In Victorian and Edwardian times, there was a great vogue for female singers with deep, contralto voices, who drew huge audiences to concerts of arias from operas and oratorios as well as popular ballads. Clara Butt (1872–1936) was one of the most famous and was under exclusive contract to The Gramophone Company from 1899, when she made her first recording on a 7-inch Berliner disc. A number of composers wrote songs specially for her, including Sir Edward Elgar (Sea Pictures) and Samuel Liddle (‘Abide With Me’).
She was such an important artist that the company gave her an exclusive rich dark blue label. Imagine the shock at The Gramophone Company’s headquarters at Hayes when it became known in 1915 that Madame Butt had been poached by the company’s arch-rival, the Columbia Graphophone Company! She re-recorded all her principal repertoire for Columbia and remained with them until the end of her career. Sir Thomas Beecham once remarked of her powerful voice that on a clear day one could have heard her across the English Channel.
Listen to Clara Butt rendition of Land of Hope and Glory (Benson/Elgar) Recorded: June 25, 1930. If you’re a SOTH subscriber following by email please go to the actual blog to get the full posting.
This is the fourth in a series of publicity shots from the early years of the recording business that our friends at the EMI Archive Trust have made available to us. This photo is of Madame Kirkby-Lunn (known to her friends as Louise) who was a Mancunian contralto who lived between 1873 and 1930. This picture was taken of her in 1909 when she was recording for The Gramophone Company and playing Dalila (or Delilah as Tom Jones might have said) in Saint-Saens’ opera Samson et Dalila at Covent Garden.
Unusually for an English person, Louise spoke 4 languages and sang fluently in each. Even more unusually, for an Opera singer of the era, she retained a Northern English accent throughout her life. An interesting fact about Louise was that she performed in the very first Proms put on by Henry Wood in 1895.
As for Louise’s efforts at PR, we give her a 6 out of 10 for this photo. Although she is dressed well and shows willing – and exhibits excellent technique with the net curtains – her eyes betray her discomfort with the whole sordid affair.
This is her singing in the first decade of the twentieth century, a couple of years before the photo was taken.