My Beloved Man: The Letters of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears ed. by Vicki P. Stroeher, Nicholas Clark, Jude Brimmer (review)
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My Beloved Man: The Letters of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. Edited by Vicki P. Stroeher, Nicholas Clark, and Jude Brimmer. (Aldeburgh Studies in Music Series, vol. 10.) Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2016. [xx, 452 p. ISBN 9781783271085 (hardcover). $45.] Photographs, illustrations, facsimiles, notes, personalia, list of works, bibliography, index.

In many regards, the publication My Beloved Man: The Letters of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears fulfills a series of wishes, each from a different perspective: those of Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) and Peter Pears (1910–1986) themselves, and of Donald Mitchell. One cannot consider the correspondence of Benjamin Britten without first acknowledging, deferentially, the six volumes that comprise Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, which was edited by Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed, and, ultimately, Mervyn Cooke (see Donald Mitchell, “The Pears Letters,” in the introduction to Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, Volume One 1923–39, ed. Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991], 55–61; and subsequently, Volume Two 1939–1945, ed. Mitchell and Reed [London: Faber and Faber, 1998]; Volume Three 1946–1951, ed. Mitchell, Reed and Mervyn Cooke [London: Faber and Faber, 2003]; Volume Four 1952–1957, ed. Reed, Cooke, Mitchell [Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008]; Volume Five 1958–1965, ed. Reed and Cooke [Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2010]; and Volume Six 1966–1976, ed. Reed and Cooke [Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012]; hereafter: LFAL. All correspondence is copyright the Britten–Pears Foundation and reprinted with permission.) The LFAL volumes form a touchstone for Britten research, rippling outward to enfold midcentury British music research: a veritable who’s who of music and culture in the British Isles and on the Continent, which from the very first volume naturally included of Britten’s spouse of some thirty-seven years, the tenor Peter Pears. Yet, LFAL was never a comprehensive record of the correspondence between Britten and Pears. The sheer volume—across volumes—of additional correspondence in LFAL precludes a consistent reading of their lives together. In his introductory essay to LFAL, Mitchell discloses a conversation from the summer of 1976 with the ailing composer, in which he discussed the framework of his long-planned Britten biography. As a result of that discussion, Britten gave Mitchell a shoebox containing the twelve volumes of his pocket diaries, dating from 1928 to 1939. Not only did the contents of that shoebox inform Mitchell’s publication of Britten and Auden in the Thirties: The Year 1936 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), but ultimately John Evans’s Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young [End Page 726] Benjamin Britten, 1928–1938 (London: Faber and Faber, 2009).

Mitchell revealed that the impetus behind postponing his Britten biography (a project Mitchell ultimately abandoned) was Pears’s encouragement of the publication of Britten’s letters instead, the scope of which, he confessed, he could have barely anticipated at the time (Mitchell, “The Pears Letters,” 55). During Mitchell’s discussion with the composer came Britten’s little-remarked-upon directive: “I want you to tell the truth about Peter and me” (LFAL 1:56). Britten and Pears lived the vast majority of their lives together in a hushed reality; not until 1967 did they witness the decriminalization of homosexuality with the passage of the Sexual Offences Act. Even if their “secret” was widely known, the exposure of their private lives on the written page would be revelatory. Mitchell recognized that the Britten correspondence and diaries coalesced into a “comprehensive documentation of his life and works in his own words” (LFAL 1:56). Naturally, such a life in letters would include Pears’s central role. Mitchell approached Pears about publishing the letters, recognizing the sensitive issue of airing such intimate correspondence, and the fact that Pears was still living. In late 1985, Pears withdrew his permission for Mitchell to include the letters that Britten had written to Pears, asserting his own interest in publishing them. Mitchell’s reaction was one of shock. Surely a volume of Britten correspondence, void of letters to (and from) Pears, was far from ideal. Pears’s death in April 1986 prevented Mitchell...