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Robert Radford
by Charles A. Hooey

In the annals of British grand opera, one name stands out amongst that country’s stellar bassos. The inimitable Robert Radford was an evil but charming black-clad “Meph” in Faust, a starry role of many that included a droll and sardonic Osmin in Entführung, a dignified Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte, a guilt-ridden Boris Godunov, Fasolt and Hunding in Wagner’s Ring, a tragic Tsar in Rimsky’s Ivan the Terrible, kindly Father in Louise and so on. In a 1909 salute, The Musical Standard labelled him most aptly, “Robert Radford, Deep Bass.” Here is his story, enriched by his own words and those of his daughter Winifred.

He was born in Nottingham on 13 May 1874, the first of an eventual seven children for proud parents Elizabeth and Harry Skevington Radford. They called him “Robert Attenborough” the second name in tribute to his mother’s family. Papa’s money management for a lace manufacturer meant his first born could attend private schools. But like most youngsters, Bob found organized music a thudding bore. “My first recollection is of a small boy, aged nine, who used to put the clock forward during his piano practice.” The piano may not have been his choice then but his blood would soon boil with music. “After all,” he wrote, “my mother was musical and my father had a good voice.”

As one story goes, as a toddler and being bounced on his nanny’s shoulder, he took a nasty tumble and injured a foot. When it failed to heal properly, he was left with a permanent limp that actually became an asset, giving his gait a characteristic swing which was most effective on the stage. Another version has him felled by polio. Whatever the reason, he could not, as a youngster, emulate his father, the popular Secretary of the Football Club.

“ As a boy I was one of that ‘band of angels’ who sang in the choir, the darling of the old ladies and despair of the choirmaster, but I had no cathedral choir school training as so many other singers had. It was really a toss up with me as to whether I should go in for singing or art.”

More exciting days came later when in conjunction with several other small boys aged about 12 to 15, we formed a nigger minstrel troupe. My voice was a high treble. I moved from corner man playing the ‘bones’ to being interlocutor and conductor. The orchestra consisted of a piano (which I played), two violins, cornet and kettledrum! My clearest recollection is of ‘cracking’ while singing at a public performance, which ended my career at the age of fourteen. The song, I remember, was ‘White wings’, a popular ballad which began on a high note. My voice was breaking at the time, though I did not know it. Twice the little orchestra played the symphony, twice did I try to begin; and only gurgles ensued. I then began to giggle hysterically, did not manage to sing, and eventually went home in tears.”

At least growing up had its plusses. One summer in 1889, fifteen 15 year-old Bob and pals met to romp by the sea at Skegness as did a lass of seventeen. A sudden squall sent everyone scurrying under the pier. There Bob met Ada Roper.

At Papa’s urging, he joined the staff of the Burrough Accountant’s Office as a prelude to becoming a chartered accountant. He spent a miserable year, relieved only by his “muddling about with music” - that meant trying to master the piano. How different from eight years earlier! As for accounting, “It was the one thing in which I took not the slightest interest; to this day I generally add using my fingers.” However, an amateur accompanist of some accomplishment did emerge.

The skill proved useful. “Times were hard and being ready to do anything, I helped form a masked quartet, consisting of four singers and a pianist. In suits of white duck, with yellow hat-bands etc., we invaded the Henley Regatta, ‘collecting’ by means of bags at the end of long bamboo poles. Our takings were £36, which had to be divided among the five of us; and I seem to recollect the two ladies’ costumes came to about 7 guineas each. We cannot have been very good for the Marguerite Quartet ceased to be!”

As a student, he suffered an appendicitis attack from which he recovered but without an operation. In 1901, a flare-up with the serious complication of peritonitis did result in surgery, but the problem recurred at intervals necessitating nine major internal operations in eleven years. All this placed an inordinate strain on both heart and blood pressure and prevented travel. Regretfully, he had to decline Thomas Quinlan’s adventures and many invitations to sing abroad. By 1918, the accumulation of health woes caused a decline in the quality of his voice.

For now he continued: “Miss Agnes Larkcom in those days used to come to Nottingham to teach and she encouraged me. Go to London she advised.” When his father, by now with six other children could not afford the expense, local benefactors came to the rescue. Before he left, he and Ada became engaged but marriage would have to wait. “Madame Larkcom gave me an introduction to Mr. Randegger, whose encouragement meant my farewell to books and figures. I entered the Royal Academy of Music (in 1896) at the age of 21. Mr Frederic King was my singing professor.” He carried on parallel lines of study in piano (E. Morton), harmony (W. Battison Haynes) and elocution (Henry Lesingham). “From the first my voice had been a real bass, but I remember at the RAM Opera class singing Carmen’s Toreador - transposed down.” In his first year, he earned the coveted Westmorland scholarship.

