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Dame Janet Baker, Mezzo Soprano

By April 14, 2022March 19th, 2023No Comments

Born in Yorkshire in 1933, the famed English mezzo-soprano Janet Baker never had a formal musical education. Coming from a far from affluent family, she left school to work in a bank and her earliest musical experiences were of watching her father in the Police Choir. After performing a small solo in Haydn’s Nelson Mass with the Leeds Philharmonic Choir in 1953 Ilse Wolf, whom Janet sang alongside, gave her the contact details of a singing teacher in London. Inspired by her first taste of the concert platform Janet asked for a change of bank office to London and began lessons with Helene Isepp.

The move to London just after the end of WWII exposed Baker to many musical emigres from Europe, and a completely different life from that which she was accustomed to in Yorkshire. Her most immediate success was winning second prize in the 1956 Kathleen Ferrier competition and this allowed her to pursue her dream of performing on the bigger stage. Famed for her roles at Glyndebourne, ENO and her close collaboration with Benjamin Britten she became one of the greatest British singers and was awarded with a CBE in 1970. Her final performance came as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice at Glyndebourne in 1982.

Sea Pictures is Elgar’s 1899 song cycle of poems by five authors, including his wife, Caroline. Composed just after the Enigma Variations, Sea Pictures focuses on what Fred Kirschnit calls the “overwhelming attraction of oblivion,” the shadowy appeal of death as represented by (and realized in) the immeasurability of the sea.

In the third song, a setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sabbath Morning at Sea,” the writing is more involved, motivically.

Since its premiere at the Norwich Festival in October 1899 (at which contralto Clara Butt appeared dressed as a mermaid), Sea Pictures made its rounds and then, outside of Europe, largely disappeared.

Sabbath Morning at Sea

The ship went on with solemn face;
To meet the darkness on the deep,
The solemn ship went onward.
I bowed down weary in the place;
For parting tears and present sleep
Had weighed mine eyelids downward.

The new sight, the new wondrous sight!
The waters around me, turbulent,
The skies, impassive o’er me,
Calm in a moonless, sunless light,
As glorified by even the intent
Of holding the day glory!

Love me, sweet friends, this sabbath day.
The sea sings round me while ye roll
Afar the hymn, unaltered,
And kneel, where once I knelt to pray,
And bless me deeper in your soul
Because your voice has faltered.

And though this sabbath comes to me
Without the stolèd minister,
And chanting congregation,
God’s Spirit shall give comfort.
He who brooded soft on waters drear,
Creator on creation.

He shall assist me to look higher,
Where keep the saints, with harp and song,
An endless sabbath morning,
And, on that sea commixed with fire.
Oft drop their eyelids raised too long
To the full Godhead’s burning.

Purcell, Dido’s lament (When I am laid in earth)

Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy bosom let me rest,
More I would, but Death invades me;
Death is now a welcome guest.

When I am laid, am laid in earth,
May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (G. Mahler)
Friedrich Rückert

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!
Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.
Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

I am lost to the world
Friedrich Rükert

I am lost to the world
With which I used to waste much time;
It has for so long known nothing of me,
It may well believe that I am dead.
Nor am I at all concerned
If it should think that I am dead.
Nor can I deny it,
For truly I am dead to the world.
I am dead to the world’s tumult
And rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love, in my song!

Dame Janet Baker, August 21, 1933

Janet Baker, in full Dame Janet Abbott Baker, (born August 21, 1933, Hatfield, Yorkshire, England), English operatic mezzo-soprano who was known for her vocal expression, stage presence, and effective diction. As a recitalist she was noted for her interpretations of the works of Gustav Mahler, Edward Elgar, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Baker studied voice in London until 1956, when she won second prize in the Kathleen Ferrier Award, which paid for her studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. She made her operatic debut in 1956 at the Oxford University Opera Club as Roza in Bedřich Smetana’s The Secret and also sang Eduige in Rodelinda, the first of many memorable performances of the operatic roles of George Frideric Handel and other Baroque composers at the Barber Institute in Birmingham.

In 1962 Baker sang the female lead in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and was Polly in Benjamin Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera the following year. In 1971 she created the role of Kate Julian, written especially for her, in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, first for television and then for the stage. She also won the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize that year. She performed successfully in the Raymond Leppard revivals of early Italian operas, notably as Penelope in Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in 1972. She sang the 1975 premiere performance of Dominick Argento’s song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Baker retired in 1982. That year Full Circle: An Autobiographical Journal, an account of her last year onstage, was published.

Baker later served as chancellor of the University of York (1991–2004). She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976 and a Companion of Honor in 1994.

Dame Janet is sometimes criticized as having only one sound. This may be true, but it is a beautifully expressive sound.