Protect Peter Pears' memory. Sign the petition!
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It has recently been announced that the Britten-Pears Foundation, which comprises the estate of the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986), is merging with Snape Maltings, which comprises Snape Maltings Concert Hall, the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Britten Pears Young Artist Programme. The new organisation is to be named 'The Benjamin Britten Foundation', thus removing Peter Pears's name from the title.
Britten and Pears were a couple from 1939 until Britten's death in 1976. They lived together for decades before homosexuality was partially decriminalised in 1967. Britten composed numerous song cycles for Pears, and all of his many operas were written with Peter Pears's unique voice in mind. Britten and Pears founded the Aldeburgh Festival with Eric Crozier in 1948, developing the derelict Snape Maltings into an internationally lauded concert hall. They toured the world as singer and accompanist, and set up home at Aldeburgh, in Britten's native Suffolk, playing host to artists and musicians of international stature. Their final residence, The Red House, is today a museum open to the public and contains the Britten-Pears Library, their extensive archives, and the large collection of artwork Peter Pears acquired during his lifetime. Britten and Pears are buried side by side with matching headstones in Aldeburgh churchyard.
Both Snape Maltings and the BPF have in latter years been very supportive of LGBTQ+ activities. The London Gay Men's Chorus performed at Snape Maltings in 2017, and the BPF organised a full reading of the Wolfenden report as part of its 50th anniversary commemoration of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, as well as mounting an exhibition on Britten and Pears's life together.
It is in light of the support shown to the LGBTQ community that the decision to drop Pears's name from the new organisation is most concerning. The Britten-Pears Foundation was set up in 1986, in the wake of Peter Pears's death --a bold move in the midst of the Aids crisis. Having Britten and Pears both enshrined in the foundation's name made it the first, and I believe only British charity to celebrate a same-sex relationship. Recognition and acceptance of Britten's homosexuality was inherent in the name 'Britten-Pears'.
Renaming the new organisation 'The Benjamin Britten Foundation' seems to sidestep the issue of Britten's homosexuality altogether. And while 'straight- washing' is not the intended purpose of the rebranding, in effect the new 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. It seems a regressive step, and certainly one that would have horrified Britten, who viewed Pears as his muse and companion.
These quotes give some indication of the depth of feeling between the two men:
'...I do love you so terribly, & not only glorious you, but your singing....What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for?'
Britten to Pears, 17 November 1974
'...it is you who have given me everything, right from the beginning...I am here as your mouthpiece and live through your music--And I can never be thankful enough to you and to Fate for all the heavenly joy we have had together for 35 years. My darling I love you P.'
Pears to Britten, 21 November 1974
Although the BPF and Snape Maltings have stated publicly their aim to emphasise even further Britten's partnership with Pears, dropping Pears's name from the organisation seems an extremely odd first move, and one that insults the LGBT+ community at large.
The reasons stated for the rebranding are:
- That 'a new organisation needs a new name';
- That maintaining the Britten-Pears Foundation name would make it appear that it had absorbed Snape Maltings in the merger;
- Britten's name is in itself more marketable.
We refute all of these reasons. Britten's name has been linked with Pears's since the 1930s, and the BPF has been in existence since 1986. The BPF and Snape Maltings have always had similar aims and worked together to promote Britten and Pears's legacy; they are not competitors, and there is no 'face saving' to be made by the merger. Removing Pears's name from the new organisation is an injustice which outweighs any spurious marketing gains; if a new name is needed, surely one that maintains both men's names within the organisation's title can be found.
There is still time to challenge this decision and to encourage the merged organisations to find a name which continues to celebrate this unique and historic partnership, not only in British music, but in LGBTQ+ culture. Britten and Pears were linked in life, they are linked side by side in death in Aldeburgh churchyard, and they should remain linked in the name of the organisation which maintains their legacies.
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