“ With what gratitude one remembers kind help in early days! My two good fairies were Alberto Randegger and the well-known impresario Percy Harrison. May the soil rest easy on their bones! The former allowed me to sing Brander in Berlioz’s Faust at the Norwich Festival (of 1899) with Albani, Edward Lloyd and Andrew Black. Percy Harrison took me up somewhat and included me on his concert tours.” His shows were a cut or two above the prevailing ballad concerts. Radford invariably sang Purcell and Handel with the occasional concession to the prevailing musical taste, a ballad such as the old German song ‘In cellar cool.’

Early in 1900, he made music at home with the Nottingham Sacred Harmonic Society and Henry Wood in Sullivan’s The Martyr of Antioch and Acts 1 & 2 in the Paris version of Tannhäuser, a ‘first’ in England. On 6 October, the patient couple at last tied the knot. He was 26. Almost a year later, their only child, “Winifred Eva”, was born.

In 1902, he sang at a Proms concert, his first with forty-nine to follow. In November, he turned to oratorio in Hull in Parry’s Judith. The next year, he cautiously entered the primitive world of recording with the Gramophone Company, but when reaction was slow, he cut a few discs for Columbia. Still the public paid little attention, so he agreed when Percy Pitt suggested: “Try opera.” “My first performance (on 4 May 1904) was as the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Covent Garden. On that memorable, as far as I personally am concerned, night the Don was played by Renaud, and Journet and Emmy Destinn were also in the cast. Richter was conducting; a dreadful ordeal!” Towards the end of 1905, he sang in scenes from Gounod’s Faust with Dr. Weekes’s Choral and Orchestral forces during a Three Towns Festival. He met a comely Marguerite in Caroline Hatchard from Portsmouth and a lifelong friendship began.

Although opera was fun, oratorio, he knew, put bread on the table. “Though pursued continually by bad health, my good fairy was looking my way when I was engaged to sing Judas Maccabaeus for the Handel Festival in 1906. This was an opportunity, to which I responded by cracking on the top note in ‘Arm, arm, ye brave!’ and it was a real crack and nearly cracked the Crystal Palace! This, though a great tragedy to me at the time was not quite fatal, for I have sung at every Handel Festival since.”

And yet, it was a bumpy road. Singing in Messiah for a small Yorkshire choral society, “I thought I had knocked the earth flat. I went back to my hotel feeling very pleased with myself, and settled down to a quiet rest. But somebody opened the door and said, ‘A heard yo’ sing in T’ Messiah toneet but - a wouldn’t advise yo’ to do it again!”

An Elijah though drew favour. He was summoned with Agnes Nicholls, Clara Butt and John Coates to sing before the King and Queen in Memorial Hall at Eton to help raise funds to restore St. George’s Chapel. “..the place was so small,” Radford reported, “the singers were only a few feet from the Royal Family, and we found it very embarrassing, but they stood it very well, and everything went off all right.”

To this point he was little known in London, but in the provinces everyone saw him as the leading and representative English oratorio bass. This situation was about to change. Hans Richter and Percy Pitt at the Royal Opera were mounting Wagner’s Ring in English and both well remembered this bass. In Rhinegold on 27 January 1908, he painted “a sturdy and truculent picture of the giant Fasolt” and in Die Walküre on the 28th, his “Hunding promises remarkably well. It was a firmly-drawn piece of work and the music suited him admirably.” Then, at a concert on 12 February on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Orphanage, he sang with Wagnerian mates Perceval Allen, Borghild Bryhn and Edna Thornton, bolstered by Ben Davies and Mischa Elman.

When he portrayed the clean-shaven monarch in Aida on 23 May, off came his resplendent moustache, never to reappear. And, when Gluck’s Armide was given in German, he was duly impressive as Aronte, Armida’s priestly advisor, amidst a cast of stellar vocal quality. Finally, he was an imposing Raimondo in service to Tetrazzini’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

Early in 1909 after a Ring repeat, the Company gave The Angelus, worthy music that earned composer Edward Naylor a prize of £500. His luck evaporated, however, at the première, when a heavy fog rolled in to keep half the audience at home. Those brave enough to venture forth were fairly satisfied, especially with Radford’s Abbot Tunstall. Also, he contributed a “sonorous and imposing Pogner” when the first performance in English of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Was given on 9 February. 

