environment…’ – somewhat underplaying the passionate declarations inherent in those early vocal ‘love letters’ to Pears, such as the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo and Canticle I: ‘My beloved is mine and I am his’.

‘My favourite artist friends’ (Britten, 1967)

Pears was not the only artist to inspire Britten’s compositions. The performing talents of some of the most established performers of his generation were behind many of Britten’s other works, both vocal and non-vocal. Even before the arrival of Pears, he composed a fair amount of vocal music for his favourite voices at the time – Sophie Wyss and Hedli Anderson. Britten later on provided song cycles for mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as well as the dramatic oratorio Phaedra (1975) for Janet Baker, one of the last pieces he composed. Jennifer Vyvyan premiered as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw (1954) and Mrs Julian in Owen Wingrave (1970); in between these roles, in 1959, Britten invited her to play Tytania in the premiere of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream by flatteringly disclosing ‘I hear you in what I’ve written so far’. Similarly, in 1954 he had written to Joan Cross (who created roles in five Britten operas) about her playing Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw: ‘As you know every note is written with you in mind’. One singer in particular, who Britten only worked with for a few short years, inspired some remarkable music: Kathleen Ferrier was the first Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia (1946), sang the alto part in Canticle II (1952) and performed in the premiere of Spring Symphony (1949). After her tragically early death in 1953, Britten wrote a moving tribute to her, describing how he had been ‘impressed immediately by the nobility and beauty of her presence, and by the warmth and deep range of her voice’. At the other end of the expressive scale was Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, a flamboyantly dramatic personality who Britten clearly adored, and for whom he composed The Poet’s Echo, setting Pushkin in the original Russian in 1965.

Vishnevskaya’s husband, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, was the person for whom Britten composed the most after Pears. In the years following their first meeting in 1960, at which Rostropovich demanded a piece, Britten obliged with a sonata, three suites and a whole symphony. Guitarist Julian Bream, not shy in approaching composers for commissions, was given Britten’s beautiful Nocturnal after John Dowland (1963); while for harpist Osian Ellis he composed his delightful Suite for Harp (1969). An early inspiration was Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa who was the first performer of Britten’s Spanish-inflected Violin Concerto back in 1939.

Britten and Pears in Switzerland, 1947. Photographer: Hanssler, Zurich.

As a mature composer, Britten nearly always composed for a person, or a purpose. He found performing artists inspiring, and wrote generously for their talents, as he put – quite strongly – in an interview in 1967:

I don’t think I ever write an opera without knowing before I start who is going to sing the roles. That goes for all the other music I write too; I am most completely and hopelessly committed to the people I write for… I like to have their particular voices, their fingers, their harps, their lutes, in my mind when I write for them.

For the performers in question, Britten’s music was a gift: something created specifically for them; a flattering portrait of their performance style. And of course it did them no harm to be associated with such a prominent composer. While Pears sang many works for other composers, and had a well-established career of his own, his reputation was undoubtedly boosted by his early association with Britten. But the same is true the other way around: without Pears, Britten’s entire life in composition would have been very different indeed.