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Pears was at school at Lancing College. He then studied music at Keble College, Oxford. He was organist at Hertford College, Oxford but left Oxford without taking his degree. He later studied singing for two terms at the Royal College of Music.
He met Britten in 1934, when he was a member of the BBC Singers. Pears and Britten gave their first recital together in 1937 at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1939 they went to America together because of World War II. However, in 1942 they decided to return to their own country. Back in England they performed Britten's song cycle Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo together at the Wigmore Hall in London (Britten was an excellent pianist), and then recorded them for EMI, their first recording together.
Peter Pears was a great inspiration for Britten’s vocal writing. Many of Britten's operas have a main tenor role which was written for Pears to sing. Britten also wrote over 100 songs with piano accompaniment. Britten also wrote works for tenor and orchestra. These include Les Illuminations, Nocturne, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the Canticles. In Britten’s operas he sang Peter Grimes and Albert Herring (title roles), The Beggar's Opera (Macheath), Owen Wingrave (Sir Philip Wingrave), Billy Budd (Captain Vere), The Turn of the Screw (Quint), Death in Venice (Aschenbach) and the three Church Parables.
Pears helped to write the words for A Midsummer Night's Dream, based on the Shakespeare play. In most of Britten’s operas Pears sang serious roles, but in A Midsummer Night’s Dream he had a comic role: the part of Flute the Bellowsmender. In this role he was dressed up as a female and did a parody of the great opera singer Joan Sutherland singing the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor .
Pears’s voice was a lyrical tenor, not a heavy, operatic one. Britten was extremely skilful in writing music for him which suited his voice very well. He sang regularly at the Royal Opera House and many other opera houses in Europe and the United States.
His last great role written for him by Britten was as Aschenbach in Death in Venice. He sang this in 1973 at the Aldeburgh Festival, and the following year in the Royal Opera House. Britten by then had heart disease and was too ill to go to the performances, dying in 1976.
Pears continued to live in the Red House, Aldeburgh. After he retired from performing he continued to teach young singers at the Britten-Pears Foundation. He was awarded a CBE in 1955 and knighted in 1977.
In his last years Pears also suffered from heart disease. He died ten years after Britten. He is buried next to him in the churchyard of Saint Peter and Saint Paul's Church in Aldeburgh.
There are many recordings of Pears’s singing including almost all the music that Britten wrote for him as well as the roles of the Evangelist in Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion and St John Passion and Gerontius in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.