A SINGER AND HIS SONGS: HUBERT EISDELL
by Charles A. Hooey
If it came to pass there were no such animals
as performers, what would the poor composer do? A ridiculous
situation but it does point certainly to the value of the conductor,
pianist, violinist and the singer in the scheme of things.
One such "animal" or rather "bird" was
lyric tenor Hubert Eisdell who could caress English words with
the best of them, and hold the final note of music on the finest
filament of sound. He knew many composers and sang their music
both in concert and on records. That made him a heavenly bird
He was born Hubert Mortimer Eisdell on 21 September 1882 in Hampstead, a suburb
of London, the only son of a famous barrister, John Arthur Eisdell. He was
proud of his Huguenots heritage and that he could trace his roots to Baron
d'Estaile who fled France in 1572. After earning a preliminary education
at Highgate School, Hubert entered Cambridge University to study at Gonville
and Caius College where he shone in sports and as a member of the Dramatic
and Footlights Club. Once he played both Maria and Sir Harry Bumper in a
performance of The School for Scandal. In 1905 he graduated
with a Master of Arts in classics.
As one might have expected, Papa would have
preferred to have his son's steps echo those of his own, but
young Hubert had a restive nature and a suspicion that the
world held much more than a lawyer's office could reveal. So
he boarded ship for Canada to become a teacher at Grove Preparatory
School in Lakefield, Ontario. It is hard not to think that
his cousin played a hand for Sir William Mortimer Clark was
Lieutenant-Governor for Ontario.
His skill at the piano gave endless delight
until one day he asked, "May I sing?" Realizing a wealth of
opportunity surrounded him, he considered acquiring part ownership
in the school, but burning uppermost was a desire to succeed
as a professional singer, and to do so, he knew he needed to
return to England.
The opportunity came in 1907 when Gervase
Elwes invited him to a shooting party at his estate in Lincolnshire.
Taking Cary aside, he revealed his aspirations but Elwes had
been a tenor himself for four years so he probably told him
he was daft. He still regretted the family turmoil that he
caused by his decision to abandon a promising diplomatic career.
But, Hubert would not be dissuaded, so Elwes sent him to his
teacher, Victor Beigel. He was a Londoner, of Hungarian lineage,
who had been a top pianist but tiring of the fast life he had
turned to vocal coaching. At his London studio, his students
in addition to Elwes included John Adams and Lauritz Melchior
but he liked Eisdell's voice so he was accepted.
Progress was, in a word, "meteoric" and sufficient
to convince William Boosey, director of the popular and lucrative
Chappell Ballad Concert series to book him for Queen's Hall
in 1909. Success made him an instant regular with Chappells.
His unusual timbre, delicacy and ethereal quality captivated
composers Roger Quilter, Robert Coningsby Clarke, Cyril Scott
and Teresa del Riego, and convinced them he could introduce
their music. One piece, a song cycle first performed in 1896,
could have been written for him. His singing of In a Persian
Garden brought him to the attention of the work's composer,
Their friendship blossomed and he continued to make sensational appearances.
Then, at a ball at his old school, he met a young musician from Tasmania
who had gained her training via scholarship at the Melbourne Conservatorium
and was now assistant to Percy Granger. Katharine Parker and Hubert were
married in 1909 and she quickly settled in her role as regular accompanist.
In December 1909, Liza Lehmann (pictured) chose to visit
America to perform her music at innumerable whistle-stops,
always to great acclaim. She had been able to take only contralto
Mary Palgrave-Turner and a boy soprano, using local singers
to complete her needs. This proved highly unsatisfactory so
for her second tour the following year, she brought a full
complement of soloists. In this role, she cast her tenor friend
Hubert, Blanche Tomlin, Mary Palgrave-Turner and Julien Henry.
Katharine stayed at home. The tiny group embarked on an eighty
concert, 50,000 mile jaunt with Persian Garden the pièce
de résistance at every stop.
