Archive for Peter Pears

R.I.P. Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on July 12, 2015 by telescoper

Ah well. Back in the office on a rainy Sunday afternoon after a few days away trying to catch up before a very busy week next week. I thought I’d pause first, however, to pay my respects to the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, whose death I learnt of last night. Many tributes have been paid to him already, including several examples of his work on Radio 3 this morning. There’s nothing much I can add to them except to say that he not only had a great voice, but was also a fine actor with a powerful stage presence.

What I can do is post again one of my favourite examples of Jon Vickers, singing the greatest passages in one of the greatest of all operas, Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Most people I know who have seen Peter Grimes think it is a masterpiece, and I’m interested to see another physics blog has already discussed this aria. Still, I don’t think Britten is sufficiently appreciated even in the land of his birth. There aren’t that many operas written in English so perhaps we feel a little uncomfortable when we can actually understand what’s going on without reading the surtitles?

I’ve often heard Peter Grimes described as one of the great operas written in English. Well, as far as I’m concerned you can drop “written in English” from that sentence and it’s still true. It’s certainly in my mind fit to put up alongside anything by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and even Mozart.

In this aria it’s not just the extraordinary vocal line, beginning way up among the “head notes” beyond a tenor’s usual range, that makes it such a  powerful piece of music,  but also the tragic poetry in the words. The main character of Peter Grimes is neither hero nor villain, but  a man trapped in his own destiny. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the word:

Now the great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher in storm or starlight
The written character of a friendly fate
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope’s bewildering
Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?

The part of Peter Grimes was actually written by Britten specifically to suit the voice of his partner, Peter Pears, who performed the role first. The classic recording of that performance is wonderful, but this later version starring Jon Vickers is quite different, and the inner agony portrayed by Vickers’ voice in the upper register is most moving. For its combination of musical expressiveness and dramatic intensity, this music really does take some beating even if you listen to it on its own outside the context of the opera.

Rest in Peace, Jon Vickers (1926-2015)



Posted in Music with tags , , , on December 21, 2013 by telescoper

I spent this morning doing the crosswords as usual and then had a decidedly wintry journey to the shops and then to campus. It’s not snowing, but cold and windy and pouring with rain. All of which convinced me that it would be appropriate to post something from the recording of Schubert‘s  Winterreise made by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in the year of my birth, 1963. Looking on Youtube, though, I found that some wonderful person has posted the entire song cycle, so here it is.

If you haven’t got time to listen to the whole thing then here are the timings of the various songs together with their catalogue numbers.
0:005:46 Gute Nacht (« Fremd bin ich eingezogen »…) D.911-1
5:477:47 Die Wetterfahne (« Der Wind spielt mit der Wetterfahne ») D. 911-2
7:4810:00 Gefrorene Tränen (« Gefrorne Tropfen fallen ») D. 911-3
10:0113:10 Erstarrung (« Ich such im Schnee vergebens ») D. 911-4
13:1118:18 Der Lindenbaum (« Am Brunnen vor dem Tore ») D. 911-5
18:1922:06 Wasserflut (« Manche Trän aus meinen Augen ») D. 911-6
22:0725:41 Auf dem Flusse (« Der du so lustig rauschtest ») D. 911-7
25:4228:02 Rückblick (« Es brennt mir unter beiden Sohlen ») D. 911-8
28:0330:20 Irrlicht (« In die tiefsten Felsengründe ») D. 911-9
30:2133:38 Rast (« Nun merk ich erst, wie müd ich bin ») D. 911-10
33:3938:17 Frühlingstraum (« Ich träumte von bunten Blumen ») D. 911-11
38:1841:09 Einsamkeit (« Wie eine trübe Wolke ») D. 911-12
41:1043:12 Die Post (« Von der Straße her ein Posthorn klingt ») D. 911-13
43:1346:02 Der greise Kopf (« Der Reif hatt einen weißen Schein ») D. 911-14
46:0348:20 Die Krähe (« Eine Krähe war mit mir ») D. 911-15
48:2150:22 Letzte Hoffnung (« Hie und da ist an den Bäumen ») D. 911-16
50:2354:33 Im Dorfe (« Es bellen die Hunde, es rasseln die Ketten ») D. 911-17
54:3455:31 Der stürmische Morgen (« Wie hat der Sturm zerrissen ») D. 911-,18
55:3256:39 Täuschung (« Ein Licht tanzt freundlich vor mir her ») D. 911-19
56:401:00:29 Der Wegweiser (« Was vermeid ich denn die Wege ») D. 911-20
1:00:301:04:58 Das Wirtshaus (« Auf einen Totenacker ») D. 911-21
1:04:591:06:32 Mut (« Fliegt der Schnee mir ins Gesicht ») D. 911-22
1:06:331:09:31 Die Nebensonnen (« Drei Sonnen sah ich am Himmel stehn ») D. 911-23
1:09:321:12:49 Der Leiermann (« Drüben hinterm Dorfe ») D. 911-24