Critic Sydney Grew encountered him at the Birmingham Triennial Festival:

I believe the first time I heard this most satisfyingly virile singer was in the autumn of 1909. Radford took part in Faust of Berlioz, in Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus and in other works...I recall the jovial sardonic humour he poured into his singing (as Brander); but I recall still more vividly his flexible rhythm; the music is noted in one-crotchet bars, and so it is not easy to ‘scan’ in respect of rhythmical motive or to blend these motives into phrase; as Radford sang it, however, it fell into the perfect architecture that Berlioz had planned.

From the beginning, one of the admirable features of Radford’s great voice has been its flexibility. In such passages as the Judas Maccabaeus aria, ‘The Lord worketh wonders’, his runs were sure as an organ diapason. Then, by the added virtue of his dramatic vision, he is enabled to make true character of Polyphemus in Acis and Galatea; showing us a giant lover... but for his top F and F sharp, he could not sing in Acis, and we should then have been without the peculiar delight of his, ‘O ruddier than the cherry.’

Despite the fact both opera-in-English seasons had drawn excellent audiences and critical praise, the Royal Opera Syndicate declined to go further with the idea. And yet, other cities clamoured to hear Wagner’s music in English. Nicholls, Hyde and Radford obliged with excerpts under Richter, later with Beecham. Outside London, the complete Ring received its first exposure in Edinburgh in 1910, thanks to impresario Ernst Denhof and the Carl Rosa Company. Most of the London cast, including Robert, were involved.

Back in London, Thomas Beecham initiated his Opéra Comique experiment at His Majesty’s Theatre on 12 May though in Les Contes d’Hoffmann Radford sang only the tiny role of Schlemil. More substantial fare followed in Stanford’s Shamus o’Brien, but “a very dignified Father O’Flynn seemed hardly capable of inventing the trick by which Shamus makes his final escape.”

For the maestro’s mini-Mozart festival on 20 June, he sang in Entführung aus dem Serail or The Elopement From The Harem, as it was given, with a Constanze from Paris and a German Belmonte. It pleased a critic: “The all-important part of Osmin was undertaken with very remarkable skill by Mr. Robert Radford, who sang the big scena with fine musicianship and acted his part in admirably finished style.” He followed on 9 July as the burgomaster Ortolf in Beecham’s English première of Strauss’s Feuersnot. A heady comedy, it failed to win total favour, despite the dazzling presence of Carrie Hatchard in the role of Walpurg.

For Beecham his next challenge came at Covent Garden. He had aimed to begin on 1 October with d’Albert’s Tiefland, but a messy contretemps between two of his lead singers spoiled this plan. Instead he opened on the 3rd with Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, Tiefland appearing two nights later with an understudy as Marta. Hamlet was given only once, Tiefland five times. Radford sang in both, before adding the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Bartolo in Le Nozze di Figaro and four appearances as King Mark in Tristan und Isolde each time with different partners. For a ‘first’ on 8 December, he was First Cappadocian in a Salome Beecham had sanitized to sneak it by the official censors.

In March 1911, the adventurous Denhof was on the move again, taking the English Ring to Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow, Radford supplying his heavies. Denhof travelled in 1912 but this time, although scheduled to sing Pogner and King Mark, Bob seems not to have appeared. Perhaps he was ill again. He was singing Wagner late in October in a concert Ring in Bristol, when perhaps he appeared in Caractacus. A bit later he returned to sing Daland in Der fliegende Holländer.

As the autumn of 1912 neared, Radford signed with Denhof for his most ambitious undertaking to date, a tour embracing several cities. Things got underway nicely in Birmingham, where he sang in Tristan und Isolde. But, after a week in Manchester, Denhof realized he had lost £4,000 and decided he had to throw in the towel. His ally Beecham thought differently. He raced to the scene to re-structure and two weeks later the tour resumed in Sheffield. Radford’s adventures thereafter are laid out in the Chronology. Notably he added Hagen in The Ring. Out of this enterprise emerged Beecham’s Opera Company, the B.O.C.

After such operatic frenzy, Radford reverted to the sedate world of oratorio. His rich and noble voice was an asset to the works of Bach as it was to opera, with his most memorable non-operatic singing coming at a very special place. He wrote:

Of all the music making that takes place in England, the most delightful and satisfying is the Festival of the Three Choirs. Recollections going back some years now, of lovely September days in those ancient and beautiful cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford, with the sun streaming through the stained glass windows, and of the peace, and loftiness, and simple grandeur of it all have seemed to me to be the finest part of Old England and its music making. There would not be so many pessimists about if they could hear a performance under these ideal conditions of, say The Dream of Gerontius with Sir Edward himself at the helm.