After rattling by train throughout the USA
and Canada, they reached Florida, anticipating a relaxing trip
home. When he came on board, Hubert was seen to be clutching
a makeshift cigar box that turned out to hold two potential
house pets. During the passage, one managed to escape, prompting
a frantic search. The fugitive was eventually found, snuggled
up under Madame Tomlin's pillow. No doubt, the tenor was relieved
to reunite his pet alligators, as was Blanche.
With such a splendid career boost, he was
soon a vocalist at the Leeds Festival with Beecham, at the
Norwich Festival and the Proms with Sir Henry Wood and the
Three Choirs Festival with Sir Edward Elgar and Sir Ivor Atkins.
All was proceeding very well indeed. Katharine mothered a son
Michael on 26 October, 1911 with his Godmother none other than
He continued to sing in Leeds in March 1912
with Doris Carter, Montague Borwell and the New Choral Society
in two parts of Haydn's Creation and Mendelssohn's Hymn
of Praise. Then it was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha. He
had hoped for special insight but C-T died the previous September.
In November he began recording for The Gramophone Company and
joined the Royal Naval Reserve.
His first phonographic record for HMV was "Somewhere
a voice is calling" by
Arthur Frank Tate, an appropriate beginning indeed. This
simple, unforgettable ballad had been introduced the previous
year and was now vastly popular in America through recordings
by John McCormack and Frank Sinatra. Tate was born in Pickering
in 1880 and held various postings as church organist while
composing songs and piano music. Hubertís HMV version was
z 6789f/02429 and while in 1916 when he joined Columbia the
song was one of his first records on 75289/L1130.
In 1913, he was accorded the rare honour of
singing before King George V at a Royal Amateur Orchestral
Society Concert. Then, on 15 October, he sang at a Chappell
Ballad Concert in Nottingham with Carmen Hill, Louise Dale
and Thorpe Bates. In 1914, he escaped a nervous London on 16
April to sing at the Torquay Festival where he and Carrie Tubb
offered a "Colonial Song" by Percy Grainger who conducted.
When war eventually erupted, Hubert became a Coast Guard lieutenant and from
1915 to 1917, pushed into every cove and secluded harbour seeking spies and
saboteurs. If any were found, these prizes remain a deep secret. When on
leave, he could usually be found in the recording studios, but by 1918 he
was engaged at the Admiralty as Aide to Commodore King.
Many of his records for HMV were not released
so this may have rankled for in 1916, he switched to the Columbia
Graphophone (later Columbia Gramophone) Company. To his surprise,
not only were the records in circulation causing a stir, they
were giving him star status. So widespread in fact was interest,
a disc was found in a German trench after the war, and presented
to the British War Museum.
Columbia seems to have realized the value
of their new tenor. By meshing Hubert's creamy tone with the
unique, shimmering quality of soprano Dora Labbette, they produced
twenty-six splendid duet records between 1922 and 1932. Hubert
remained in Columbia's fold until his recording days ended.
Did he ever consider opera? It seems he felt
this exacting art form might damage his gentle gift and having
found success so quickly in oratorio and on the concert stage,
he chose to stay with this proven formula.
Instead on 29 March 1919, he appeared with
the Alexandra Palace Choral Society and the New Queen's Orchestra
in a programme that began with music by Parry. Edward German
then strode to the podium to lead a concert version of his Merrie
England with Hubert, Louise Dale, Louise Kirkby Lunn, Fraser
Gange and J. Holroyd. Then at a concert at Wigmore Hall on
28 April he sang music by English composers: `A boy's song'
by Cyril Rootham, `The bells of San Marie' by John Ireland
*, `To a water-lily at evening' by Herbert Bedford *,
`Love in Summer' by Katharine Parker*, `Dream valley'
by Roger Quilter. (That summer he recorded the items shown
with an asterisk)
Next came another Chappell Ballad Concert
in Birmingham with Elwes, Louise Dale, Madame d'Alvarez and
Robert Radford, Alick MacLean conducting. Then in Edinburgh
in 1920, he shared pleasant times at New Year's Day celebratory
concerts with Caroline Hatchard, Jesse Millar and Norman Allin.
