Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Walter Widdop the Great Yorkshire Tenor by Michael Letchford

The great English tenor Walter Widdop (1892 - 1949) is perhaps not as well known nowadays as his contemporaries, such as Heddle Nash (1894 - 1961) and Isobel Baillie (1895 - 1983). This is probably because Widdop made few recordings after 1930. But Widdop was one of the few English singers to have an international career before the Second World War and made a remarkable leap into being a Wagnerian tenor with very little experience. I have long been aware of Widdop and his recordings, but had little other information. This little book, compiled and edited by Michael Letchford, helps to remedy that situation. There is a short biography by Val Parker as well as a short memoir by Widdop's daughter Veronica Bott, plus Tully Potter's article about Widdop's recordings, a memoir of Widdop's teacher by one of his other pupils, a complete list of recording sessions and a wide selection of original press reviews of Widdop's performances.

Walter Widdop as Siegfried
Walter Widdop as Siegfried
Widdop was born near Halifax and left school at 14. He seems to have been a strong personality and is one of those people around whom stories accumulate. But his biography is relatively short and you have to read Val Parker's short but informative biographical essay in conjunction with Tully Potter's excellent survey of Widdop's recordings to get the fuller picture. Widdop's recording career effectively came to an end in the 1930's, just at a time when he was developing as an artist. He was singing right up to his death in 1949 (in fact he sang Lohengrin's Farewell the night before he died), but we have little in the way of aural documentation for the last 19 years.

Potter attributes this to the fact that Widdop was quite a direct and outspoken man, who may easily have offended someone in the record company. This may be true, but Widdop's contemporary Isobel Baillie, in her autobiography, talks of how many English singers were dropped by the record companies in the leaner times of the 1930's; her own 'period in the wilderness' only ended in the late 1940's.


But Widdop has left us some fine recordings, and in this book we have both Potter's discussion of the recordings as well as David Mason's comprehensive list of all Widdop's recording sessions. But any such information is dry without aural documentation and the book comes complete with a CD of Widdop's recordings ranging from Bach and Handel to Wagner, 19 tracks in all. Other valuable lists in the book include all of Widdop's major roles, and a chronology. Inevitably this latter is not complete, as the paperwork no-longer exists, but Michael Letchford has done an admirable job in compiling a list of Widdop's known performances. Fascinating reading it reads too, particularly the way performances of Handel's Messiah interweave with Wagner's Ring and other dramatic operatic offerings in a manner which is hardly conceivable nowadays. The locations of the performances is interesting too with the British National Opera Company (BNOC ) and its successors performing the Ring in such illustrious places as Streatham!

Widdop must have been a very strong minded man, despite working in a mill and a dyeworks as a young man he acted upon the encouragement he received locally and took singing lessons, doing very well in local competitions. When he failed to pass an audition for the BNOC he took advice of the singer Norman Allin and sold his house, travelled to London and had further lessons. When he did start singing on stage with BNOC it was to jump in at the deep end, with the lead tenor roles in Verdi's Aida and Wagner's Siegfried. A gentle hint of these performances can be gleaned from Letchford's fascinating selection of Widdop's reviews. They make lovely reading, and as well as being testament to period writing about music, they show how he really did develop as a singer.

There are other little gems in the book, including a charming memoir from Widdop's younger daughter who accompanied him on his tour to Australia, as well as a couple of articles about Widdop's teachers. Widdop's teacher in Halifax was Arthur Hinchliffe, who was taught by Charles Santley who was himself taught by the great Manuel Garcia junior.


From our historical point of view, Widdop's career is frustrating. He was one of the few English singers of the period to have an international career, he recorded Wagner in German with international soloists and sang at the International Seasons at Covent Garden. Luckily in the 1920's he did record substantial excerpts from the Ring and from Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. Where the book falls down slightly, is that there is no mention of the live transcription recordings some of which have floated about on disc over the years. I am pretty sure that I used to have a vinyl disc which included a live recording of Widdop singing Lohengrin's Mein lieber Schwann from Covent Garden in the 1930's.

This is an essential book for anyone interested in British singers from the 1920's and 1930's. Perhaps not a book to read from cover to cover, but one to dip into. Put it on your shelves with Isobel Baillie's autobiography and every so often remind yourself of the amazing sound and artistry of Widdop's voice.

Walter Widdop - the Great Yorkshire Tenor
Compiled and edited by Michael Letchford
Goar Lodge 2012, 224pp + 1CD [76.10]
24 black and white illustrations

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