Friday, 22 November 2013

I fly with your wings, having none of my own

From an article by tenor Ian Bostridge, writing in the Times Literary Supplement in March 2013:
Though Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, were tacitly received as a couple in the highest of high society, they had every reason, at the same time, to be nervous of the repressive apparatus of the state which still struck out at gay men in the early 1950s. At the end of 1954, as many as 1,069 men were in prison for homosexual offences.

Britten could be almost provocative in the public presentation of his sexuality, performing his settings of same-sex love poems by Michelangelo with Pears at the Wigmore Hall in 1942 (“it was rather like parading naked in public”); those verses were written, though, in a high Renaissance style whose arcana would have been difficult for an Italian, let alone an English audience to follow. To the end of his life, as homophobic prejudice eased with the Wolfenden Report of 1957 and the Sexual Offences Act a decade later, legalizing homosexual acts, Britten remained steadfast in his relationship with Pears – many letters in the latest volume of Letters from a Life, covering the period 1966 to 1976, attest to their abiding love for each other – but at the same time discreet, reserved and unengaged with contemporary issues of liberation. Tolerance was what he expected and, by and large got, and it was sexual tolerance – “civilised attitudes to homosexuality”, as one Britten trustee, Donald Mitchell, put it – pacifism and music which were the inevitable beneficiaries of the provisions he made for his estate after his death.

Peter Pears was 26 when he met Benjamin Britten who was then 23. They first met in 1934, when Pears was a member of the BBC Singers, but did not become lovers until they were brought together after the death of a friend. Britten's opera Peter Grimes (in which Pears sang the lead) was already a huge success, and the two men struck up a lifelong professional as well as personal relationship.

Britten's liaisons, of course, did not start there. He was the lover of composer Lennox Berkeley (with young Benjamin, above - about whom he wrote "He is a dear and I am very, very fond of him; nevertheless, it is a comfort that we can arrange sexual matters at least to my satisfaction") and went to notorious gay bathhouses with Christopher Isherwood.

But the greatest love of all was between Benjamin and Peter. They lived together for 40 years, established the Aldeburgh Festival of the Arts, and Britten was made a life peer - "Lord Britten of Aldeburgh" (the first British composer to be made a peer of the realm) in 1976 (he died the same year). When he himself died ten years later of a heart attack, Peter Pears (by then "Sir Peter") was buried next to Benjamin Britten in their grave in Aldeburgh.

Here is Britten's adaptation of the third of Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (op. 22) - Veggio co' bei vostri occhi un dolce lume - with its dedication "To Peter":

I see through your lovely eyes a sweet light
Which through my blind ones I yet cannot see;
I carry with your feet a burden
Which with my lame ones I cannot;
I fly with your wings, having none of my own;
With your spirit toward heaven I am always moving;
By your will I turn pale or blush,
Cold in the sun, warm in the coldest weather.
Within your will alone is my will,
My thoughts within your bosom are born,
In your breath are my words.
I am like the moon, alone,
Which our eyes cannot see in the heavens
Except that it is illumined by the sun.
Benjamin Britten's perspective on sexuality made him one of the foremost gay composers of all time - his operas, including Albert Herring, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice all have gay themes. However, regardless of his being a gay man, he is rightly lauded - not least in the multitude of centenary tributes at Aldeburgh, on the BBC, Classic FM, and across the globe - as one of the finest composers this country has ever produced.

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM, CH (22nd November 1913 – 4th December 1976)


  1. A great man, A great singer and they made a lovely couple.

    1. They were the archetypal "Middle England couple", the sort on which our society lauds such praise. The only difference being that they both had penises. And immense talent, of course. Jx


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