Winifred added, “Elgar was still alive during the greater part of my father’s career, and some of his works were being heard for the first time. He sang in these works, often with Elgar conducting. The first time I myself met Elgar was on the steps of Gloucester Cathedral. My father and he were having a deep discussion about the merits of Woolworth’s pencils.” Too bad they weren’t arranging to preserve a few of Elgar’s songs. Actually in 1911 with three other singers he recorded `As torrents in summer’ from King Olaf and in 1927 two songs`The pipes of Pan’ and `After’. Only the latter was issued.

In 1914, thanks to Percy Harrison, he took part in a series of ballad-style concerts. When he visited the Birmingham Town Hall on 2 February, with Louise Dale, Ada Crossley and Ben Davies, he found an enormous audience waiting expectantly.

After Wagner’s Parsifal reached public domain on 1 January 1914, the scramble was on to mount it. First to do so, the London Choral Society gave a concert performance in English at Queen’s Hall, London on 1 April, 1914, with Radford as Gurnemanz, John Coates as Parsifal, Carrie Tubb as Kundry and Dawson Freer as Titurel and Klingsor. Arthur Fagge conducted.

On 4 July, he became part of a most unusual première during Beecham Senior’s season at Drury Lane. The opera was Josef Holbrooke’s Dylan, the middle opera in his Cauldron of Annwn, a massive trilogy he had based on Welsh legends. Conductor Beecham Jr. opined, “I believe much of the music was liked by those who heard it, but without question both the story and the text were wholly beyond the comprehension of the Drury Lane audience.” Radford’s thoughts are not known.

With the country descending into the horrors of war, Bob at forty and unfit, was unable to serve actively but he could help to build morale. At the Proms, his glorious singing elevated patriotic songs, ‘There’s only one England’ and ‘Old England’s a Lion’ while his soothing ballads were so beloved by the public. No performer was more welcome, for who would not thrill to ‘The Diver’, ‘In Cellar Cool’ and ‘Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep’ sung so marvellously. Of course, he often partnered the amazing Clara Butt at her patriotic soirees.

Never absent for long from serious music, on 29 October 1914 he participated in the Huddersfield Choral Society’s first Verdi Requiem, Dr. Coward at the podium. In The Creation in Manchester with the Hallé on 4 November, he revealed “both the ponderous expression that suggests the sublime and also the ease and polish that are essential to an adequate execution of the music. His voice is equally capable of laying down a great beam of broad tone and of moving gracefully in the upper reaches of the voice. The duets sung by Miss Hatchard and himself in the closing were the crown of the whole performance.” Then, back home in Nottingham on 12 November, he received a hero’s welcome when he sang with others in a Railway Orphanage concert.

Quite a different experience awaited in Liverpool. On 15 December, the Philharmonic Concert offered the first performance in England of Gabriel Pierné’s mystical legend, The Children’s Crusade. In this 13th century tale, Bob was ‘An old sailor’ and ‘A Voice from on high’. The music sung by 75 crazed youngsters proved a harrowing experience.

In 1915 as Easter neared, he recorded Memories of Elijah (an arrangement of music from the oratorio) with Edna Thornton and Walter Hyde. Then, he joined Myra Hess and Beecham on 19 June for a Proms Concert in the Royal Albert Hall to sing Vulcan’s Song from Gounod’s Philémon et Baucis and Ethel Barn’s ‘Soul of Mine’. At this juncture, Beecham was flying high with Opening Day looming for his opera-in-English season at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Although he had other irons in the fire, Bob was intrigued. In October, he appeared in Faust and, as if to punctuate the devil’s menace, so the story goes, a zeppelin hovered overhead dropping bombs. Fortunately, the theatre escaped damage.

Hubert Bath’s deft hand had arranged music for the Memories of Elijah recording, so perhaps Bob was reciprocating when, on 26 January, 1916, he appeared with the enterprising Wakefield and District Choral in Bath’s Wake of o’Connor. It was “sung with spirit” by himself with Miss Felissa, Eva Roberts and Herbert Teale. He also had a part on 4 March with Edward German in Dan Godfrey’s annual Bournemouth concert.

That Spring Tommy Beecham set up in the more spacious Aldwych Theatre and opened on 15 April with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. His Sarastro was, who else? Radford was ideal; in fact, he seemed predestined. “Once Beecham was conducting a rehearsal, and at one place in Sarastro’s recitative, where one usually goes up to C, Beecham pointed down, and I dived beneath the stave. It ‘came off’ and ever since I have sung the low C.” “His voice,” according to his daughter, “ranged from about F sharp above the bass stave to the C below it. In private, at home around the piano he had no trouble descending to A natural below the bass stave.”  

