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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dame Clara Ellen Butt, DBE

Clara Butt was a concert singer of note, with a truly extraordinary contralto voice that impressed major contemporary composers, including Saint-Saëns and Elgar, who composed a song cycle with her in mind. 

Her family moved to Bristol in 1880, and Clara began her education there.  Her singing talent was recognized early on, and she was permitted to study with bass Daniel Rootham, and began singing in the local festival chorus.  When she was 18, she received a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where she studied voice and piano.  During her studies there, she received Royal sponsorship to go and study in France, Germany and Italy. Her professional debut was in 1892 in the cantata The Golden Legend (Sullivan).  She then appeared  as Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice, at the Lyceum Theater in what I take to be an oratorio presentation.  She was reviewed by Bernard Shaw, very positively.  (No small accomplishment, as Shaw was something of a professional curmudgeon capable of reviews that would not be publishable today.  But he liked Clara Butt!

Butt then studied with Jacques Bouhy in Paris, who had also worked with Louise Homer and Louise Kirkby Lunn, two extraordidnary deep-voiced singers. Her career increased exponentially, pretty nearly strictly as a concert singer.  She was not cut out for opera, (she only did a few performances, and was very ill at ease.) One of the reasons for this was her extraordinarily low voice, a delight to listen to, but rather role-limiting.  Also, she was reportedly 6 feet 2 inches tall!  That put her in a situation not unlike that of the great British ballerina Darcey Bussell, who, when she went up on point, soared above almost all male dancers, even her friend Irek Mukhamedov, with whom she was particularly fond of dancing!  And it certainly didn’t hurt HER career. But never mind, the concert stage and the recording studios were a perfectly adequate venue for Butt’s exceptional voice and singing.

Butt is well known, and good bios are easily found online.  I will only say a word about her personal life. In 1900 she married Kennerley Rumford, a baritone with whom she gave many subsequent concerts.  They had 3 children and made many appearances, (including a command royal performance), in several different countries.  During the First World War, Butt organized and sang in many concerts for service charities.  For such activity and dedication to her country she was appointed DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1920.  This is one of the highest honorary titles then bestowed.  Great sadness, however, attended her later life.  She lost two of her three children, and she herself developed cancer of the spine.  She made some of her recordings seated in a chair. It just never seems fair when this kind of thing happens! She died in 1936.

During Butt’s lifetime, it was the role of Orfeo (most especially the aria “Che farò senza Euridice”)that attracted many people, and it was this role that was pretty much her sole operatic experience.  It provides an excellent introduction to her voice, if you do not know Butt’s work, because it shows off what is without question one of the most extraordinary contralto voices of all time:

Now how about that! Some of those notes redefine the term “chest-voice”! It seems that a fair number of female singers designate their voices as “contralto” when in fact—and certainly compared to Clara Butt—they are mezzo-sopranos.  The simple truth is that a real contralto, of the Butt variety, is one of the rarest creatures in classical music!

Even as brilliant as “Che farò” is, however, it was not ancient operatic music that lay at the base of Butt’s popularity during her day, it was what might be called “Victorian” music, one of the most characteristic examples of which is Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “Lost Chord,” which was enormously popular, and was sung not only by concert singers, but by operatic singers also, even the Great Caruso, who has a notable recording of it.  Here is Butt’s much more authentic version.  Notice her extraordinary enunciation, one of her most outstanding stylistic qualities.  Seldom does one hear English singing this well enunciated:

Even if the concert stage is not the opera stage, however, it can still be the venue for highly dramatic presentations.  Here is Dame Clara in a very dramatic presentation of the kind that left many of her listeners spell-bound:

With her extraordinary physical appearance and equally extraordinary voice, attending a concert featuring songs like that must have been quite an experience!

Dame Clara’s emotional and vocal range was very wide, however, and here is a most unusual example of the opposite end of the dramatic and vocal scale, a song of pure froth and charm that is most attractive, and which I believe only went onto Youtube last week  when I posted Butt’s version for what I think is the first time. (There are a fair number of copies popping up, which is ok.) This is one of my favorites, and a good song to bid adieu with.  If you are listening to Butt for the first time, and want to hear more, just google her name on Youtube and enjoy the fair number of her recordings that are now available.  Please permit me to recommend the Youtube channel Curzon Road, one of the very best classical musical channels on Youtube, where you will find many Clara Butt recordings, in excellent condition:  Here is the utterly charming “A Fairy Went a-Marketing:

Dame Clara Butt!




JD Hobbes said...

What an interesting addition to your musical collection. I particularly like the variety of song choices you made.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes, and thanks so much for writing in! I was really looking forward to doing this one. I just love Clara Butt. She's one of those singers you just have to adore. Usually, one listening is enough to hook somebody! She had an enormously attractive quality about her, and that rare voice is just amazing!

Anonymous said...

What a voice! Thanks for the article on her. Perhaps her timbre is the closest to castrati sound. I heard Clara Butt for the first time and I really love her timbre. Her skills and emotionality are very impressive. It’s not easy for an opera singer to perform a ‘light ‘ song , but she brilliantly managed her ‘heavy’ voice, all the three songs are delightful. As for Orfeo, she is a rare example of a ‘masculine’ sound in this recording, a very convincing Orfeo.

Bernhard Show had good taste in opera, he admired Nezhdanova too:)


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Natalie! Great comment! I had the same thought about the castrato sound, especially in the Orfeo aria. When a woman sings that low, it is a very particular kind of sound that is almost "inter-gender" It's not exactly feminine or quite male. Whatever it is, though, it is quite attractive in music, and Dame Clara had it to a greater degree than almost any female singer I know of. Thanks again!

Unknown said...

I have only recently discovered this magnificent contralto, and have been in love ever since. A true figurehead of the Empire in its former days of glory in all respects! Physically an impressive and beautiful woman, and her voice, her voice...! One tends almost to believe whoever it was who said that on a clear day you could hear her on the other side of the Channel. Yet she does not only "boom"... listen to her "Euridice", or the fabulous Brindisi from Lucrezia Borgia. Her later recordings are no less impressive; she makes the most of the breaks between chest- and head voice - affectionately known as her "gear shifts". What is usually considered a disadvantage becomes an advantage! (Her later recording of "Kathleen Mavourneen" is a good example.) A rare and precious gem, so very worth listening to! Brava Dame Clara!!!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Hi Annie! So nice to hear from you. Great comment! Yes, I love those gear shifts too:-) What fun! Gotta love Clara, she was just wonderful! Thanks again!

Catherine Pope said...

What a lovely article! I don't know if you've come across it, but I published a biography of Dame Clara by Maurice Leonard last year. It's called 'Hope and Glory'. I hadn't heard of Clara before I read Maurice's book proposal, but fell completely in love with her.

Gerhard Santos said...

Hi dear Edmund,. Thanks for a really interesting article. GOD BLESS!

aberu3a said...

My mother was housekeeper to a well-known artist in Marlow called P H Miller whose house guests included Jerome K Jerome and Dame Clara Butt so I've always been fascinated by her singing and have several of her records.
Paul Vivash