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A Tall Talent – Clara Butt

A biographer of the English contralto Dame Clara Butt (1872 – 1936) wrote: “She stands out head and shoulders from among her contemporaries in personality as she does in stature, and the amazing range and power and beauty of her voice” Queen Victoria told her: “I have never liked the English language, but in your mouth it is beautiful.” She must have meant it because the Queen sent young Clara to Paris for study, paying all her expenses.

Born in Southwick, Sussex the same month and year as Caruso, Chaliapin, and Rachmaninov. She initially trained as a soprano but soon realized that her huge, rich and dark voice was meant for the contralto. That comment about her stature was meant literally. She was slim and very good looking but she stood six foot two in her stoking feet. She must have seemed quite imposing to the examiners at the Royal Academy of Music when she (probably wearing heels) sang a perfectly awful song (“The Enchantress”) that had a full octave leap from E to low E with all the power she could muster.

They asked her to sing something a bit quieter. She did and got a full scholarship.

Clara Butt appeared in only two opera productions and in only one role, that of Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice. She made her debut at Royal Albert Hall in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Golden Legend and followed it with Gluck’s Orfeo after which the London Times wrote: “. . . she is by far the best singer that has ever come from the Royal College of Music.”

Her opportunities in opera were limited (the thought of a six foot two Carmen towering over a five foot six Don Jose seems dramatically unwise.) The composer Camille St. Saens wanted her to sing Dalila in his opera Samson et Dalilah but the Lord Chamberlin refused to license plays or operas on biblical subjects so that plan ended. Which seems a shame as she certainly was comfortable with the music.

Instead, she sang mostly in concerts and oratorios by Handel, Gounod, Elgar, Rossini and Dvorak. She soon discovered that what her public wanted from her was familiar songs and ballads and that the real money lay in singing at private musical entertainments held by London’s social elite. Her love of lush sounds did lead her to sing at slow tempos and once she sang a lullaby to the great soprano Nellie Melba’s granddaughter, who told her: “My Granny can sing much quicker than that.”

She gave the first performance of Elgar’s Sea Pictures and asked him, “Why don’t you write a song for me?” And so Elgar wrote “Land of Hope and Glory,” which became her signature tune and the unofficial National Anthem of Great Britain for the rest of her life.

When she married in 1900 thousands stood outside the cathedral while inside the famous singer Albani sang an anthem especially composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan. She toured Canada and America and sang special concerts at the Metropolian Opera before continuing her tour though the rest of the British Empire and Europe. She was the first to use a spotlight in a concert hall – shocking at the time and she dressed in a grand, dramatic, style

Her voice was gigantic. George Bernard Shaw thought it might be heard across the English Channel – but always dramatic, with superb diction, and interpretations that were completely convincing, although her command of languages left a great deal to be desired. Today her open-throated singing style may seem a bit antiquated, but that may have more to do with the quality of training current singers receive than anything else.

Her private life was less grand. One son died of meningitis while at school and the other committed suicide. She contracted spinal cancer and many of her later recordings were made seated in a wheelchair. She died at home at the age of 63

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