Now, Beecham posed a question, “You know, I’m giving Boris Godunov in Manchester and I’d like you to be the first English Boris.” This was great news and Bob began working furiously under the maestro’s tutelage. Alas, it was not to be, as Winifred explained, “Unkind fate intervened for my father, shortly before the opening performance, was taken very ill and Beecham was obliged to send for a bass from Paris named Auguste Bouilliez.” Owing to his presence, the opera was sung in French. Bob did return as King Mark and as Varlaam.

Back at Aldwych, he first offered his usual Wagner and Gounod, but on 24 July 1916, he unveiled his classic Osmin in Entführung aus dem Serail. After so many serious roles, such drollery truly delighted. It was an odd occasion: festive on one hand as a new production, but sad too, for it served as a benefit for six orphaned children of Enrique Granados and wife lost when the Sussex was torpedoed. Everyone stood as the Spanish National Anthem was played followed by the company coming on stage to sing one verse of the British Anthem. He also sang in Faust on the 29th with Miriam Licette and Gerald O’Brien. This role he had modelled on that of Pol Plançon, so according to French custom, he dressed in black.

On 15 October, a new lion in the person of Norman Allin, burst upon the scene, though the Old Hebrew in Samson et Dalila hardly suggests ‘bursting’. Ten years Radford’s junior, he was at first overshadowed by his illustrious colleague, but in time he would prowl the same lofty plateau and offer his own King Mark, Ramfis and Bartolo.

But the veteran had a roar or two left. On 16 November, he sang in a concert Faust in Nottingham, not as the black devil now but “a staid gentleman in evening dress.” Fellow townsmen were quick to accord him “an enthusiastic reception, as (he) sang with superb effect, both in solos and in concerted numbers.” Fetching too were Caroline Hatchard and Frank Webster for conductor Gill.

During Beecham’s lengthy season then underway at Aldwych, Bob found himself facing another new role. The maestro had created a public for grand opera in English, so he tantalized further by giving Charpentier’s Louise late in January. The central figure was brilliantly played by Miss Licette with Radford “an excellent Father, genial and picturesque; d’Oisly was Julian; Miss Clegg the Mother, though with rather too much of the British matron about her. The place was packed from floor to ceiling.”

Radford finally came to grips with his Boris Godunov creation on 3 March 1917 with BOC in Birmingham. Thus, he was the first English Boris after all! He sang the part again in Edinburgh on 9 March, adding Osmin on the 12th. Three days later, he was in Manchester with Beecham and the Hallé to sing the King in Act I of Lohengrin with Agnes Nicholls and Walter Hyde and Gurnemanz in the Grail Scene from Parsifal, a concert they repeated in Bradford the next day. Back in Manchester on 22 March he sang in scenes from Boris and Faust at a Pension Fund Concert, and stayed for more opera with BOC.

That summer Beecham was on the move again, upwards and grander, to the cavernous Royal Theatre at Drury Lane, but another bout of illness kept Bob from enjoying all the excitement. He also lost three plums: chances to sing Boris in English in London, (an honour that went to American Robert Parker), to repeat Louise and to sing Dr. Bartolo in Le Nozze di Figaro in what proved to be a sensation!

Fit again, he rejoined Beecham on 24 September to present a Bartolo that was “a most entrancing representation, despite the only too-audible bombardment by air-defences.” Three nights later, as the first Englishman to sing Boris in English in London, he was “magnificent both as to voice and intensity of dramatic expression.” Oddly, when Allin sang Boris, Newman rated him “the finest we’ve had in England”, conveniently overlooking Radford’s remarkable study.

His musical scene continued to revolve mainly between London, Manchester and Birmingham. In the latter city on 7 October, he gave a concert under Cowen’s direction that evoked enormous enthusiasm. He came back on 28 November to sing arias from Boris Godunov and Entführung aus dem Serail under Beecham’s guidance and ‘Shepherd, see thy horse’s foaming mane’ accompanied at the piano by Appleby Matthews. He also left on wax The Mikado, the first of five Gilbert and Sullivan creations he helped to preserve. For the first five or so months of 1918, he was an active bass with Mozart and Gounod’s Faust, but the high point came on 14 June when Die Walküre was given “before an audience not even Drury Lane has often seen.” Beecham conducted the opera for the first time, inspiring his singers as usual. Radford was magnificent as Hunding.

