Jennifer Vyvyan was often described in concert programmes as coming from Cornwall, which wasn’t quite true. She was born and initially raised in Broadstairs on the Kent coast, where her father owned and ran a small, genteel hotel.
But she did come from a Cornish family: a grand one of settled estates, ancestral portraits and military forbears not unlike the fictional family she would join toward the end of her singing career in Britten’s opera Owen Wingrave.
The Vyvyans were a long line of baronets who traced their title back to the 17th century, occupied a rambling Cornish pile called Trelowarren that they acquired by marriage in 1427, and had an extraordinary history.
But Jennifer’s descent was via successive younger sons who didn’t inherit. And so it was that when Captain (later Major) Cecil Vyvyan, Royal Engineers, married Miss Brigit (Biddy) Stokes, they took up residence at the relatively modest St Ives Hotel, Broadstairs – which they owned and where their daughter Jennifer was born on 13 March 1925.
The marriage was cut short by tragedy. When Jennifer was three, the Major collapsed and died in the course of a cricket match – ‘after completing his innings’ as a press report took care to note. Mother and daughter then moved to London where Biddy remarried, becoming Mrs William Sinclair.
Her new husband was a barrister with impressive addresses in Belgrave Square and Bournemouth. And Jennifer attended Kensington High School before changing to St Paul’s, Brook Green – a school of significance in that its music department was run successively by Gustav Holst (from 1905 to 1934) and Herbert Howells (from 1936 to 1962, including the time when Vyvyan was there).
Jennifer’s own musicality had first shown itself in Broadstairs where, age three, she had sung ‘Ain’t she sweet’ in a talent competition at the bandstand and won a woolly ball for her efforts. Ten years later, at Talbot Heath School, Bournemouth, she received her first professional notice for composing the words and music to a song premiered at a meeting of the ‘Modern Girls Club’.
Study and prizes
Jennifer Vyvyan entered the Royal Academy of Music in September 1941, aged only 16. The fee for her entrance audition was one guinea. And her principal study was piano: initially under Lilian Smith, then Vivian Langrish. But she also sang, considering herself a mezzo with contralto possibilities, and taking private lessons with Norman Lilly: an oratorio tenor who ran a round-table madrigal group called the London Singers which Vyvyan joined.
Eventually, in 1945, her main Academy studies shifted to voice, and she acquired as her teacher the celebrated Roy Henderson (1899-2000) who had enjoyed a distinguished career as a Mozart baritone in the early days of Glyndebourne, been one of the soloists for the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, and was widely thought of as the voice teacher of the time, thanks to the success of his pupil Kathleen Ferrier.
Henderson encouraged Vyvyan to take her voice up to soprano; and as such she won the Academy’s major student prizes, including the Minnie Hauk Gold Medal and Certificate of Merit with Distinction. Eventually she acquired the LRAM and (in 1955) FRAM.
By her own account, these were years of financial hardship: it seems that her stepfather, despite the grand addresses, had a less than thriving legal practice. And though she continued to study at the Academy for nine years, it was fitted around self-supporting jobs – from work as a hotel chambermaid to a teaching appointment as one of the Academy’s sub-professors, with occasional singing engagements at 2 guineas a time. On Sundays she sang with the choir of Lincoln’s Inn chapel. And from the mid-1940s she was also starting to get work from Glyndebourne and the English Opera Group.
To give an idea of the costs involved, her RAM fees ranged between 10 and 16 guineas per term. From 1942 she received a bursary of 3 guineas from the Academy’s student aid fund. In 1944 that increased to 8 guineas. And from 1945-7 she had a scholarship that funded all tuition.
Leaving the Academy in 1950 with a generous Boise Foundation scholarship that provided £300 for travel abroad, she went in January the following year to Geneva for lessons with the Italian tenor Fernando Carpi (1876-1959) who had been a star at the New York Met, La Scala Milan and in Paris, singing opposite the likes of Geraldine Farrar and Amelita Galli-Curci. As a teacher, his pupils included Suzanne Danco and Gwyneth Jones.
At the same time, she entered the 1951 Geneva International Concours, which had been founded in 1939 and become one of the world’s leading music competitions. In 1947 the voice category had been won by Victoria de los Angeles. Subsequent laureates have included Martha Argerich, Michelangeli, Georg Solti, and Jose Van Dam.
Vyvyan became the first British singer to win 1st prize, shared jointly with American soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs.
And the 20-minute programme that secured the prize (Handel’s Lusinghe piu care, Verdi’s Ah for’se lui from Traviata, a Rameau aria from Hippolyte, a Wolf lied and a modern English song) set a pattern for the mixed recitals that she sang throughout the rest of her career.
