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In offering a context for Benjamin Britten, we approached his milieu from vantage points that could adequately represent the fullness of his position in England and in the twentieth century. We were rewarded by the richness of Britten’s engagement with his contemporaries in music, art, literature, and film, British musical institutions, royal and governmental entities, and the church. Equally, his ground-breaking projects that intersected across diverse entities and explored his philosophical and ideological tenets provided food for thought.
This chapter examines the early intersections between Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, well before their American years (1939–42) and the official beginning of their romantic relationship, as well as the tenor’s early career. Pears’s earliest professional singing engagements began with the BBC Wireless Chorus, in the newly established Wireless Octet (renamed the BBC Singers B in March 1935) intended to function alongside the BBC Singers and take part in BBC Chorus performances and Promenade Concerts; he remained in these various ensembles until October 1937. In both late 1936 and late 1937, Pears travelled to the United States on tours with the New English Singers. In April 1939, Pears travelled to the United States via Canada with Britten. Pears’s career in the United States is explored, but more significant is his vocal study with Clytie Mundy, to whom he attributed the greatest growth in his emerging solo voice. On their return to wartime England, Pears and Britten registered for conscientious objector status. At the same time, Pears enjoyed considerable success as a leading soloist on the operatic (and touring) stage and in recital and BBC broadcasts with Britten.
From mid-1943 until late-1950, Eric Crozier was an essential asset to Britten’s industry. His work alongside director and radio producer Tyrone Guthrie not only introduced Crozier to the Old Vic in London, but to the BBC as well, where Guthrie also worked. Joan Cross invited Crozier and Guthrie to each direct two different productions at Sadler’s Wells in 1943. Crozier directed and produced Britten’s first two operas, Peter Grimes in 1945 at Sadler’s Wells, and The Rape of Lucretia in 1946 for the short-lived Glyndebourne English Opera Company. Crozier wrote the librettos for Albert Herring and the children’s entertainment Let’s Make an Opera (with its central opera, The Little Sweep), in addition to writing the text for the cantata Saint Nicolas, and with E. M. Forster, he was co-librettist for Billy Budd. Britten, Crozier, and designer John Piper founded the English Opera Group. The endeavour was based on ‘the Britten–Crozier doctrine’ that sought the group’s own autonomy and ultimately a home to produce such works. That home was largely realised in the founding of the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts in 1948, for which Crozier was a founder and co-artistic director.
Pears was innately skilled at the creation of new song works, making him the ideal collaborator for composers and clearly an inspirational artist for whom to write. Yet there was something more. With Pears there was the concomitant presence of all of the particles inherent to the creative process. He was a prolific reader and therefore the ideal text interpreter, with an extensive range of colours and dynamics that were technically available in his voice paired with his seemingly boundless artistic instincts. This tenor’s voice was not universally admired. Yet Pears’s recordings of Britten set the gold standard against which all successive generations of Britten interpreters would need to measure up – defining if not implying an authoritative version for phrasing, dynamics, vocal colours, textual inflection, and tempi, at the very least. This chapter explores the first performances of Pears’s association with dozens of living composers, works for unaccompanied tenor, and combinations of tenor and piano, guitar, harp, and chamber orchestra. The chapter concludes with a table of all of the tenor’s premieres.
In England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, festivals expansively run the gamut from celebrations of flowers, seasonal harvests, and food and drink to the fine arts, music, theatre, and religion, in locations ranging from metropolitan centres, cathedrals, public and private parks and gardens, to locales rural in the extreme. Festivals could be unpredictable, and their organisers doubtless had to navigate uncertainties and last-minute cancellations, not to mention audience reception to programming; perhaps it is that element of unpredictability that gives festivals a general air of anticipation and excitement. This chapter explores post-Second World War festival culture with examples emerging from the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival, the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, the Cheltenham Music Festival (subsequently renamed the Cheltenham Festival of Contemporary British Music), the Three Choirs Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, and the Festival of Britain. The chapter also considers the intersections of the postwar socialised Arts Council funding for music and the arts in the British Isles, and the disparity between funding for metropolitan and rural centres.