Despite his financial woes, Beecham kept his charges on the go. In Manchester, Bob shepherded Miriam Licette and Webster Millar through Roméo et Juliette. Then on 24 March, back in London, this threesome tackled Louise. For Easter, he sandwiched King Mark between two performances of Bach’s great Mass in B Minor. In April, he sang the title role in Rimsky Korsakov’s Ivan The Terrible with Jeanne Brola and Walter Hyde. Nor did he forget his fans, popping up at a Chappell ballad concert with Louise Dale, Madame D’Alvarez, Gervase Elwes and Hubert Eisdell. He had his oratorio and concerts but the opera scene looked gloomy because of the end of Beecham’s enterprise. However, all was not lost.

The British National Opera (B.N.O.C): The Beginnings
Radford continues:

"What a miracle Sir Thomas Beecham performed for Opera in this country, and what he could do again if he liked! I have often been asked exactly when the first idea of a National Opera, on the lines of the present company, was mooted. Doubtless readers will recall that Beecham’s last Season was 1920, it finishing in tragic circumstances. That autumn the artists of his company started out to fulfil the provincial engagements already booked to the old company with the scenery and properties which they rented, at a rather high figure, from the Covent Garden Syndicate.

Prominent in this plucky attempt to keep the standard flying were Webster Millar and Herbert Langley. They carried on until just before Christmas 1920 but owing to the fact that the scenery and props were no longer at their disposal they had to give up the tour.

Then in the Spring of the next year a meeting was held of the orchestral artists, singers and conductors to discuss plans for the formation of a new company. It was realised that the public, owing to past records of opera companies, would be very dubious of the success of such an undertaking. However we finally floated a limited company. These first meetings were held at the offices of the Orchestral Union, and in many ways the idea of co-operative organisation actually emanated from that body.

We worked hard all that summer and autumn to raise capital and to get things ship-shape; but although our company was actually formed in July, it was impossible to obtain a sequence of dates until the following February when, after long weeks of rehearsal at the Surrey Theatre in London, we started our career at the Alhambra, Bradford."

In Aida, he sang Ramfis with Beatrice Miranda and Tudor Davies, but all eyes were glued upon the Amneris, Edna Thornton, Bradford’s own. After fourteen operas in two weeks, and still reeling from the deadly flu epidemic, the troubadours visited Liverpool, Edinburgh, Leeds and Halifax, before arriving at Covent Garden on 1 May. Here Bob faced a mighty challenge: twenty-two performances in seven weeks. It began with Wagner’s Ring, its first in London since 1914, then “Dear old Meph”, Louise, Sarastro, King Mark and Pogner, a role he had last sung in 1913. He would retain it to the end of his career. Asked how often he had sung in public, he was at a loss somewhat, but ventured an estimate, “three thousand.”  

Interestingly late in January 1921, at the Gramophone studios with Violet Essex, Edna Thornton and others, he recorded the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience, setting down three scenes. However Rupert D’Oyly Carte objected to his singing and he was replaced by Frederick Ranalow.

Concerts included a visit to the Royal Albert Hall on St, Cecilia’s Day, 22 November 1922 on behalf of a Coleridge-Taylor charity. A choir of 1000 voices swelled in support of Carrie Tubb, Esta D’Argo, Ada Crossley, Ben Davies, Gervase Elwes, Julien Henry and Radford as he intoned ‘Thou art risen, my beloved’ by the composer.

A B.N.O.C. regular in the spring of 1923, he sang in Rhinegold on 19 March to begin Glasgow’s first complete Ring, his Fasolt and Allin’s Fafner setting a very high standard indeed in singing, acting and make-up. In Aida that closed the season, Robert’s resplendent Ramfis helped create “one of the finest (Aidas) ever heard in England.”

He had first met Verdi’s music in his youth as the Pharaoh in Aida. Later he would advance to Ramfis and sing the Requiem as a Festival specialty. “I was only looking over my old ragged copy of the Verdi Requiem the other day, with its marks and pencil markings, and I remembered that they were copied from Randegger’s score, which had been marked by Verdi himself. Thus do the generations link up in our art.”

That summer at Covent Garden, the drawing card was Nellie Melba, who came to further the cause of opera in English. She sang with Radford in Faust on 21 June and in a later performance with Edward Johnson and conductor Frank St. Leger. Radford was also part of a revival of Louise which rode on Leah Rusel-Myre’s “perfect character study”, and yet a performance with Miriam Licette drew criticism of the scene between father and daughter, “I wish he’d keep still sometimes, just for a moment. He’s moving his arms, his legs, or his body the whole time.” Surely the real culprit was the composer’s lengthy, languid music.

