Jennifer Vyvyan, 1925-1974

An English singer
and her times

This is a website to a person: an extraordinary person who emerged as a soprano of distinctive promise in the 1950s and became one of the best-loved English singers of her time – with a career that lasted nearly three decades until her tragic, sudden death, aged only 49.

Her voice was dazzling, her personality alive and bright. And as one of the many composers with whom she worked recalls, to meet her was to be ‘in awe’.

More broadly, though, this is a website to the world in which she functioned as a singer through the mid-20th Century: a period when music-making in the UK changed, dramatically and for the better.

‘I was in awe of her’ – Gordon Crosse

‘How grateful I am to you’ – Herbert Howells

‘You were smashing’ – Benjamin Britten

These were years when Britain finally shrugged off its reputation for being ‘das Land ohne Musik’, as Germans had once liked to mock: the land without music.

Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton had established themselves as composers of international significance.

Then, with a vengeance, came Britten and a new kind of ultra-professional creativity – requiring a new kind of ultra-professional musician to deliver it.

New orchestras, new opera companies, and a whole new cultural support-system of broadcasting, recording, grant-making emerged. And at much the same time, interest in ‘early’ music opened up the sound-world of composers of the distant past. Especially Purcell and Handel.

Jennifer Vyvyan played a major part in all this. As a versatile soprano who encompassed lyric, dramatic and coloratura roles, devoted much of her life to the oratorio circuit, and excelled in repertory from Bach to Berlioz, her participation was wide-ranging and high-profile.

But more specifically she became a key figure in two dynamic areas of musical activity during the 1950s-70s: the rediscovery of English baroque and the reinvention of English opera. In other words, old music and new, largely side-stepping the European 19th Century that tends to dominate vocal agendas.

Purcell was a constant feature of her programmes, and she was one of the leading Handelians at a time when the Handel repertory was opening out beyond Messiah, with the operas starting to be staged again.

Handel – Semele – No, No, I’ll Take No Less

But she also enjoyed a seminal relationship with modern English music, helping to establish new works by leading composers like Arthur Bliss, Malcolm Williamson, Lennox Berkeley, Gordon Crosse…and above all, Benjamin Britten with whom she collaborated closely throughout the whole of her career, becoming (for a while) his soprano of choice.

She created some of the most forceful female roles in Britten’s output: Lady Rich in Gloriana, the Governess in Turn of the Screw, Tytania in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Mrs Julian in Owen Wingrave.

She also sang in premieres of Cantata Academica and the Britten concert realisation of Purcell’s Fairy Queen, and was a celebrated interpreter of the War Requiem, Les Illuminations and the Spring Symphony.

Much of this repertoire she committed to disc, with Britten conducting, and the results have an enduring place in the recorded history of English music.

They document a period of extraordinary creative energy. And in their own right they live on as great performances.

About this website

This is a substantial site that attempts to place Jennifer Vyvyan in the context of her times and contains more material than might be obvious. So for guidance, there are five main sections covering:

– Vyvyan’s CAREER

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– The REPERTOIRE she sang
Highlighting periods and composers, with particular reference to Britten

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– An introduction to her as a WOMAN
Exploring her family background, character, voice, and involvement with the conductor Ivan Clayton

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– An introduction to the WORLD in which she functioned
Including opera companies, other singers, an historically important 1950s ‘musical embassy’ to Soviet Russia in which she took part, and the kind of earnings a mid-20th century singer like Vyvyan could expect to make

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– Her LEGACY as an artist
In terms of recordings and the ongoing activities of the Jennifer Vyvyan Foundation

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This site is dedicated to the memory of Vyvyan’s son Jonathan Crown, businessman, philanthropist, who made it possible.

1964-2020 RIP