MARGARET RITCHIE: Much Loved English Soprano
Margaret [Willard] Ritchie, the soprano (early in her
career she sometimes used ‘Mabel’ instead of ‘Margaret’) was born in
Grimsby on 7 August 1903 and died at Ewelme, Oxfordshire on 7 February
1969. She studied at the Royal College of Music and with Plunket Greene,
Agnes Nicholls (two notable British singers of the early years of the
20th Century) and Sir Henry Wood. She first attracted attention
as a student in a Royal College production of The Magic Flute
in which she sang the role of Pamina. She then established a reputation
as a concert singer and as principal soprano of the Intimate Opera Company
which was founded by Frederick Woodhouse and which was to remain in
being until the 1970s and to inspire and revive many small-scale operatic
works by British (and other) composers.
Ritchie later (in 1944) joined Sadler’s Wells Opera,
where her performance as Dorabella in Così Fan Tutte earned
particular praise. In 1946-7 she sang for Glyndebourne Opera, taking
in 1946 the role of Lucia in Britten’s then new The Rape of Lucretia.
In 1947 she joined the English Opera Group where her performance as
Miss Wordsworth in another Britten opera, Albert Herring, displayed
her musical qualities and feeling for comedy.
Margaret Ritchie’s voice was a smallish one but was
clearly produced and pure in quality and used stylishly and flexibly.
One is tempted to say that she was a typically English soprano; one
can think of several contemporary parallels, in particular Dame Isobel
Baillie (though Ritchie never achieved quite the fame that Baillie did).
Her concert appearances tailed off in later years – say, from the late
1950s onwards – but she did much teaching and founded a singers’ summer
school in Oxford in 1960.
My own experience of Ritchie in live performance and
on record was wholly pleasurable. I heard her several times in Sheffield,
twice in Messiah in City Hall with Sir John Barbirolli (1953
and 1954). She was one of my favourite Messiah sopranos of that
period. More interestingly and also at the City Hall, I heard her in
Vaughan Williams’ Three Vocalises (Prelude, Scherzo
and Menuetto) to clarinettist Keith Puddy’s accompaniment. This
was among VW’s last works and it was written for, and dedicated to,
her. First performed in Manchester on 8 October 1958, this Sheffield
performance was just two days later (the concert also included VW’s
Ninth Symphony and Schubert’s Great C Major). The programme note, which
is before me as I write, recalled that she had sung the wordless soprano
solo in the first performances of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica.
The year before (27 June 1957) I heard Miss Ritchie give a recital at
Sheffield University in which she was accompanied by the then Professor,
Stewart Deas. This exemplified several of her recital strengths. She
was noted for her Schubert interpretations and this recital duly included
Die Vogel, Der Knabe, Nacht und Traume and Gretchen. It
finished with four of Haydn’s English Canzonets which by coincidence
I had just purchased on an HMV 10″ LP on which she coupled them
with Schubert, including the glorious The Shepherd on the Rock.
Her recital had begun with groups of Purcell, notably The Blessed
Virgin’s Expostulation, and Handel, three lesser known arias including
one from Musio Scevola, an opera of which Handel wrote just one
of the three acts.
Miss Ritchie was back at Sheffield University in 1959
to give a lecture-recital on Handel, whose bicentenary it was that year.
Her enthusiasm for the composer, vivaciously expressed, was infectious.
She began, I recall, by saying that Handel was for her "Number
One": "Mozart composed marvellous music but it is so difficult
[as we have seen, though, she had managed to overcome difficulties,
to general satisfaction]. Handel is equally marvellous but much more
manageable for a singer". How right she was. Ritchie did much for
native-born British composers, too. Earlier in the 1950s I owned an
HMV plum label 78 – unfortunately this has not been reissued, so far
as I remember, on LP or CD, coupling Boyce’s Tell Me Lovely Shepherd
(from Solomon) with Henry Bishop’s charming Shakespearean song
– never since recorded by anyone – Bid Me Discourse, I Will Enchant
Thine Ear. Margaret Ritchie certainly enchanted my ear on many occasions
(I heard her on radio, as well) and I am delighted to have had this
opportunity of recalling her art.
Philip L Scowcroft