With the approach of Spring, the Eisdells
were in a mood to travel. Katharine had long yearned to see
her homeland again to show off her family. After an ocean journey
aboard S.S. Paperee, they arrived in Australia to find a social
whirl a-waiting. On 21 July, they frolicked "at home" on HMS
Renown, Katharine "the belle of the ball" dancing with her
future monarch, Edward VIII. Piers Leigh, the Princeís equerry,
made certain the pleasing couple came again to dine on 14 August.
Years later their son Michael recalled, "I
do know my Father became very busy when he sang a lot of extra
concerts at the last moment. Apparently, John McCormack was
also touring and on one occasion had refused to sing the National
Anthem. This caused the organizers to transfer the Irishman's
concerts to my Father. In other words, he stayed longer than
originally planned." His farewell concert came in Sydney in
At home, he left the Navy to become an itinerant
tenor once more and surely it felt soothing to sing oratorio
again. However shocking news soon shattered his routine. Cary
Elwes had died on 12 January 1921 after a terrible accident
in the railway station in Boston.
Early in 1922, Hubert spent time in Manchester,
first in February for Bach's B Minor Mass with Caroline
Hatchard, Dilys Jones and Robert Radford, then on 3 March in
Beethoven's Ninth with Mesdames Nicholls and Sonnenberg,
George Parker and the Hallé, Harty conducting. He also
took part in the Memorial Concert for Gervase Elwes on 24 May
in Albert Hall, offering the last work Elwes had sung in England, "Our
Dead," a sonnet for tenor and orchestra by Edric Cundell.
He also suggested that American sculptress Malvina Hoffmann's
portrait of Elwes be placed in the grand circle of Queen's
Hall where ... "we singers can see him."
He began 1923 by sharing a Chappell's Concert
on 20 January with Leila Megane, Maggie Teyte, Doris Vane and
Harold Williams, then in contrast, a Eugène Goossens
chamber concert in Aeolian Hall where he offered repertoire
gems: songs by 12th, 13th and 14th century composers, then
by Schubert, Brahms, Fauré, Parry, Bax, Richard Strauss
As to a philosophy, Eisdell sought to explain
his approach in the Music Masterpieces magazine of 10 June
1926: "Singing in practically every part of the country, I
find a constant demand for the old favourites. The public never
tires of familiar folk songs and ballads like Tosti's `Parted'.
I am asked to sing those everywhere and their reception is
always cordial." and "The public knows what it wants. From
music it wants a thrill, not a shock. Beauty, emotional power,
and sincerity - those qualities will always give music an irresistible
appeal, and I personally love it all, even that which is considered
`high brow,' or even the homely ballad, if it comes straight
from the heart."
As to the high brow comment, Keith Falkner
agreed in a letter: "I shall never forget his singing of the
F sharp minor role in the St. John Passion (Ah, my
soul), for its beauty and intensity. Eisdell was so often
considered only a ballad singer but in fact his classical work
was to me his finest achievement. He sang the St. Matthew solos
better than anyone I can remember - lovely tone."
The Musical Times in 1923 waded in, "... nobody
pretends that Mr. Eisdell has as fine a voice as the Gigli's
and the Lappas's, yet his singing is far more artistic than
theirs. He leaves the usual Italian operatic tenor far behind
in beauty of tone." An odd slip in diction though was quickly
pounced on by Compton MacKenzie and others. His wife, understandably,
always spoke positively: "He gave one of his most inspired
performances when he recorded the aria `Thou shall break
them.' This demanding piece really is a `model performance'
... the most perfectly sung record I have heard. His technique
is superb and the diction flawless. In fact, one seldom would
hear another singer breathe as he did."
In the twenties, Columbia gave him free rein
artistically with the result Roger Quilter's exquisite song-cycle
`To Juliaí was recorded
with the composer at the piano. In Quilter's music, according
to Falkner "Audiences would almost swoon with delight when
he sang `Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal'" but oddly, he
did not record it.
