The English soprano, 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 parents were permanently resident in 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 Benjamin Britten’s opera Owen Wingrave. The Vyvyans were a long line of baronets who traced their title back to the 17th century - granted for service to Charles I in the Civil War - and lived in a rambling pile called Trelowarren, near Helston, that they acquired by marriage in 1427.
Their lands extended to tracts of the Cornish coast to the west of Mount’s Bay - including a famous natural feature, the so-called Rocking Stone - which the family subsequently gave to the National Trust. Their treasures included the Vyvyan Salt, a prime example of Elizabethan silver now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. And through a colourful history their number included excommunicated outlaws, titular bishops, Jacobite rebels, Members of Parliament, and a Lord Chief Justice who made his name as a lawyer in the divorce proceedings between King George IV and Queen Caroline.
But above all they were soldiers. And it was Captain (later Major) Cecil Vyvyan, Royal Engineers, who married Miss Brigit (Biddy) Stokes and installed her at the St Ives Hotel, Broadstairs where their daughter Jennifer was born on March 13, 1925. The marriage was cut short. 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 eventually remarried, becoming Mrs Sinclair, and Jennifer attended Kensington High School before changing to St Pauls, Brook Green - a school of significance in that its music department was run successively by Gustav Holst and Herbert Howells.
Jennifer Vyvyan’s own musicality had first shown itself in Broadstairs where, age three, she had sung ‘Ain’t she sweet’ in a talent competition and won. Ten years later, as a wartime evacuee at Talbot Heath School, Bournemouth, she received her first professional notice (in the Liverpool Post) for composing the words and music to a song premiered at a meeting of the ‘Modern Girls Club’. She entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1941, aged 16, with piano as her first subject. By 19 she had switched to singing, as a mezzo. And after a period with Vivian Langrish she was taught by Roy Henderson, 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. Eventually she acquired the LRAM and (in 1955) FRAM.
By her own account, these were years of financial hardship: presumably her stepfather, a barrister, had a less than thriving practice. And though she continued to study at the Academy for 9 years, it was fitted around self-supporting jobs - from work as a hotel chambermaid to teaching as one of the Academy’s sub-professors and singing engagements at 2gns a time.
In January 1951, with a Boise Foundation scholarship that provided £300 for travel abroad, she went to Geneva to study with Fernando Carpi and spent the next four months touring Italy where she turned down several proposals of marriage and, more significantly, the chance of singing Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Invisible City of Kitezh at short notice at La Scala, Milan. It was music she’d sung recently in a London concert performance, but she clearly didn’t feel ready for the exposure of a major international stage appearance.
It was Carpi who suggested she enter the 1951 Geneva International Concours where she 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 (George Frideric 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 for 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. Early concerts took her persistently to Wales - on the 5.55am from Paddington for an 11.30 rehearsal and evening performance: standard fee 25gns - and she developed the unusual ability to sing entire works like G.F. Handel’s Samson and the Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Benedicite in Welsh. From memory.
In 1947 she joined the Glyndebourne Chorus, establishing contacts that led to her auditioning in January 1948 for the English Opera Group (EOG). Her diary records that the audition took place at Wigmore Hall in front of Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier; and it was her introduction to the world of B. Britten and Aldeburgh that would figure largely in her subsequent life. As a result, later that year, she sang Jenny Diver in the EOG tour of The Beggar’s Opera (B. Britten edition), and Nancy in B. Britten’s Albert Herring - 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 B. Britten himself. Clayton was to be 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 B. Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, with a company broadcast.
Her own broadcasting career was now beginning, with early BBC appearances that included a 1949 performance of Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater with the EOG chamber orchestra under Ivan Clayton, G.F. Handel’s Jeptha, Arne’s Judgement of Paris, and Gluck’s Iphegenie en Aulide. 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.
