The voice of a generation

The truth is that 95% of you will not even read beyond this sentence once you realise that this piece is about Wagner and specifically a Wagner singer. So goodbye to 95% of you. And welcome to the remaining 5% prepared to lend me a few minutes of your time to read further. Thank you. It’s appreciated.

I can’t remember the date but I do know I was about 15, at boarding school, when I first began to appreciate classical music. There had been precious little opportunity for classical music appreciation in 1960s Doncaster. Professing a liking for anything classical was enough to get you beaten to a pulp in the playground. At Marlborough it was different. Open disdain gave way to polite tolerance by your peers. Shrugged shoulders instead of clenched fists. The school had a very strong musical tradition and most pupils played an instrument to some level at least.

I remember buying my first classical LP (Peer Gynt music by Grieg) largely on the strength of its use in the 1972 Summerfield house play of Orpheus and Euridice during which I fell in love with the gorgeous Jackie Vellacott. Nearly 50 years later, I still cannot listen to ‘Morning’ without thinking of her.

Other LPs followed, largely without making me think of Jackie and her raven tresses. I bought recordings of the Beethoven symphonies under Erich Kleiber, Vivaldi’s three seasons (autumn had a scratch and was unplayable), the Brandenburg concertos, Mendelssohn’s music for Midsummer nights dream and so on. A good solid grounding in the broad church that is classical music. It will probably come as no surprise to any of my readers that each LP was numbered and dated.

Disc 13 was a turning point. Up until then I had been exploring different styles of music and getting the sense of what I liked and what I didn’t. Disc 13 changed all of that. After an hour of aimless browsing through the racks – B for Brahms, E for Elgar and so on– I was almost out of ideas. W, almost the last rack. And there, at the special budget price of 89p was an LP of Wagner overtures played by the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch, the doyen – although I didn’t know it at the time – of post-war Wagner conductors.

I took the record up to the observatory where we kept a record player to entertain us during long nights observing distant galaxies. It was love at first hearing. The overture to Tannhauser with slow brass introduction was magnificent. I was hooked.

I won’t catalogue every purchase but it’s fair to say that I bought many more Wagner records, swiftly moving from bleeding chunks of orchestral passages to the entire operas. I learned to appreciate different singers, recognising their individual timbre. I began to have favourites – Hans Hotter, Gottlob Frick, Wolfgang Windgassen, Gustav Neidlinger and more.

But one singer stood out from this distinguished list. Born in 1918 in southern Sweden was a simple farm girl, who grew up to be the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her generation. I’m talking of course of Birgit Nilsson. She had a voice that was perfect for the great Wagner roles. Absolutely clear, precise and of awesome power. The high notes were hit with absolute accuracy. She eschewed the common practice among sopranos of sidling up to the high notes to cover failings in technique. Her technique was impeccable – she simply opened her mouth and hit the note head on.

She was the exact opposite of diva. Whereas other singers flounced in and out of the dressing room having hissy fits about the quality of mineral water or the colour of the curtains, Nilsson simply went to her dressing room, changed into her costume, went out and sang. No airs. No graces. Just a determination to show the public what she could do.

The singer may be gone (she died on Christmas Day in 2005) but the many recordings that remain are testament to this fabulous voice. I could go on but you’ve indulged me enough by reading this far. Just one more favour – listen to this recording. It will explain everything.

Birgit Nilsson sings the liebestod from Tristan und Isolde by Wagner, Stockholm 1964 .

Thank you.