A neighbour of ours died last week and his widow asked me to sing something at his memorial next Friday. It’s always very hard to choose something for these occasions and I suggested Britten’s arrangement of “The Salley Gardens”. It’s short, it’s beautiful and it’s ripe with poignancy. The last time I sang it was just over two years ago in the dining hall of King’s College Cambridge, my old alma mater, at a dinner to raise money from fellow Kingsmen. It was a great evening. Philip Ledger accompanied me and amongst the diners were Stephen Cleobury (the College Organist), David Willcocks, and Bob Tear with his wife Hilary.
It was the last time I saw Bob and today I learned that he has just died.
Like so many tenors of my generation I grew up with Bob’s recordings. He represented a new vigour in English singing that made a break with the immediate past and that enormous influence that Peter Pears had wielded for so long. Where Pears gave refinement and, I dare say it, a certain prissiness, Bob was gutsy and visceral. Well that’s how he seemed to me and I loved it. Bob’s was the first recording of “The Salley Gardens” that I heard and owned, and it was always my favourite. The emotion was real, the picture vivid and alive.
So to have him listen to me do it, to have him hug me later and say nice things… today means more to me than I can possibly share.
I first met Bob at King’s in the late 70s when he was in the chapel making one of his many recordings. I was going to the RCM after I graduated and I hoped he would teach me. A few weeks later I went around to his house, then in Holland Park, so that he could give me a lesson by way of audition. I remember my hands quivering with nerves as we had coffee (“Oh I’m just as bad love, look at mine go!) and then he led me down to his garage – it was a modern townhouse – where he had a rather dilapidated upright, and we sang through the Britten Serenade. Bob was a very good pianist who could play anything I put in front of him. He used my vocal score and gave me his miniature score to read. Over the notes of the opening horn solo he had pencilled a text that he and the horn-player Barry Tuckwell had dreamed up as a piss-take on Aldeburgh sensibilities. I won’t repeat it all but it started “I like boys. I like small boy’s bottoms…” And that was my proper introduction to Bob. He felt the music intensely but he loved to laugh and be irreverent too.
Bob taught me for two years at the RCM. His heart wasn’t in teaching technique – something I think he found pretty dull. He wanted to develop the human, the spiritual – the real musician. He gave me, as I’m sure he gave so many, a copy of Alan Watts’ “The Wisdom of Insecurity” – a brilliant insight into what I suppose you could call Western Zen – as well as books of poems by his beloved Traherne. He took me to art galleries (often with a purchase in mind) and gave me tips on racehorses. We drank beer at lunchtime and talked about love. He was a mentor in the true sense of the word.
When I got good enough, he gave me jobs. I jumped in for him on several occasions and he used to recommend me for things he couldn’t do or didn’t want to do. The last of these was last year when he suggested me for a recording of a piece that had been written for him. I stupidly never rang him to thank him.
He conducted me a few times. We did the Britten Serenade together, during which he would mutter encouraging things (“Marvellous darling, marvellous!”), and “The Creation” in Durham Cathedral, where he introduced me to the choir and orchestra by saying I was going to be singing the part of Urinal.
We took to writing to each other, often immensely long ramblings on spirituality, and when he finally got a fax machine (he was no technophile, always writing in longhand and never as far as I know touching a computer. He also couldn’t drive) we engaged for a while on an idea of his where we would write alternate chapters of a book. It didn’t work. His prose was always much more fantastical and elaborate than mine and leapt into realms of spiritual ecstasy (all that Traherne you see…) which sat uncomfortably with my more down-to-earth efforts.
We only appeared in one opera together simultaneously, and that was “Sir John in Love” at ENO, five years ago. It was a wonderful show to be in, with an extraordinary cast, and Bob gave it his all, but I believe his heart wasn’t in singing any more. He was much more interested in painting and writing, and he found singing physically exhausting.
There’s so much more I wish I could have shared with Bob. If ever I found myself down in the dumps about anything, I knew I could go to him for a few pints and some solid spiritual counselling.
But now he’s gone. To quote The Salley Gardens: “…I was young and foolish and now am full of tears.”

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