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Ilse Wolf (Soprano)

Born: June 7, 1921 - Düren, near Aachen, Rhineland, Germany
Died: September 6, 1999 - London (?), England

The German-born (later British) soprano and teacher, Ilse Wolf, was born into a Jewish family and grew up in Düren. She began her music studies in Germany. She experienced the rising tide of Nazi persecution until compelled to leave in 1939 on one of the "children's transports": the parents she left behind disappeared in the flames of the Holocaust. She was brought to England, briefly interned, then did war work in a factory.

Soon after her arrival, Ilse Wolf was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. In 1941 she was released and returned to London, where she became an air-raid warden, and took every opportunity to sing, in factories and private homes. She also attended Morley College, joining Michael Tippett's choir and singing J.S. Bach and Heinrich Schütz in ensemble. In 1943, while doing domestic work at a finishing school in Pont Street, she met the singing teacher Emmy Heim, a notable Austrian Lieder singer, who recognised her talent and gave her lessons. When Heim left for Canada in 1947, she introduced Ilse to Helene Isepp, a former pupil, whose career in Vienna had been halted by the war, and who was to become one of England's most influential teachers. Helene Isepp gave her a wonderfully free technique and nurtured her love and understanding of the German Lied, as well as the music of J.S. Bach. She was soon assisting Isepp with her more recent students. Helene Isepp's pianist son, Martin, was often called upstairs to accompany his mother's pupils, which led later to a close collaboration with Ilse Wolf in recital.

Ilse Wolf had begun to give small concerts by 1945, and some BBC recitals, many accompanied by Ernest Lush or Paul Hamburger. She was also in demand for oratorio, and it was while singing the soprano part in Haydn's Nelson Mass at York Minster in 1953 that she met Janet Baker, who had stepped from the ranks of the Leeds Philharmonic Choir to sing the contralto part. Urged on by Wolf and the conductor Allan Wicks, Janet Bakerr came to London to study with Helene Isepp and commence her career.

Ilse Wolf was one of the great Lieder singers of her generation. She excelled above all in songs by Schubert, which she took to audiences throughout Britain, her adopted country. By natural gift, upbringing and aspiration, she was a singer through and through. She knew instinctively how words and music could be brought into perfect union: the understanding of her native language and poetry was bred in her bones, so that her interpretation of Lieder, voiced in the purest, most limpid sound, demonstrated not only crystalline articulation, but also the deepest meaning and emotion inherent in text and music. For many years she gave Lieder recitals all over Britain: of her many unsurpassed performances, her rendition of The Shepherd on the Rock, Schubert's song with clarinet as well as piano, was outstanding. For many years she broadcast regularly on the BBC third programme, with such fine accompanists as Paul Hamburger and Martin Isepp; with the latter, she made a commercial recording of Schubert.

In oratorio, she was a radiant performer of J.S. Bach and W.A. Mozart, bringing to their music an awareness of style based on a strong rhythmic pulse which animated her soaring, joyous soprano and gave wings to musical phrasing. From 1956 to 1958, she sang in some of the Chelsea Opera Group's first performances, conducted by the young Colin Davis. She took a number of W.A. Mozart roles, and was particularly memorable as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro.

Her numerous broadcasts for the BBC assured her of a well-attended London debut recital at the Wigmore Hall in 1955, the Times reviewer noting her "warm, clear voice, admirable enunciation and smooth method of production which affords her a legato like satin". This was the first of many Wigmore concerts with Martin Isepp, and they performed throughout the British Isles, as well as in Europe. Her first return to Germany in 1963 (under the auspices of the British Council) to sing in Cologne, Berlin and Frankfurt was agony for her, but a critical success. In 1969, she was the first person to sing Lieder at a Promenade concert, opening the programme on September 1 with four Schubert songs. Her only recital record, issued by Unicorn, appeared later that year.

Highlights of her career in oratorio included singing J.S. Bach with Pablo Casals at the Prades Festival, and Gustav Mahler with Barbirolli. James Gaddarn, conductor of the London Orpheus Choir and Orchestra, remembers the instant rapport at their first meeting in 1969 to rehearse for a BBC recording of J.S. Bach's cantatas; he recalls their Monteverdi Vespers at Westminster Abbey, the joy and poignancy of her arias in the St John Passion (BWV 245), her instrumental approach to the duets of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232), and her soaring rendition of Strauss's Four Last Songs followed by the Johannes Brahmss' Requiem. Her recordings included Bach's Magnificat (BWV 243), Monteverdi madrigals and George Frideric Handel's Te Deum.

However, there was an other side to her; a wonderful ability to make connections between musicians she worked with and admired and young singers whom she wished to encourage. In time, Ilse became Helene Isepp's assistant, and eventually an increasing number of pupils came to her independently as her own reputation in this field grew. She was then asked to teach at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and in 1980 was made an honorary member. For many years she had a close connection with Morley College, where she worked with Michael Tippett and Walter Bergmann, singing in many of the concerts they put on. In later years she taught in Lieder and repertoire classes, her practical vocal demonstrations displaying a limpid quality and charm to the last.

None of Ilse Wolf's immediate family survived the Holocaust, so Emmy Heim and Helene Isepp became mother figures as well as teachers to this spirited, yet deeply vulnerable, girl. It was those qualities which endeared her to audiences, who warmed to her direct simplicity, youthful timbre and limpid tone, so well suited to Schubert and Robert Schumann. Her extreme nervousness may have limited her career to some extent, but passing on what she knew was as important to her as performing, and a necessary corrective. Students in her classes at the RAM, Trinity College and, above all, Morley College, felt her personal care for them as well as her professional expertise. A particular pleasure of her later years, was making contact with her second cousin from Chicago, Elisabeth Wolf-Morrall and her young family, now resident in London. Ilse Wolf died in 1999, aged 78. She did not marry, and leaves a niece, Elisabeth. Ilse Wolf is remembered by the many who basked in her spontaneous warmth and humour, and by the many pupils and fellow musicians who were inspired by her dedication and single-minded love for the art she so graciously adorned.

Source: International Who's Who in Music & Musicians' Directory (6th Edition, 1972); Obituary in the Guardian (Author: Laura Sarti; September 27, 1999); Obituary in The Times (October 5, 1999)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (November 2005, September 2015); Manfred Krugmann (Photo 01, July 2011)

Reof Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




Geraint Jones


BWV 243

Paul Steinitz


Radio: BWV 8, BWV 49, BWV 180

Links to other Sites

Obituary in The Guardian
Obituary in The Times


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