Friday 11 July 2014

Walter Widdop, a forgotten heldentenor

Walter Widdop
Walter Widdop
If you put on any of Walter Widdop's Wagner recordings made in the late 1920's and early 1930's you hear a vibrant, evenly produced voice with perhaps a degree of tightness at the top. The clarity of production, evenness and firmness of tone impress, and his diction is superb. Whilst Widdop may not quite stand up to his greates contemporaries such as Lauritz Melchior, his existing recordings are highly impressive yet nowadays his name is barely known. In fact Walter Widdop (1892 - 1949) was one of the few English singers between the war to have a significant International career.

Born in 1892 in a village near Halifax, Widdop was the son of a stone dresser. At the age of 12 he spent half his time working in a local mill, attending school in the afternoon. He went on to work at a dye works. Widdop seems to have been a man about whom stories gathered. There are tales of him annoying co-workers with his singing, when working in a Bradford dyehouse, reputedly a burly navvy who heard him singing remarked: ‘If I’d thy voice and my brains I’d mak some brass.’ Encouraged by a local choir master he started singing in a choir. At the age of 21 he started lessons with Arthur Hinchcliffe

Always keen to better himself, music must have seemed a possible way out of the mill for the 21 year old. His first few lessons were paid for by work mates and then Widdop took paid singing engagements. His teacher, Arthur Hinchcliffe, came from a distinguished pedigree; he had learned with Charles Santley who had studied with the great Manuel Garcia jnr.  Widdop started to win competitions and he was in the Entertainment Corps during World War I.

After the war, Widdop returned to the dye works but resumed singing lessons and his local engagements led to him developing quite a reputation. He auditioned in London for Ibbs and Tillett and was taken on, getting more professional engagements. Widdop could have remained like this, singing concerts and oratorios, very much like Isobel Baillie, another singer from a humble Northern background who developed a strong local reputation.

But in 1922, the bass Norman Allin arranged an audition for Widdop with the musical director of the British National Opera Company. Widdop did not quite pass the audition and it was suggested he ought to study in London.

Walter Widdop as Siegmund
Walter Widdop as
By now Widdop was 30, with a wife and house (and soon to have a baby). The Widdops sold up and moved to a furnished room in St Johns Wood. Widdop enrolled at the Fairburn School of Opera and was coached in operatic roles with Dinh Gilly.When Widdop's money ran out, he returned to Norman Allin who arranged another audition an on 5 October 1923, at the age of 31 Widdop made his stage debut as Radames in Aida, to critical approval.

On 25 January 1924 he made his debut as Siegfried with the BNOC. Months later he went on to sing Siegfried at Covent Garden, at a time when it was relatively rare for English singers to appear in the seasons there. His other Wagnerian roles there being Siegmund (1932) and Tristan (1933, 1937, 1938). From then until his death in 1949 Widdop would plough this same furrow singing the dramatic repertoire in opera. But his voice combined power with flexibility and he continued performing in oratorio too.

'Records made around 1930 show a firm resonant voice and a virile style, confirming his place among the best heroic tenors of the century.' - John Steane, Grove Music

Walter Widdop as Siegfried
Walter Widdop as Siegfried
His frequent companion in Ring performances was the Australian dramatic soprano Florence Austral. And we are lucky enough to have recordings of excerpts (with Gota Ljungberg as Sieglinde) from the late 1920s. It is clear from reviews that Widdop developed considerably as an artist. But his recording career was effectively over after 1930, well before he was 40. And 40 is not old for a helden tenor. We have no studio records of Widdop after this date except for a song recital in 1932 and his participation in the Serenade to Music in 1938. Like many other English singers, Widdop went into the recording wilderness (something Isobel Baillie describes in her autobiography) and his early death prevented much post war recording. Off air transcriptions exist for his performance of Aegisth in Strauss's Elektra conducted by Thomas Beecham and his Drum Major in Berg's Wozzeck conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

But Widdop was a very strong personality and it has been suggested that he may have rubbed someone up the wrong way. Joseph Batten in an obituary in the Gramophone in 1949 recalled him as a 'typical Yorkshireman, fearlessly outspoken in all his opinions'. Whatever the reason, it has deprived us of Widdop in his prime.

Widdop was a gregarious man, fond of his Guinness and watching sport, notably cricket. Charles Reid in his biography of Beecham describes Widdop in 1924 as 'a bull-necked young tenor from the North with a voice of bar silver and no instinct whatever for the stage on which he moved... like a jaunty warehouse foreman'. But Widdop clearly developed as a stage performer, and later in his career he was outstanding as complex characters such as Tristan and Parsifal.

Unusually for an English singer, he developed an international career and toured extensively during World War Two, including to the USA. His repertoire was wide, including not only Siegmund and Siegfried but Bagoas (Eugene Goosens' Judith), Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (in a concert performance conducted by Ernest Ansermet), Renaud (Armide), Tannhäuser and Tristan as well as Handelian roles and he recorded the Benedictus from Bach's Mass in B Minor.

He had an impressive technique and, allowing for the slower tempi of the period, is admirably clear and even in his runs in the Handel and other earlier pieces. One important thing to bear in mind is that in his early career, like the majority of English singers, his performances would have mainly been in oratorio. Widdop might have had a big, dramatic voice but he was expected to be able to sing the title roles in Handel's Samson and Solomon (this was routinely done an octave lower), and the tenor part in Messiah. Admirable training for managing a large scale voice.

He was one of the 16 singers who performed in the premiere of RVW's Serenade to Music in 1938 and in 1938 he sang in the British premiere of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (now that I would love to be able to hear, Widdop's robustly brilliant tones in Stravinsky). During the Second World War he brought pleasure to thousands of servicemen during tours of South Africa and Canada and on an Ensa tour of the Middle East. Now he became the best English Wagner tenor of his time. He made guest appearances for example in Lisbon and gave concerts in North America.

Walter Widdop's last important engagement in London was in July 1949, when he sang the lead in Parsifal for Sir Adrian Boult at the Royal Albert Hall. The night before he died he sang Lohengrin's Farewell at a London Promenade concert.

One more legend: and a friend of mine used to tell the story that when Widdop was returning to Yorkshire following performances of Wagner at Covent Garden someone on the train complimented him and he retorted that he was going home to sing some proper music, Handel (said with a strong Yorkshire accent and a dropped H).

Walder Widdop on YouTube:

Wagner - Parsifal excerpts recorded 1925/1927/1928
Wagner - Prize Song from Die Meistersinger
Wagner - In fernem Land from Lohengrin
Wagner - Du bist der Lenz from Die Walkure recorded 1925 with Gota Ljungberg
Handel - Love in her eyes sits playing from Acis and Galatea recorded 1930
Mendelssohn - If with all your hearts from Elijah
Wagner - Zu neuen taten from Gotterdammerung recorded with Florence Austral
Bach - Domine Deus from Mass in B Minor recorded with Elisabeth Schumann

Elsewhere on this blog:

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