During the summer of 1924, he tried his hand at musical theatre in London as
Harlequin in Midsummer Madness on 3 July at the Lyric Theatre. A fantasy
that included Marie Tempest, it was created by the stellar team of Sir Nigel
Playfair, Clifford Bax and Armstrong Gibbs. Alas, The Times gave it a gentle "thumbs
down." Undaunted, Hubert tried again in "Almond Eye" at the Scala
The summer diversion over, he was ready when
the Vocal Society in Hull called in need of a tenor to sing
Elgar's Dream of Gerontius on 11 March 1925 as a replacement
for an indisposed Arthur Jordan. No stranger to Elgar's music,
Hubert rushed to Hull to join Astra Desmond, Herbert Heyner
and conductor Sir Henry Coward. The Daily Mail was impressed, "As
Gerontius and later as the soul of Gerontius, Mr. Eisdell sang
his part as it should be sung. Never did he lose his grip of
the difficult music, never did he place himself before his
part, but merely sung as Elgar (and Newman) required it to
be rendered. He held himself well in hand and his quiet, although
ecstatic interpretation, will be long remembered ..."
Hubert next decided to join Peopleís Impresario
Wilfred Stephenson on a tour of fifteen centers in north central
Britain. For the next six months, top talent would perform
at bargain prices. It was underway in September at Queen's
Hall, Hull. Hubert was there on 20 February to please fans
made the previous March.
Recording "specials" at the time included
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under Felix Weingartner with
Miriam Licette, Muriel Brunskill and Harold Williams.
In the Eisdell home, Katharine spoke of her
man as "charming, amusing, highly intelligent, with a wonderful
sense of humour." But, a hint of reproach crept in when she
recalled how he never liked to settle down in one place for
any length of time. No matter how attractive she made their
home he always saw something else - usually near a river where
he could fish. Michael also thought of him as "a first class
fly fisherman who flogged the waters day after day even without
success ... also as a fine athlete, a good cricketer (a member
of the MCC) but not a particularly good shot. I don't think
he enjoyed criticism but I know he was first-class at making
caustic remarks about others. A great practical joker with
a great sense of humour, I don't know he liked having his leg
As a rule, he was the serious artiste as befits
the Christmas season of 1928. The previous year he had participated
in Beechamís racy Messiah recording. Now he sang three Messiahs
with Beecham: 16 December at the Royal Albert Hall, London
with Dora Labbette, Muriel Brunskill and Harold Williams; two
days later in King George's Hall, Blackburn with the same crew
and on 23 December in London again at Golders Green Hippodrome
with Margaret Balfour replacing Miss Brunskill.
Their marriage teetering, the Eisdells on
18 April 1929 mustered enough togetherness to record a pair
of loving ballads, "I Kiss your Hand" and "Heartstrings." For
the latter, Katharine accompanied at the piano along with Bernard
Reillie with his violin.
That summer it seems Hubert paid his pals
in Ontario a visit, in the process meeting Alva Grahame, a
charmer from nearby Lakefield. This interlude ended in September
when he rushed to Worcester for a Three Choirs Festival Messiah. At
Christmas, he sent Alva a photo and a few words.
For Falkner, he could do no wrong: "I was
greatly impressed when he joined Steuart Wilson, Dorothy Silk,
Margaret Balfour, Arthur Cranmer and myself in a performance
of the St. Matthew with the Bach Choir on 22 March 1931
under Adrian. His singing of the tenor arias, notably `To
Witness False' and the air `Be Strong, Endure' which
he sang with great vigour and intensity, with his dramatic
delivery of words, were as fine and as moving as any I can
Eisdell attended the Leeds Triennial Festival
that year from 7-10 October, and on Opening Night added his
voice to the sextet "Et incarnatus" in Cherubini's Mass
in D minor. He may have sung on the 9th in Bach's B
Minor Mass but he certainly attended the final concert
for something rather special, a role in grand opera! With Beecham
in charge, he sang David in excerpts from Act 3 of Die Meistersingers with
Elsie Suddaby, Horace Stevens and Walter Widdop.
