I N T R O D U C T I O N  


'Her superb performance in The Turn of the Screw is one of the glories of English interpretative music of recent years'.

Neville Cardus,
The Guardian

Jennifer Vyvyan died tragically young at the age of 49, leaving behind a diary of engagements that would never be fulfilled. But by then she had established herself as one of the leading British singers of the mid-20th Century, with a three-decade career that exemplified the best of English music-making at a time when English music had at long last started to have serious international impact.

It was a time of change. She was part of it. And as a versatile soprano who encompassed lyric, dramatic and
coloratura roles, sang the oratorio circuit with a vengeance, and excelled in repertory from Bach to Berlioz, her
participation was wide-ranging.

There were Mozart operas at Sadlers Wells and the Edinburgh Festival; Beethoven 9s under Ansermet, de Sabata,
Monteux and Krips; Mahler 4s under Giulini; Mendelssohn Elijahs, Haydn Creations and Vaughan Williams Sea
under Boult or Sargent; and endless recital programmes that took in Verdi, Faure, Wolf, and usually
ended with a batch of tuneful English moderns like George Dyson, Howells and Quilter.

From the late ‘40s onwards she was a regular and much-loved voice on British radio, heard in intimate recitals with
George Malcolm or Paul Hamburger; in rediscovered Rameau operas; in large-scale broadcasts from the Proms.
And much of it involved new music by leading composers of the day: Lennox Berkeley, Arthur Bliss, Malcolm
Williamson through to the young John Tavener.

She sang Poulenc’s Mammelles de Tiresias at Aldeburgh. She sang one of the first operas specifically commissioned
for TV, Guy Halahan’s The Spur of the Moment. And she was invited by Bliss to join a delegation of artists
representing British music on a 1956 tour to the Soviet Union: a significant event in the cultural politics of the cold
war that attracted international interest.

JV with Arthur Bliss (far left), Moscow 1956

But within this broad sweep of work was a double-focus that took her to the heart of two vital and dynamic areas of English musical life in the 1950s, 60s, 70s. One was the rediscovery of English baroque - and at a time when consciousness of period style was just beginning to be an issue in performance, her concerts took in both traditional and modern-critical approaches. The other was the reinvention of English opera.

As a result, the supreme achievements of Jennifer Vyvyan relate essentially to a small group of composers: Purcell,
Handel and Britten.

Purcell was a constant feature of her song programmes, with the cantata The Expostulation of the Blessed Virgin
(playing now) a particular favourite, and high-profile performances of The Fairy Queen as realised by Britten.

She was one of the leading Handelians at a time when the Handel repertory was opening out beyond Messiah – with
pioneering performances of Alexander’s Feast under Neville Marriner, of Samson under Raymond Leppard, of
Jephtha with Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic, of Athalia under Anthony Lewis. Solomon, Saul, Israel in Egypt,
L’Allegro ed il Penseroso
and Amadigi all featured in her schedule. As did stagings of Radamisto and Rinaldo for the
Handel Opera Society.

Needless to add, though, she also sang countless Messiahs of every shape, size, and approach to ‘authenticity’ -
mostly on the Huddersfield/Leeds/Three Choirs choral circuit with the key oratorio soloists of the era: Richard
Lewis, Peter Pears, Norma Proctor, Owen Brannigan through to Janet Baker, Paul Esswood, Robert Tear.
Memorably they included monster versions with choirs 1000 strong at the Albert Hall under Malcolm Sargent or at
Alexandra Palace under Yehudi Menuhin. And there were landmark recordings under Beecham and Boult that
adopted very different views on the degree of liberty it was acceptable to take with Handel’s intentions. Variable as
they were.

But the aspect of her career for which she’ll be chiefly remembered was her relationship with Benjamin Britten.
Joining the English Opera Group in 1948 – initially to sing Jenny Diver in Britten’s version of The Beggar’s Opera
she appeared in early performances of Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring (graduating from Nancy to Miss
Wordsworth to Lady Billows) and went on to create some of the most telling soprano roles in Britten’s output: Lady
Rich in Gloriana, the Governess in Turn of the Screw, Tytania in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Mrs Julian in
Owen Wingrave.

As one of Britten’s singers of choice, she also sang in the premieres of Cantata Academica and the Britten concert
realisation of Purcell’s Fairy Queen, and was a noted interpreter of the War Requiem, Les Illuminations and the
Spring Symphony.

Much of this repertory she committed to disc, with Britten conducting; and the results have an enduring place in the
recorded history of English music. They document a period of extraordinary creative energy. And in their own right
they live on as great performances.

Portrait by
Angus McBean

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