The first surviving document of Jennifer Vyvyan in serious public performance is the programme for a student concert at the RAM, 25 Jun 1942 in which she sang Berlioz’s Absence from Nuits d’ete.
Other student concerts included roles in operatic extracts – Gluck’s Orfeo, the Witch in Hansel & Gretel, the Abbess in Suor Angelica – all of them performing as a mezzo voice.
Many of these concerts took place in wartime, with instructions on the printed programme leaflets for evacuation in the event of bombing. Staff and students were accommodated in the basement. Everyone else had to chance their luck making for the public shelters two minutes away.
In 1947 she joined the Glyndebourne Chorus, where there was some issue about what voice-type she was.
Messages passing between members of the Glyndebourne music staff suggest that although she had been taken on as a mezzo with contralto potential, she was actually a high enough mezzo to sing soprano; and she ended up singing second soprano in Macbeth.
Meanwhile, she was clearly considered to be soloist material, and appears to have been offered the chance to sing the mezzo role Mrs Herring in Britten’s Albert Herring which Glyndebourne premiered in the summer of 1947 – but she turned it down, presumably because she thought her future lay in higher-lying repertoire.
But the prospect brought her close to a first encounter with Benjamin Britten, whose music was already on her radar: according to her diary she had heard his opera Peter Grimes when it premiered at Sadlers Wells in 1945, and it evidently made a strong impression because she mentions the piece in her diary again on several occasions during the following months.
In January 1948, she applied to join the recently-formed English Opera Group. Her diary records that the audition took place at Wigmore Hall in front of Britten and his stage director Eric Crozier; and it marked the beginning of an involvement with the composer that would figure throughout the rest of her life
As a result of that audition she sang, later in the same year, Jenny Diver in the EOG tour of Britten’s version of The Beggar’s Opera, and Nancy in Albert Herring – alternating in the role with Nancy Evans who had created it, alongside Peter Pears and Joan Cross.
Ivan Clayton, a contemporary of the composer from their student days at the Royal College, shared the conducting with Britten himself. And Clayton too would prove an important figure in Vyvyan’s life, as a guide and mentor who (in her own words) ‘helped me form my musical taste’.
In 1949 she sang Bach cantatas at the Aldeburgh Festival, sharing the concert with Peter Pears. And for EOG she sang the Female Chorus in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, with a company broadcast and tours to Copenhagen and Oslo.
Her own broadcasting career was now under way, with early BBC appearances that included a 1949 performance of Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater with the EOG chamber orchestra under Ivan Clayton, Handel’s Jeptha, Arne’s Judgement of Paris, and Gluck’s Iphigenie en Aulide – as well as popular broadcasts of light music. In August 1950 she made her Proms debut, contributing to a very mixed programme (typical for the time) one of her party pieces: the Wife of Bath aria from Dyson’s Canterbury Pilgrims. And in December 1950 there was a TV broadcast of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, singing Giorgetta.
Winning the 1951 Geneva Concours raised her profile as success in major competitions does, and she spent the next four months touring Italy – where she turned down several proposals of marriage and, more significantly, the chance of singing the soprano lead, Fevronia, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Invisible City of Kitezh at short notice at La Scala, Milan. It was music she had sung recently in London for a BBC broadcast that aired in January 1951, but she clearly didn’t feel ready for the exposure of a major international stage appearance.
By now, though, she was in serious demand on the British choral society circuit which, in the early ’50s, was still the major force it isn’t so obviously today.
Her concert schedule became log-jammed with Messiahs. And they were repertoire that, along with the Bach Passions, remained central to her existence – done with every conceivable choral union/society/municipal choir from Belfast to Basel (not forgetting Bethlehem, Pennsylvannia whose Bach Festival became one of her regular American platforms).
Her performance schedules in the early ‘50s suggest an already hectic life with up to ten or eleven concerts in busy months (around Easter and Christmas) and long days of pre-dawn trains from London, rehearsals from mid-morning, concerts in the evening, and a sleeper-service back.
Packaged around these schedules came the BBC recordings – which tended toward non-standard repertory that required learning from scratch. Surviving colleagues remember her as sometimes frenetically active, filling spare moments in rehearsals by scribbling down lists of songs for the next recital, learning notes/texts/languages, or studying train times. It’s understandable why some days in her diary are simply marked ‘bed’.
One of her early broadcasts featured a complete radio recording of Mozart’s Idomeneo; and an immediate result of the Geneva competition was that Covent Garden showed an interest in her as a Mozart voice. But nothing came of it, and instead she found herself in 1952 engaged by Sadlers Wells for her first two Mozart stage roles: Donna Anna (Don Giovanni) and Konstanze (Seraglio), which were not without significance in that they both provided opportunity for highly-strung dramatic presence. Her speciality.