In 1932, Katharine and Hubert parted company.
By some miracle, the (now Royal) Conservatory of Music in Toronto
needed a singing teacher, so he applied. This placed him in
proximity to Lakefield where a faculty member, John M. MacRae,
known as "Bubs," began tracking his career. "He was removing
himself from the scene of an unpleasant divorce, Lakefield
providing a return to something he had long ago found completely
pleasant." He also gave song recitals, ballad and oratorio
concerts and radio broadcasts. According to Toronto's music
critics, he was not only interpreting Handel and Bach with
distinction but his voice during this period was described
as the lightest, purest tenor without a tremor. The Messiah arias
might have been object lessons in tenor vocalism for their
delightful ease and artistry.
Towards year's end, he returned to the U.K.
to wrap up his affairs, including the making of his final records.
Back at the Conservatory, Bubs: "In the spring of 1933, I rigged
the headmaster's sailboat, the yawl `Gilpie' and perhaps as
a reward was invited to join a week-end cruise to Stoney Lake
with an adult crew including Hubert. That's when he discovered
maple syrup, putting it generously on everything he ate. He
struck me as a most pleasant person. I was always impressed
by the refinement of the English gentlemen I met in my young
life, and Hubert was certainly one of them."
That summer he proposed to Alva and set about
to fashion a new life. His prize "Lillian de Alvarado Grahame" or "Tommy" to
friends was long divorced from Gordon Grahame. But in a few
months, Hubert was stricken. To recuperate he and Tommy flew
to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, a place that just
happened to be an angler's paradise. Wan and peaked, he marshaled
a broad smile, hoisting a 40 pound Great Barracuda he caught.
Soon he added Amberjacks and Rock Fish. But all good things
must end so back to Toronto he went to find a telegram that
said, "Come, you're needed at Albert Hall." Off he sped. So
easily he could have slipped back into his singer's mode but
Canada's call remained intense.
Bubs recalled how "he joined the (Grove)
staff in 1936, teaching Music, Latin and Junior Instruction
... His contribution to music was immense, producing Gilbert
and Sullivan operas and composing his own music for the Jubilate
Deo which Old Boys of his day now insist upon singing at
reunions. He coached cricket and possibly junior soccer."
His friend also made reference to `Kipper'
Kelly, a Canadian serving with the Imperial Army in India in
the early thirties. To relax, he and his mates would sip cooling
drinks and soak up the sounds from a gramophone. Favourites
were sung by a lyric tenor named Hubert Eisdell, the members
of the mess commissioning friends back home to buy and ship
new editions as soon as they came out. Kipper, like his messmates,
became pleasantly drugged on Hubert's offerings. Imagine his
surprise, upon returning to Canada to enroll his son at Lakeview,
when up stepped the same cultured English tenor to announce
he would be the lad's teacher!
He loved Lakefield life ... he was seen on
the headmaster's lawn practising his fly-casting on the first
leaves in the autumn. He paddled lovingly with an appreciation
of all he saw on the water and along the shore at Stoney Lake.
There, at Tommy's family cottage, he would fish to his heart's
content, once landing a 20 pound muskellunge that was then
ceremoniously cooked on a coal-fired stove ... no mean feat
in itself! By all accounts it was delicious.
For his last performance he chose Elijah with
the Toronto Conservatory Choir on 16 November 1937. Professor
Godfrey Ridout, a distinguished Canadian composer but a choir
member on that occasion, judged Hubert's singing as "most discriminating.
The voice was still beautiful."