Winning the Geneva Concours raised her profile as success in major competitions does. But by then she was already in serious demand on the British choral society circuit which, in the early 1950’s, was still the major force it isn’t so obviously today. Her concert schedule around Christmas 1951 was log-jammed with Messiahs - in Bolton, Bradford, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Glasgow, Liverpool, as well as Southwark Cathedral and the AlberHall. And it was repertoire that, along with the Bach Passions, remained central to her life - done with every conceivable choral union/society/municipal choir from Belfast to Basel (not forgetting Bethlehem, Pennsylvannia whose Bethlehem Bach Festival became one of her regular American platforms). Her performance schedules in the early 1950’s suggest an already hectic life with up to 10-11 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 in Don Giovanni and Constanza in Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
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 B. 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, 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 in B. 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 B. 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.
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 Berliner Philharmoniker. And as travel options opened up, so foreign tours were assuming a greater proportion of her time - visiting South Africa and, above all, Scandinavia which became a regular destination.
Other destinations were Switzerland, where she took part in an internationally broadcast United Nations Day concert under Ernest Ansermet, 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 the height of the cold war and the trip accordingly took place in a glare of publicity on both sides of the anglo-soviet divide.
Meanwhile, her relationship with B. 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 Francis Poulenc’s crazy celebration of cross-gendered comedy Les Mammelles de Tiresias.
The 1960’s opened with Jennifer Vyvyan looking very much like B. Britten’s soprano of choice. In 1960 she sang Tytania in the world premiere production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Aldeburgh, staying with the role as it travelled to other venues. In 1961 she took part in the UK premiere of Cantata Academica. 1963 saw her in B. Britten’s 50th birthday concert at the Festival Hall. And through the rest of the decade came regular performances of B. Britten repertoire - under the composer’s baton as well as those of major-league conductors like Carlo Maria Giulini (Les Iluminations in England and Hungary) and Leonard Bernstein (Spring Symphony with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the USA).
Some commentators, including Humphrey Carpenter in his B. Britten biography (Faber 1992), recall a cooling of relationship between Jennifer Vyvyan and B. Britten; 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 1968, with English Eccentrics and Lucky Peter’s Journey in 1969. But if there was a falling out, it can’t have lasted because the decade closed with Vyvyan singing Tytanias for the English Opera Group, appearing at Aldeburgh, and sharing a platform with B. Britten for inner-circle events like his performances of Purcell’s Fairy Queen in 1969.
Otherwise, the 1960’s were noticeable for her commitment to Scandinavia, with concerts in Oslo, Bergen, Copenhagen, Gothenberg and other Nordic cities. There was a similar commitment to new choral works, with successive performances of Peter Racine Fricker’s oratorio The Vision of Judgement which she premiered and championed, as well as the premiere of Arthur Bliss’s The Beatitudes which opened the 1962 festival to mark the consecration of Coventry Cathedral. And as always there was plenty of G.F. Handel, including full stagings of Rinaldo, Semele, and the first staged Radamisto since G.F. Handel’s own time.
But tucked into the corners of this elevated repertoire were indications of a spirited performer with a robust sense of fun. Taking one year, 1963 brought two guest appearances in the legendary Hoffnung concerts organised by the writer and cartoonist’s widow Annetta; 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 Jennifer Vyvyan assumed her third successive role in B. Britten’s Albert Herring - this time matured into the battle-axe aristocrat Lady Billows. And the relationship with B. Britten certainly held good through the following years, with her last new operatic role - Mrs Julian in Owen Wingrave, written for TV transmission in 1971 - alongside performances of Les Illuminations, of Fairy Queen (under B. Britten’s baton at Aldeburgh and on radio), of Gloriana at the Coliseum, and of Midsummer Night’s Dream in San Francisco. One of her last performances was a War Requiem at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, in March 1974.
On April 5, 1974 Jennifer Vyvyan suffered complications from a bronchial/asthmatic condition she’d been struggling to control for years, and died at her home in Fitzjohns Avenue, Hampstead, NW London. She left a husband, Leon Crown (married ) and a 9-year-old son Jonathan Crown. Her funeral took place on Maundy Thursday, the day before she had been scheduled to sing yet another Good Friday Messiah at the Albert Hall. A memorial service followed in June at All Souls, Langham Place, where the lesson was read by Peter Pears. Her obituary in the Daily Telegraph described her as ‘one of the most distinguished British sopranos of the decade…impeccably stylish’, with ‘a highly refined and sensitive musicianship’. ‘Her personality and generous nature’, said the Times, ‘will be sorely missed in British musical circles’.