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Edward Elgar: Where corals lie

I’m so glad to be able to share one of my favorite voices ever with you today. Janet Baker was born in 1933 to a coal mining family in Yorkshire in the North of England. She went on to become one of the most highly acclaimed mezzo sopranos of her generation, known particularly for her performances of Mahler, Berlioz, and Elgar, and for her long-time association with Benjamin Britten. She also specialized in performances from the English song and German lieder traditions, and pioneering performances of Baroque opera.

My first exposure to her warm and supple voice was from a now-legendary 1965 recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Composed in 1844, the five songs to texts by five different poets including Elgar’s wife, Alice. Originally written for soprano and piano, they were arranged for orchestra and contralto by the composer and first performed in that arrangement in 1899 – the singer replete with a mermaid costume!

As an undergraduate at Cambridge University we were frequently reminded that English music was somewhat inferior to music from the Continent – by which was meant Germany. Elgar was dubbed “poor man’s Wagner” and the pastoral songs of Quilter, Finzi, and Vaughan Williams were known as “cow pat” music! Elgar’s songs are not his strongest pieces, but the Sea Pictures are masterful gems of text setting and orchestration.

Despite Thomas Arne’s famous ditty assuring that us that “Britannia rules the waves,” the nineteenth-century view of the sea was still one of intense mystery, cautions respect, fear, and land-based admiration. The music reflects this aesthetic with great intensity and imagination. The moody rocking and foamy swirls of first piece, Sea Slumber Song, draw us into a maritime fantasy that pairs beautifully with the idiosyncratically modified vowels and lusciously drawn-out consonants of Baker’s recording. The whole cycle is a delight, became one of the soundtracks of my childhood from age 10.

I wanted to find out more about Dame Janet, her incomparable voice, and to discover more her recordings. I was desperate to hear her perform live but learned that she retired from singing in 1982 at age 49 (and she is still very much with us!) My teacher, who had worked with her and Britten as a student, later recalled that she wanted to go out on a gloriously high note (excuse the pun). Such a modest and self-disciplined performer was she that 35 years have passed since she sang a note in public. But her performances are still “discovered” on a daily basis by new and eager listeners through her recordings, reminding us that the legendary voice is very much alive and well. Keep the legend alive and pass this recording on!

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