He stayed at the Grove until 1942 when health
problems recurred. He gathered himself to make a final gift
to the school, when as controller of music in the chapel, he
set to music the last three verses of a 15th Century carol, "I
sing of a maiden," and, as the chapel choir sang his music "He
came all so still," Hubert accompanied on the organ. Youthful
choir member Ralph Brocklebank thought it `a little gem' and
included it later at Christmas concerts during his own musical
Finally in 1948, Hubert's health failed and
on 29 May, he passed away at St. Joseph's Hospital in nearby
Peterborough. He was buried in Hillside Cemetery not far from
Doug Cruthers believes his second marriage
was a success. "I met Hubert Eisdell on many occasions. Tommy
Eisdell was a saint. Wherever she was, there was peace and
tranquility. And I know she loved Hubert as he loved her." After
her death in 1987, Tommy was interred at his side.
In 1965, a carton of Hubert's records was
found in Tommy's basement in danger of mold. They were taken
to his friend, Godfrey Ridout of the University of Toronto
Music Faculty. He was ecstatic, lovingly going through the
pile and extracting a couple of discs. The first "was
put on the sterio [sic] with Godfrey going to the middle of
the room and directing energetically, then explaining this
was the first and finest recording ever made of Messiah."
Hubert's song recordings remain an anomaly,
especially to certain music critics in his homeland who should
know better. They dismiss his tunes as worthless, although
in their defense, Hubert referred to them as "pot-boilers." While
some may lack true merit, others, as has been shown, were products
of the finest English composers of the day.
When he began making records, world order was about to crumble. And yet, during
the bloody trauma of World War I, and afterwards, a steady stream of new
titles poured out upon the marketplace. Why such a demand? Simple. His singing
would soothe listeners, reminding them of the beauty in nature that hopefully
would soon return. His songs not only mirror those mournful times but today
they hold a meaningful place in social history. Others sang this music but
only Eisdell managed to touch the hearts of so many.
As for Katharine, she stayed in England until
1950 when, at age sixty, she re-located in Sydney, Australia
near Michael, to live out her days counseling keyboard hopefuls.
She died in 1971. Her letters to a biographer John Hyde in
1967 about Hubert remained affectionate in tone. She was evidently
still proud of him. Eisdell kin continue to reside in the area.
In 1957, during a trip to Toronto, a friend
introduced me to the one hundred year old Royal Canadian Yacht
Club on Center Island in the heart of Canada's busiest metropolis.
It was off season and little was happening. It felt eerie.
A passel of scruffy ducks paddled in the stream near the clubhouse,
amusing the humans present. Once resplendent, the building
now stood empty and forlorn, its opulence faded, the air musty
and sure enough, with imagined ghosts of bygone commodores
lurking in the shadows. Oh! the regattas with many thrills
and spills and glittering soirees that sent light music a-lilting
upon the evening breezes. Much later, memories of that visit
came flooding back as I listened, entranced like Kipper Kelly
to Eisdell's records, and thought, why, here's Hubert wafting
on the breezes ...
Charles A. Hooey © May 2006
HUBERT EISDELL by John Hyde, unpublished
THE LIFE OF LIZA LEHMANN BY HERSELF, T. Fisher Unwin, 1929.
"HUBERT EISDELL" by Peter Cliffe, The Historic Record, October 1992.
"WHO WAS HUBERT EISDELL?" by John M. MacRae, Lakefield School Journal.
THE PEOPLE'S IMPRESARIO by Wilfred Stephenson, Thames, 2000
Much of the earlier segment is based on John
Hyde's writings, while the Canadian aspect was provided by
two gentlemen who knew Hubert in his final years, (Bubs) MacRae
and Douglas Cruthers, husband of Jacqueline, Alva's daughter
from her first marriage. Doug also supplied rare photographs.
Richard Green of the National Library of Canada helped get
the project underway by sending John Hyde's writings and allowed
me to bask in Hubert's music.
Further assistance was rendered by Wayne Turner,
John Walker, Norman Staveley, Peter Cliffe, John Walker and
Mrs June Upton in England and Quentin Riggs in the USA. Also
pals in Winnipeg. The graveside photos were Don Fox's contribution,
taken while visiting his sister, Mary Easterbrook in Toronto.
Mary was my charming guide in 1957. Denis Daly came to the
rescue by revitalizing a faintly-detailed photo.