When Jennifer Vyvyan died in 1974, her husband stored her personal possessions – letters, diaries, contracts, photographs, recordings, concert programmes, scores: she was a hoarder – in an attic-load of boxes where they stayed for the next three decades. Largely untouched.
The collection passed to her son, Jonathan Crown, whose memories of his mother were distant – he had been a young child when she died in 1974 – but deep. And he resolved to do something that would perpetuate her name and achievements, eventually setting up a Jennifer Vyvyan Foundation to encourage scholarship and broader public interest in the world she served.
Asked to help, the music critic and broadcaster Michael White undertook longterm research into the materials and put together an initial website – which he then enlarged into the present one. As a satellite activity he made a programme for the BBC called Opening the Boxes, first broadcast on Radio 4, 18 August 2011 and still available on the BBC iPlayer.
Listen to Opening the Boxes on BBC iPlayer
In September 2012 Michael White also organised a study day at Wigmore Hall that drew together some distinguished members of the music world who worked with Vyvyan, to share their memories.
Taking part along with Jonathan Crown were the stage director John Copley, countertenor James Bowman, TV director Peter Morley (who made the 1959 Associated Rediffusion film of Turn of the Screw), veteran broadcaster and Aldeburgh notable John Amis, and baritone John Shirley-Quirk (whose participation was emotionally charged in that he had only just returned to Britain after years of living in America and hadn’t – as he said – passed through the doors of Wigmore Hall in decades).
On display was an exhibition of items from the Vyvyan collection. And the day finished with a song recital illustrating Vyvyan’s repertoire, given by the soprano Elizabeth Watts, accompanied by pianist James Southall.
The work goes on. In recent years the Foundation has assisted with the reissue of several Vyvyan recordings on the Decca Eloquence label. The Vyvyan collection has become an archive, which grows with the addition of new relevant material. And scheduled for autumn 2020 is an educational event at the Royal Academy of Music.
Michael White continues to give talks and lectures about Vyvyan’s work, the operas she appeared in, and the wider world of 20th Century singing. And the Foundation is lobbying for a London blue plaque on the house in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, Hampstead where she lived and died.