Britten’s Children

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on April 14, 2013 by telescoper

I’ve recently been working my way through a pile of books I bought over the years but haven’t yet got around to reading. The latest is Britten’s Children by John Bridcut which I think I bought shortly after it was published in 2006 but have only just finished. I don’t know why it took me so long to read this book, but with this year being the centenary of the composer Benjamin Britten’s birth I felt I shouldn’t make any more subconscious excuses.

This book is quite a scholarly work (completely with musicological references, etc)  that describes Britten’s life in music alongside the story of the numerous friendships with adolescent  boys which were a constant theme in his life. I won’t go through a list of these because the wikipedia page about this book contains such an inventory, but it is worth noting that most of these friendships involved good-looking boys around 13/14 and that there certainly was at least an aesthetic element to Britten’s interest; the man himself certainly didn’t attempt to disguise this physical aspect of the attraction. However, it is quite clear from the often passionate letters exchanged between himself and the various boys concerned that these relationships were not exploitative, but based on a strong mutual affection.

In fact only one of the boys Britten befriended, Harry Morris, ever claimed that Britten had made sexual advances to him. Britten often invited his young friends to come with him on holiday, which they did with full parental permission. That in itself seems strange in the light of the reaction the mere suspicion of paedophilia is likely to  provoke nowadays. One would have thought it was much worse in Britten’s day when homosexual behaviour between adults was illegal, never mind between adults and young boys. As it happens, though, Britten was never even investigated for any form of indecent behaviour. His friendship with Harry Morris ended after the abrupt termination of a trip to Cornwall during which, Morris later claimed, Britten made some sort of approach to him. However, there are quite a few inconsistencies in Morris’ telling of the story, so there is considerable doubt over exactly what happened there. Anyway, I’ll resist the temptation to discuss whether the composer may have made overtures to this particular young man, and move on.

Reading the many excerpts from letters and transcriptions of interviews held with a number of the protagonists in later life, I think that Britten’s motivations were fundamentally benign. He just liked to be surrounded by beautiful youths, an attitude likely to be demonized today but actually not so much in the past. Many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example, are addressed to a “fair youth” from an older man. They talk of male beauty,  passionate mutual attraction in such a way that it is easy to assume that they describe  sexual desire. They may do that, of course, but I’m not convinced that’s necessarily the case; there are many kinds of love, including those that do not need to be physically consummated.

This brings me to the origin of the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name” which most take to refer to homosexual desire. In fact it’s not as simple as that. The phrase was coined by Oscar Wilde in the following excerpt taken from the transcript of his criminal trial for gross indecency in 1895:

‘The love that dare not speak its name’, in this century, is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Johnathan. Such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you may find in the sonnets of Michelangelo or Shakespeare. It is, in this century, misunderstood. So much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful. It is fine. It is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual. And it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man when the elder has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts someone in the pillory for it.

