Wed, 25 March 2009
Many selections sung by Clara Butt, a very great artist:
1.Softly and gently (Elgar:The Dream of Gerontius)
Clara Butt was born in Southwick, Sussex. Her father was Henry Albert Butt who was a sea captain and who was born in 1848 in Saint Martin, Jersey, Channel Islands. He married Clara Hook in 1869, who was born in Shoreham, the daughter of Joseph Hook, mariner (1861 and 1871 census, in 1881 in New Shoreham workhouse). In 1880 the family moved to Bristol and Clara was educated at South Bristol High School, where her singing talent was recognised and encouraged. At the request of her headmistress, she was trained by the bass Daniel Rootham and joined the Bristol Festival Chorus, of which he was musical director. In January 1890 she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. In her fourth year she spent three months studying in Paris at the expense of Queen Victoria. She also studied in Berlin and Italy.
She made her professional début at the Royal Albert Hall in London in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The Golden Legend on 7 December 1892. Three days later she appeared as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Lyceum Theatre. Bernard Shaw wrote in The World that she ‘far surpassed the utmost expectations that could reasonably be entertained’ (14 December 1892).
Soon she had acquired an excellent reputation, aided by her physical presence - she was 6 feet 2 inches tall. She made many gramophone recordings, often accompanied by the (uncredited) pianist Miss Lillian Bryant. She was primarily a concert singer and only ever appeared in two opera productions, both of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, in 1892 and 1920.
Edward Elgar composed his Sea Pictures for contralto and orchestra with Clara Butt in mind as the soloist, and she sang at the first performance at the Norwich Festival on 5 October 1899, with the composer conducting.
In 1900 she married the baritone Kennerly Rumford, and thenceforth often appeared with him in concerts. The couple eventually had three children two sons and a daughter. Besides singing in many important festivals and concerts, she was honoured with royal commands from Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, and King George V. She made tours to Australia, Japan, Canada, the United States and to many European cities.
During the First World War she organised and sang in many concerts for service charities, and for this she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 1920 civilian war honours. That year she sang four performances of Gluck's Orphee at Covent Garden under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. According to The Times she 'played fast and loose with the time and spoilt the phrasing' and it appears not to have been a success.
Butt's three sisters were also singers. One of them, Ethel Hook, became a famous artist in her own right and made some superb solo recordings.
In later life Clara Butt was dogged by tragedies. Her elder son died of meningitis while still at school, and the younger committed suicide. During the 1920s she became seriously ill of cancer of the spine, but her faith gave her the strength to continue working. She made many of her later records seated in a wheelchair. She died in 1936 at the age of 63 at her home in North Stoke, Oxfordshire, as a result of an accident she suffered in 1931.
Not all serious musicians admired her booming contralto, which can be mistaken for a man's voice on some recordings, or her rather 'populist' approach to her art.