A year later she would be singing Electra in a Glyndebourne production of Idomeneo that premiered at the Edinburgh Festival. But the key event of 1953 for Vyvyan was the role that finally did get her onstage at Covent Garden: Lady Rich in the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, which had been written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Gloriana wasn’t at the time deemed a critical or popular success (see the section on Jennifer’s Britten repertoire), but the circumstances of its commission and first performance gave it as high a profile as new operas could get in the mid-20th century. And though Lady Rich was a supporting rather than starring role, Vyvyan played it with a vivid presence that earned her the central role of the Governess in Britten’s next opera The Turn of the Screw, which premiered in 1954.
One of the true masterpieces of modern opera, Turn of the Screw attracted serious international attention; and that it opened at the Fenice opera house in Venice countered any lingering idea of Britten as a local English phenomenon.
Vyvyan shared its triumph as the premiere production toured through the next few years to venues in Europe and North America. In 1955 she starred in the celebrated Decca recording of the opera. And the same year she sang Rowan in Decca’s recording of The Little Sweep.
Her endless round of oratorios continued, but now they were taking her further afield than Leeds and Bradford. Now she was singing Messiah in Berlin, with the Berlin Philharmonic, or Samson at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. And as travel options opened up, so foreign tours were assuming a greater proportion of her time – visiting South Africa for concerts with Charles Groves and, above all, Scandinavia, Holland and Belgium, which all became regular destinations.
Other destinations were Switzerland, where she took part in a 1958 United Nations Day concert under Ernest Ansermet that broadcast to 72 countries and was filmed for American TV, and the USSR when she was asked by the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Arthur Bliss, to join a small party of British musicians on a politically significant concert tour of Russian cities. It was 1956, at a time in the cold war when East/West cultural exchange was almost unknown, and the trip accordingly took place in a glare of publicity on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Meanwhile, her relationship with Britten was consolidated by performances not only of the operas but of the Spring Symphony, Les Illuminations and other music in the Aldeburgh Festival – including a memorable starring role in the 1958 British premiere of Poulenc’s crazy incursion into cross-gendered comedy Les Mamelles de Tiresias.
The ’60s opened with Vyvyan looking very much like Britten’s soprano of choice. At Christmas 1959 she had starred in a TV film of Turn of the Screw that broadcast over two nights, on Dec 25th and 26th.
The following summer she sang Tytania in the world premiere production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Aldeburgh. In 1961 she sang in the UK premiere of Cantata Academica. 1963 saw her reprise Lady Rich in a concert performance of Gloriana for Britten’s 50th birthday at the Festival Hall. And through the rest of the decade came regular performances of Britten repertoire – under the composer’s baton as well as those of major-league conductors like Giulini (Les Illuminations in England and Hungary) and Bernstein (Spring Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in the USA).
Some commentators, including Humphrey Carpenter in his Britten biography (Faber 1992), recall a cooling of relationship between Vyvyan and Britten after the Dream; and if so, it may have been connected with the fact that she had become increasingly involved with new operas by Malcolm Williamson, premiering his Violins of St Jacques in 1967, The Growing Castle in ’68, with English Eccentrics and Lucky Peter’s Journey in ’69. (See A Repertoire – Williamson).
But if there was a falling out, it wasn’t fatal. She recorded Cantata Academica under Britten’s direction. The endless tours of Turn of the Screw continued – as did regular invitations to Aldeburgh, sharing a platform with Britten for inner-circle events like his performances of Purcell’s Fairy Queen in 1969. And though she wasn’t cast as Tytania when the Dream had its London premiere at Covent Garden, nor did she appear on the Decca recording, she was back in the role by the end of the decade, touring with the EOG and taking it to San Francisco in 1971
Otherwise, the ’60s were conspicuous for trips to Scandinavia, with concerts in Oslo, Bergen, Copenhagen, Gothenberg and other Nordic cities.
There were new choral works, with successive performances of Peter Racine Fricker’s oratorio The Vision of Judgement which Vyvyan championed, as well as the premiere of Arthur Bliss’s The Beatitudes which opened the festival to mark the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. And as always there was plenty of Handel, including landmark modern stagings of Rinaldo and Radamisto for the Handel Opera Society as well as concerts of Semele, Jephtha, Athalia and Judas Maccabeus.
Tucked into the corners of this elevated repertoire were indications of a spirited performer with a robust sense of fun. Taking just one year, 1963 brought guest appearances in the legendary Hoffnung concerts organised by John Amis and others; Gilbert & Sullivan under Malcolm Sargent at the Albert Hall; and a comic miniature by Offenbach (reworked by Colin Graham) at Sadlers Wells.
The comedy continued into 1970 as Vyvyan assumed her third successive role in Britten’s Albert Herring – this time matured into the battleaxe aristocrat Lady Billows.