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ENGLISH SINGING IN THE MID-20TH CENTURY

England was never the ‘land without music’ that the Germans liked to claim. And though it failed to produce a native composer of first-rank significance between the death of Purcell in 1695 and the emergence of Elgar around 1900, it did maintain a performing tradition that (with the help of visitors from overseas like Handel and Mendelssohn) centred largely on the voice. So there were always choirs. And from the choirs emerged a supply of soloists who rarely conquered the world stage but nonetheless made careers of distinction on home territory.

Essentially they were concert singers kept busy by the thriving but still genteel oratorio circuit. Opportunities in opera were extremely limited. And the recording industry was still in relative infancy.



 
Then three things happened in the 1940s that raised the game, propelling English singers to new levels of professionalism and profile. One was the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1945 which almost single-handedly established English opera as a viable undertaking and encouraged a new market-place for home-grown voices. Another was the establishment of the Arts Council in 1946, promoting a new culture of publicly funded music-making. A third was the arrival of the LP – first introduced to the USA in 1948 and soon making its way across the Atlantic - which opened up new possibilities for the recording of opera and other large-scale works.

The start of Jennifer Vyvyan’s career coincided with these developments; and together with the rediscovery of baroque repertoire in the first stages of historically aware performance, they materially shaped her career.

In many respects it was a time of change and possibility: a time when Andrew Porter (writing in 1953 for the Daily Express) could declare amazement that a Mahler Symphony (No 2 with Vyvyan as soprano soloist) should attract a bigger audience that one by Beethoven. Mahler was new territory for British audiences.

 
Much earnest (and with benefit of hindsight, floundering) discussion was devoted to the novelty of period approaches to familiar music.


 
And native English opera singers were still regarded in the press as a relative curiosity, appraised in gushing terms.




Alleged concert reviews could read more like fashion notes.

One thing clear from Vyvyan’s diaries is that it was still an era of formality and deference. She writes always of meetings with ‘Sir Malcolm’ [Sargent], ‘Sir Thomas’ [Beecham], ‘Sir Adrian’ [Boult]. However scribbled the entry, the title is always there. And the big-name conductors were magisterial figures not to be crossed. ‘Sir Malcolm pleased’, she notes with evident relief after a performance of Haydn’s Creation in 1954.

 


 
At the same time, though, there was plenty of fresh young talent coming through. The young Charles Mackerras was conducting at Sadlers Wells (and introducing Londoners to Janacek). Stage director Peter Hall and designer Ralph Koltai were making their first forays into opera production. .And among the rising singers were sopranos Elsie Morrison, Amy Shuard and Marie Collier, tenor Charles Craig, baritone Peter Glossop, bass-baritone Geraint Evans, and bass David Ward. Waiting in the wings was Joan Sutherland (a year younger than Vyvyan), who arrived in England in the early 50s and paid her dues with small roles at Covent Garden before a revelatory Samson in 1958 and the legendary Lucia di Lammermoor that propelled her to international stardom in 1959. Also waiting was the mezzo Janet Baker (born 1933), who made her stage debut in an Oxford University show in 1956, was singing prominent Handel roles by 1959, and an established star by the start of the next decade.
Covent Garden in the 1950s was a company in transition: not yet the ‘Royal Opera Company’ we know today, and negotiating with some internal dissent the shift from performances in English (using local talent) to performances in original languages (using international singers of the calibre of Gobbi, Christoff and Callas)

Most of the emergent English voices gravitated towards Sadlers Wells which by the 1950s had become a chief source of regular work for them – although its survival remained uncertain amid recurrent proposals for it to be merged, either with Covent Garden or with the Carl Rosa touring company (which then closed down in 1960). It was cause for comment in the 1950s that a decade after the end of war, Germany had managed to get 56 opera companies – eight of them senior Staatsoper status – back on their feet while Britain had just a handful, only two of which could be truly called year-round.


 
Vyvyan was less involved with Sadlers Wells than might have been expected: her appearances there were usually as part of the visiting English Opera Group which claimed her loyalty from the start of her career. Set up by Britten in 1947 to tour Albert Herring and Rape of Lucretia, it became the basis for the founding of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948; and it remained active until, after a change of name (to English Music Theatre) and remit in 1975, the company closed in 1980.

 



 

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