Robert was Ramfis when Aida closed the season on 30 June. The company responded though on 5 July to give Tristan und Isolde as a benefit for Frau Wagner, who was in dire straits due to the mark’s tumble and a lack of royalties since 1914. In appreciation of the gift of almost £550, Siegfried Wagner wrote, “Mrs. Wagner is very grateful. England can be sure that she has enabled Wagner’s widow to spend the rest of her life easily and comfortably.”  

Wagner’s music was very much with Bob as 1924 began. With B.N.O.C. at Covent Garden, he sang Pogner in Meistersinger on 7 January. It was a special time as Beecham returned to conduct, dispensing spicy quips as of old. A performance of Siegfried was going well on the 25th until Florence Austral took ill; it was terminated after Act II. Not to cheat the patrons, Bob rushed on stage with Beatrice Miranda and Hyde to give Act I of Die Walküre. At the time, the Wembley Exhibition was drawing visitors in hordes, so Felix Weingartner with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra chose to contribute a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Bob added his blessed sonority to the ‘Ode to Joy’.

With the National Opera, Bob checked into His Majesty’s Theatre in London for a season in June and July. It was a signal event (no pun intended) as a B.B.C. microphone carried all or parts of operas to suitably equipped listeners. It began on 5 June when Bob, “in excellent voice”, sang Bartolo in Figaro. Eight nights later as the crew presented Tannhäuser, he sang a rare Landgrave, lighting up the airways during Act I. On the 19th, he sang Pogner in Meistersinger, Act 3 being aired. On 1 July, Entführung was given, Act 3 being broadcast with Bob the likely Osmin. Finally on the 9th in Die Zauberflöte, he was surely Sarastro, but with little to do in Act I, the portion that was broadcast.

In 1922, when asked what music was his private delight he said, “In four letters B-A-C-H. When I need a tonic I sit down and play Bach, cantatas and so on. For pleasure in actual singing give me Handel, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner - all knew how to write for the bass voice.” So, when Bach’s Coffee Cantata was staged in London as Coffee and Cupid, he would have been at home as a curmudgeonly Schlendrian. He left records of this music, made by the electrical process.

When B.N.O.C. rolled into Liverpool in February 1925 an eager fan, Frances Robinson, was waiting. Her programme shows that Radford on the 20th sang King Dodon in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coq d’Or. “Aunt Fay obviously loved the bloke, as she always spoke of him,” nephew John recalled. In London, “Radford and Allin (as Polkan) did capitally in clownish parts.” In print, Bob wryly observed: “Making noises with the neck is a curious way of earning one’s daily bread, and I have been doing it for over twenty years under all sorts of conditions.” The neck was working on 25 May during a benefit for Emma Albani with Melba, Ben Davies, Rosina Buckman and Dinh Gilly as Landon Ronald accompanied.

In September, he decided to cast his lot with Wilfred Stephenson, who was assembling people to tour fifteen centres in north central England. His modus operandi was simple: “Give ’em top artists at bargain prices and they’ll come.” They packed halls wherever he went. One of Bob’s celebrity treats came at Queen’s Hall in Hull on 10 April 1926.

In 1927, in stark contrast, he toured as Basilio in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Miriam Licette, Heddle Nash and John Barbirolli. But, he believed passionately in opera in English, so expended much time and energy on B.N.O.C. matters. He was also a strong advocate of government support. “Just refund all of the £90,000 in Entertainment Tax, or even half of it and we’ll be solvent!” His arguments fell on deaf ears, and on 5 April 1929, after a Pogner at Golders Green, the curtain descended on Bob Radford’s stage career. The next day it closed on the B.N.O.C.

Those must have been heady days. Sydney Russell, a fine character tenor for B.N.O.C., wrote, “I do not believe that it would be possible to find a happier or more contented little band of artistes.. team play is always the first thought, and other artists’ successes are sincerely enjoyed..”

Radford had begun vocal coaching at the Royal Academy of Music in the mid-twenties, passing on his wisdom to mezzo Rispah Goodacre, baritones Henry Cummings and Roy Henderson and, later to bass Norman Lumsden. When asked in the early thirties to list his favourite singers, Bob included Lumsden, while fondly recalling mates of the past, Perceval Allen, John Coates, Walter Hyde and Alfred Heather.

In a letter to Graham Oakes, Lumsden wrote:

When I went for my audition, I was shown into his music room, a large, sunny room which was, if my memory serves me correctly, devoid of any unnecessary furnishing, (with) a grand piano and walls covered with autographed photographs of his contemporaries. When he came into the room, I instantly felt I was in the presence of ‘a great.’ He had a great charisma and an exuberant personality, very warm, and in modern terms would be described as ‘sending out friendly vibes.’