Anyway, as you can imagine if you haven’t read the book, this is very delicate ground, but John Bridcut is both tactful and direct in the way he presents it. Britten was a complicated man who could be very difficult, so this is no hagiography, but neither does it pander to prurience. He must have done a good job because even the reviewer in the Daily Telegraph wrote:

Nowadays a known homosexual who sought out the company and affection of small boys would probably end up on a police register or behind bars. In treating Britten’s fondness for the young of his own sex as something more than lipsmacking paedophilia, this book does him a service both as a man and an artist.

In many ways the most interesting things to emerge from the book for me (as a non-expert on Britten) are things that are quite separate from the central theme. I hadn’t realized, for example, that Britten was a fine sportsman: he was an accomplished cricketer, swimmer and tennis player and was in fact Victor Ludorum at his school. That contrasts with the somewhat bookish persona I’ve always associated with him based on photographs. I was also fascinated to read that he composed music sitting at a desk. Only when he’d finished a piece (or at least a substantial fraction thereof) would he play it through on the piano. That may be common practice among composers, actually. I don’t know.

The other strand that’s woven into this story is Britten’s relationship with his life partner, Peter Pears. I hadn’t realized that Pears and Britten were actually pretty close friends for a couple of years before their relationship became a physical one. Pears apparently wasn’t always comfortable with Britten’s younger house guests – and their relationship had its ups and downs for other reasons too – but they stayed together until Britten died in 1976. I think the bond between them was all the stronger because it incorporated a mutual love of music. Earlier in his life, Britten was on the periphery of a Bohemian clique that included Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, but both he and Pears decided that wasn’t for them; they settled down to a life of  fogeyish conventionality, a marriage in all but name. When Britten passed away, Her Majesty the Queen sent Peter Pears a telegram expressing her condolences. I look forward to the, hopefully near, future when all same-sex relationships are afforded the same level of respect.

Winterreise – Im Dorfe

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on January 23, 2013 by telescoper

It’s quite difficult to catch the snow as it’s falling with a simple camera like the one on my Blackberry, but here’s an attempt taken yesterday…

As pure as the driven slush...

As pure as the driven slush…


Anyway, today it’s cold again and it’s started snowing again and I’m going to be working late again finishing this wretched report,  so I thought I’d take a quick break to post some suitably wintry music. This is from the wonderful recording of Winterreise by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, complete with sheet music so you can sing along. The piano accompaniments for Schubert’s songs are so simple only a genius could have written them…

Talking about Winterreise

Posted in Music with tags , , , on December 18, 2012 by telescoper

Well, here’s a find! A fascinating bit of film featuring Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears discussing and performing Franz Schubert‘s great song cycle, Winterreise.

Im Frühling

Posted in Music with tags , , on March 25, 2012 by telescoper

We’re enjoying a spell of perfect weather at the moment, so I’m going to be out most of the afternoon enjoying the flowers and trees in Bute Park. I assume  I’m not in danger of being run over by a lorry speeding along the paths, since I don’t think they work on Sundays. Anyway, BBC Radio 3 is devoting the period until the end of March to a “Spirit of Schubert” festival, so I thought I’d join in by posting an appropriately seasonal ditty. This is Im Frühling (D. 882) (“In Spring”), sung by Peter Pears with piano accompaniment by Benjamin Britten way back in 1950. Gives me a lovely glow inside listening to this. I hope you feel the same..

Winterreise – Das Wirtshaus

Posted in Art, Music with tags , , , on February 4, 2012 by telescoper

It’s cold again, and it’s just  started snowing, so here’s some wintry music. I know that the recording of Winterreise by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears is by no means everyone’s favourite version, but I like it a lot. There’s the added bonus in this video of a glimpse of the art of Caspar David Friedrich.

P.S. Das Wirtshaus means “The Inn”, but in the poem by Müller that forms the lyric for this song, the inn is actually a graveyard…