When BBC Television broadcast the 2008 Proms performance of Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music they included an introductory programme about the work with a short clip of two of the modern day singers, Sarah Tynan and Ed Lyons, listening to the original 1938 recording. Tynan’s interesting comment was that the original singers sang it rather more dramatically than is generally done today; an interesting point.
Performances of the original 16-singer version Serenade to Musictoday tend to use a team of predominantly young singers. The original performers, all well known oratorio singers, were all mature singers their ages in the range 39 to 54 with the majority falling into the middle of this.
They were regular singers of oratorio; this repertoire being considered to cover Handel’s oratorios (especially Messiah), Bach’s Passions and Mass in B minor, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and 9th Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Elijah through numberless lesser English imitators to the works of Elgar.
But an oratorio singer of that period implies something different from today’s singers of a similar repertoire. Handel oratorios were done with larger accompaniments, often with additional instrumentation, so that to be a singer in oratorio implied a voice with a degree of dramatic potential. The principal exception to this was Elsie Suddaby who had by far the lightest voice of the sopranos. What the singer needed to combined was power with flexibility. Speeds in Handel and Bach were slower, but a singer still needed to be able to negotiate the runs albeit at a slower speed.
This, I think, gave rise to a particular style of English singing and English singer. The rather peculiar parochialism of the English music scene meant that few singers had major International careers and many relied upon countless oratorio performances for their bread and butter. The results can be seen in a singer like Walter Widdop who sang Wagner at Covent Garden and abroad, but recorded creditable performances of Bach and Handel, albeit on a larger scale than might be done nowadays.
Oratorio was common to all the singers. But a glance over their other roles reveals some remarkably things. There is quite a prevalence of Wagner. Amongst the women Eva Turner, Lilian Stiles-Allen, Muriel Brunskill, Astra Desmond and Mary Jarred all sang major Wagner roles along with other items from the dramatic soprano or mezzo-soprano repertoire. Even Isobel Baillie, who is reckoned to have a more lyric voice, essayed a single performance of a single act of Tristan.
Amongst the men, Heddle Nash sang David in Die Meistersinger, but that is hardly a heavy role. For the rest, Walter Widdop, Parry Jones, Harold Williams, Roy Henderson and Norman Allin all sang significant Wagner roles.
So think about this, casting Serenade to Music from a group of 40 year old contemporary singers, 10 of whom had significant experience of major Wagner roles including 2 Brunnhildes, a Wotan and a Siegfried. Makes you think doesn’t it, because voices have changed so much that nowadays you’d get more power but less flexibility. And, of course, more wobble.
The 1938 singers do use vibrato, and one of the men has a positively invasive vibrato which is perfectly clear whenever he is singing, even in ensemble. But none of them has the sort of wide amplitude vibrato which is almost a wobble which happens to many dramatic singers. In crude terms we’ve replaced the 1930’s narrow focussed voice with a wide amplitude one.
Of course, this is just a crude, broad brush summary. But one which, I think illuminates the changes in voice types which has happened in the UK since the 1st War; the 1938 singers were by and large post 1st War trained.
The original cast of Serenade to Music along with their age at the time of the first performance and a selection of their heavier roles.
Isobel Baillie (43)
Mendelssohn:Elijah, Elgar:Oratorios, Gounod:Faust, Beethoven: 9th Symphony, 1 Act of Tristan with Walter Widdop
Lilian Stiles-Allen (42)
Brunnhilde (and other dramatic sop roles), Verdi:Requiem, Schoenberg:Gurrelieder, Mahler:8th Symphony, Beethoven: 9th Symphony
Elsie Suddaby (45)
Lyric soprano, lightest of the 4
Eva Turner (46)
Turandot, Aida, Santuzza, Freia, Sieglinde, Brunnhilde, Tosca
Muriel Brunskill (39)
Beethoven: 9th Symphony, Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, Elgar:Oratorios, Gounod:Faust, Kundry (Parsifal), Mahler 8th Symphony
Astra Desmond (45)
Elgar Oratorios, Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex, Delilah, Fricka, Carmen, Ortrud
Mary Jarred (39)
Erda, Fricka, Elgar, Mendelssohn: Elijah, Marget (Wozzeck), Nurse (Frau Ohne Schatten)
Elgar, Beethoven: 9th Symphony
Heddle Nash (44)
David (Meistersinger), Duke (Rigoletto), Ottavio (Don Giovanni), Elgar: Oratorios
Frank Titterton (45)
Walter Widdop (46)
Elgar: Oratorios, Radames, Siegmund, Siegfried, Tristan, Lohengrin
Parry Jones (47)
Mendelssohn: Elijah, Berg: Wozzeck, Schoenberg: Gurrelieder, Busoni: Doctor Faustus, Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Wagner: Tannhauser (title role), Stravinsky: Les Noces
Harold Williams (45)
Wolfram (Tannhauser), Iago (Otello), Canio (Pagliacci)
Roy Henderson (39)
Wagner roles(Donner, Kothner, Herald:Lohengrin), Mendelsohn: Elijah, Stravinsky: Les Noces, Elgar Oratorios
Robert Easton (40)
Norman Allin (54)
Baron Ochs, Gurnemanz (Parsifal), Hagen (Gotterdammerung), Mozart: Nozze de Figaro, Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, Wotan, King Mark, Osmin