The social landscape has changed so much that it’s hard to remember how gay relationships worked when commitment could not be affirmed publicly – let alone when they were illegal. Yet, for some 35 years, Britten and Peter Pears contrived an apparently perfect gay marriage before the concept was invented.
Britten began by accompanying Pears’s lyric tenor in recitals in the late 1930s. He started writing song cycles for him, and then operas: indeed, his tenor parts (such as Peter Grimes, Peter Quint, Captain Vere) were defined entirely by Pears, making it hard until recently for other tenors to make the music their own.
Their musical partnership was the genesis of, and cover for, their personal relationship.
The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo were a clear proclamation of love for his singer, veiled only by the Italian words (written by Michelangelo for his own lover), which they conveniently omitted to translate at the first performance in wartime London.
Britten was always very proper in public: he spoke in interviews about ‘Peter Pears’ (never just ‘Peter’), and they behaved decorously like ‘a pair of prep school masters’, as the singer James Bowman described them. Their private correspondence was loving, although they also rowed like any married couple. But it’s far from clear that Britten saw the relationship as permanent: he imagined that one day Pears might go off to get married, in which case he confessed he would have to ‘lump it’ – and yet Pears was far more settled and comfortable in his homosexuality than Britten seems to have been.