R E P E R T O I R E  

In the first years of her career it looked as though Jennifer Vyvyan was poised to become the kind of broadly-based English soprano typical of the time - working mainly on the oratorio and song recital circuit, with a general interest in the standard opera repertoire.

In some respects that's how it turned out. She sang countless Messiahs and Bach Passions – especially at Easter and Christmas when dates with the big northern choral societies (and not a few down south) filled her diary day after day.

As for the song programmes, they were very much mixed repertoire - sometimes with piano, sometimes with orchestra, in which case there would be opera arias as well. And although she adjusted the content to requirements - making and amending endless lists of possibilities, scribbled on hotel writing paper or in corners of her diary – they fell into standard patterns that didn't change significantly through the years.

A typical Vyvyan recital would start with an English baroque group, usually Handel (Oh, had I Jubal's Lyre a favourite) and Purcell (perhaps The Expostulation of the Blessed Virgin). Then would come some Germans: Schumann, Brahms or Wolf, all of which became repertory in which she excelled (click to hear Schumann’s Er der Herrlichste von Allen).


If an orchestra was involved there might be a Verdi aria (especially Ah for'se lui). The second half would begin French (selections from Berlioz Nuits d'ete, Debussy   Ariettes Oubliees  , or some Poulenc) and finish modern English (Quilter, Warlock, Howells, with the near-constant presence of Antony Hopkins'  A melancholy song , and very often the Wife of Bath's aria from Dyson's Canterbury Pilgrims). Sometimes, but not so often as you might expect, there would be Britten folk-song settings.  

It was with Ah for'se lui from Traviata that she won the Geneva Concours in 1951. And having just appeared in a British TV production of Puccini's Il Tabarro, as well as spending some time at La Scala Milan, a door could perhaps have opened onto an international career in mainstream Italian opera. But that didn't happen.

She started singing Mozart in English: Don Giovanni (Donna Anna) and Seraglio (Constanza) for Sadlers Wells, followed by Idomeneo (Electra) for Glyndebourne at the Edinburgh Festival.

After that, the mainstream opera stopped – except in isolated arias for mixed concert programmes and the odd, unlikely scene from Wagner (Meistersinger, Lohengrin), also in concert. Instead, her stage work focused on new English opera and baroque rediscoveries.

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Even her Mozart operas tended to be rarities for their time: Idomeneo wasn't often seen onstage, and Seraglio had never been done before by Sadlers Wells. But it was with Handel and Purcell that she truly travelled into the unknown – on the back of the baroque revival that was just building momentum through the 1950s.

She took part in 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 landmark stagings of Radamisto and Rinaldo for the Handel Opera Society (click to hear her in Handelian opera)

Rameau also featured in her schedule, with BBC broadcasts of Dardanus and Hippolyte et Aricie in the early 50s, and a 1967 Aldeburgh performance of Zephyre that was almost certainly the first in modern times.

Associated with Benjamin Britten from the start of her career, Vyvyan was inevitably drawn into his realisations of Purcell, including the Expostulation of the Blessed Virgin (of which she gave the first broadcast performance, 1953: click to hear extract from a later 1960s performance)


and his concert version of The Fairy Queen (taking part in the first performance, Aldeburgh 1967).

By extension outwards from the baroque, she sang in the somewhat delayed UK premiere of Haydn's L'Infedelta Delusa in 1960; in a piece of Mozartian juvenilia, The Obligation of the First Commandment (composed around the age of 10); in an unknown SS Wesley psalm-setting; and two iconic rarities by Schubert – his religious drama Lazarus and opera The Conspirators, both heard in BBC broadcasts.


Central to Vyvyan's career were the operas and other vocal works of Benjamin Britten [for full details click on THE BRITTEN CONNECTION]. But beyond them, she took part in premieres and early performances of large amounts of new music – most of it English, but with forays into Poulenc, Milhaud, and forgotten figures like the Greek composer Manolis Kalomiris whose opera The Shadowy Waters she broadcast in 1953.
Her involvement with new French repertoire started early, with a run of Milhaud’s Le Pauvre Matelot at the Fortune Theatre London in 1950, and a broadcast of his Trois Operas Minutes in 1953. Poulenc came into her life with performances of the recently written Stabat Mater. In 1958 at Aldeburgh she gave the UK premiere of his opera Les Mammelles de Tiresias. And Poulenc’s songs were a regular feature of her recital programmes.
Much of her new English repertory came out of the oratorio circuit. In 1958 she sang the premiere of Peter Racine Fricker’s now forgotten but at the time significant The Vision of Judgment. Other firsts included Richard Arnell’s Ode to the West Wind (1955), Anthony Milner’s The Water and the Fire (1965). And there were early performances of Herbert Howells' Hymnus Paradisi.

In 1962 came the premiere of Arthur Bliss's The Beatitudes, written for the concert that opened the festival for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral.
Vyvyan had been asked by Bliss to join a British music delegation to the USSR in 1956 [for more, click on COLD WAR CULTURAL DIPLOMACY], and they remained in close contact thereafter.

Another strong relationship developed with Lennox Berkeley whose best-known work, the Stabat Mater, had some of its earliest performances with Vyvyan among the soloists.

In the 1950s operas written specially for TV were an understandable rarity (they still are), but in 1959 Vyvyan aged up to play the elderly Constance Hargreaves in a TV opera by Guy Halahan called The Spur of the Moment. Earlier in the 50s she had also premiered and broadcast The Sleeping Children - an EOG commission composed by Brian Easedale, better known for his Academy Award-winning film score to The Red Shoes (1948). Selected as the British entry for an international broadcasting prize on in Salzburg, it didn’t win. But the jury ‘commented especially on the outstanding performance of Jennifer Vyvyan’.

Other composers Vyvyan championed include John Tavener (whose Three Sections from the Four Quartets she commissioned and sang at an SPNM concert in 1966) and Margaret Hubicki.
Some of her efforts came to nothing.

But for all the seriousness of her participation in the world of new British music, she could laugh at its occasional pretensions. One of her more notable 1963 appearances was in a Hoffnung concert at the Albert Hall where she sang in a now-famous spoof: a duet from the opera The Barber of Darmstadt supposedly composed by leading light of the avant-garde Bruno Heinz Jaja.

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While Jennifer Vyvyan played a unique role in the creation of the Britten operas, she did much the same for those of Malcolm Williamson, the Australian composer resident in England who eventually succeeded Arthur Bliss as Master of the Queen’s Music. Vyvyan appeared in four of his ten full-scale stage works, as well as the premiere of his choral symphony The Icy Mirror (1972).

Jennifer Vyvyan (2nd right) with Malcolm Williamson (far right)

Peter Rice's costume design
for Jennifer Vyvyan in
The Violins of St Jacques

1968 brought the world premiere of The Growing Castle, a chamber opera after Strindberg that opened at Dynevor Castle, Wales. Vyvyan sang the role of Agnes (‘fey and generally distraught’ wrote Martin Cooper in the Telegraph, but ‘most skilfully represented’).It revived the following year in London and toured to Gothenburg.

In 1969 she sang the lead soprano role (a compendium of characters) in English Eccentrics and made the front cover of Opera Magazine in the process – largely, one suspects, thanks to her hat.

And later the same year at the London Coliseum was Lucky Peter’s Journey, an easy-listening fairy tale for Christmas loosely based on Strindberg. But happier.

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