Sir Peter Pears, who died yesterday in London at 75, was a tenor, not a composer. But when the dust settles sometime in the next century and the music of our time comes into clearer perspective, it may be found that Pears contributed more than most composers of his generation to the enrichment of the contemporary repertoire.
He did it as a performer -- or more precisely as an inspiration. The situation was summed up cleverly in a bit of doggerel that used to be popular in London music circles. Pears, if properly coaxed, would sometimes recite it himself with an air of wry satisfaction:
Needn't give himself airs.
He gets them all written
By Benjamin Britten.
Pears and Britten were professional associates -- and lovers -- for 40 years, until Britten's death in 1976. They were cofounders of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. During his years of association with Pears, Britten (as a composer, a festival entrepreneur and an example to younger composers) presided nearly single-handedly over a renaissance of English music.
He also produced an impressive series of masterpieces, nearly all of which had a prominent role for a tenor voice. And the music in that role was invariably custom-tailored to the special vocal qualities of Peter Pears.
A serious question inevitably arises whenever a piece of music is specially adapted to a particular performer: Can the music survive beyond its original interpreter? In the case of Britten and Pears, the answer is positive; enough time has passed since the composer's death and the tenor's gradual withdrawal from performing to make this clear.
"Peter Grimes," "The Turn of the Screw," "Death in Venice," "The Rape of Lucretia," "Albert Herring" and "Billy Budd" are all permanent and distinguished additions to the world's operatic repertoire. The tenor role in the "War Requiem" has been handed on to others with outstanding success. The Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, the seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the five superb Canticles and the Nocturne will live in new performances even though the voice that first gave them life is forever silent.
The quality of the music, the example of Pears and his busy life as a teacher in his later years have assured that the tradition will continue; they have inspired many tenors to learn a style of singing that might never have occurred to them if Peter Pears had not shown the way.
Pears never had the kind of rich, vibrant tenor that sends mainstream opera fans into ecstasy. His tonal focus was in the head, not the chest, and the sound he produced was clear, precise in pitch and diction, subtly expressive of a wide range of emotions but lacking in pure animal magnetism, usually the strongest tenor stock in trade. In style, tone and general impact, it was something like a countertenor voice, but pitched a bit lower. It was used always with the most deeply knowing musicianship, and in this, too, Pears gave a strong, positive example that some other tenors badly needed.
Pears insisted that his use of head tone was one of the principal reasons for the durability of his voice. His career seems to have vindicated that judgment, though one might add that he also preserved his voice by using it always with intelligence. Whatever the reasons, he was still able to perform impressively in the world premiere of "Death in Venice" a week before his 63rd birthday.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that most of the masterpieces of Britten's last four decades were an expression of his love and admiration, professional and personal, for Peter Pears, the artist and the man. The legacy of that unique partnership seems destined to enrich the world's musical life for many generations to come.