During the lessons, I got occasional glimpses of what his voice could have been. Once he was urging me to learn the Korbay settings of Hungarian Folk songs, one in particular was ‘Had a horse’ - a tragic song with each verse ending with ‘But no matter, more was lost at Mohac’s Field.’ (Hungarian soldiers were wiped out by a Turkish army of much greater numbers). He sang part of it through to me, just using half voice, quite softly. His health was failing, but the expressive range he conveyed was most moving, and it left an impression that I have not forgotten all these years after.”

And writing to Wayne Turner, Lumsden portrayed Radford as “a personality exuding friendliness, plus a great ‘presence’- one of the essentials of a good performer - a projection of personality, something that comes across before the artist has started - modest people ‘turning it on’ and becoming larger than life. In Messiah, when you stand up to sing ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ let it rip - and look ’em straight in the eye - otherwise, it looks as if you’re reading ’em a telegram from God!”

He was no believer in all work and no play as fading photos attest. Suitably attired, fishing poles at the ready, he and three pals prepare for an angling session. Certain golf greens knew his unsteady step while he’d often take pen in hand to dash off the occasional poem or create a fanciful sketch.

Winifred recalled how those who knew and loved him appreciated “his personality, his great courage, his wit, infectious sense of humour and love of life. He had the blessed gift of laughter and often amused himself by writing light verse.” Why, he was even a song composer! Ever the gregarious sort, he was both a smoker and an imbiber, but in moderation he claimed. With his shaky health such indulgence seems ill-advised, but who then understood the peril?

In retirement he lived comfortably in a charming home in St. John’s Wood, surrounded by all those portraits. There, within sight of his fifty-ninth birthday, his beleaguered heart gave out on 1 March 1933.

Ada and Winifred lived on until a bomb demolished their cosy abode during World War II. After moving in with Caroline Hatchard and family, Ada would sit by a chest overflowing with mementos and delight visitors with tale after tale, not about Bob’s triumphs, but of his mischievous pranks. A lovable character, yes, but a true titan amongst singers.

Winifred Radford became a successful singer, a soprano who sang four seasons at Glyndebourne in the thirties as Barbarina, Zerlina and Cherubino. A specialist in the French song repertoire, she taught at the Guildhall School of Music in 1955, staying fifteen years. She died on 15 April 1993.   


1) The words of Radford himself originated in:
“ Robert Radford” The Musical Times, May 1, 1922
“ I Remember” by Robert Radford, Opera, April 1924*
“ The Future of Opera in England” by Robert Radford. Opera, January, 1923*

2) Winifred’s words from:
“ Robert Radford” by Winifred Radford, Lecture at the Institute on 5 March 1970, reproduced in Recorded Sound.

3) The account is enriched through research by the now-defunct Beecham Society of England and reported by Maurice Parker and Tony Benson. Thus, Radford’s work with Beecham is emphasized but with others it is less well defined.

4) Other writings about Radford consulted:
“ Robert Radford, Deep Bass” The Musical Standard, March 21, 1908
“ Robert Radford” Favourite Musical Performers by Sydney Grew, T. N. Foulis, London & Edinburgh, October 1923
“ Robert Radford” article in the Nottingham Journal, 3-8-1928
“ A Mingled Chime” by Sir Thomas Beecham, Hutchinson & Co. 1944
“ Robert Radford” by William G. Kloet, The Record Collector, 1962, (with fascinating interview).
Music In England, 1885 - 1920 by Lewis Foreman, Thames Publishing, 1994
The Proms In Pictures, BBC Books
The Musical Times - various
“ Robert The Devil” by Tully Potter, IRC 2001
“ Robert Radford” - unpublished biography by Wayne Turner
Sir Thomas Beecham - A Calendar of his Concert and Theatrical Performances by Maurice Parker, 1985 and Supplement by Tony Benson, both supplied by Denham Ford.
John Coates, a biography by Dennis Foreman, The Record Collector Vol. 38 No. 2, April - June 1993, pp 82-109
Ben Davies, a biography by Dennis Foreman, The Record Collector Vol. 41, No. 3, Sept. 1996, p. 169
“ I Remember” by Sydney Russell, Opera, June 1923, p. 31*

* Opera referred to here was a short-lived publication of the mid 1920s, not the well-known magazine of today. 

I also very much appreciate the assistance of Paul Campion in London for the family background, Ewen Langford, Caroline Hatchard’s son, for his insights, the late Denham Ford for the Beecham data, Norman Staveley in Hull, John Robinson in Liverpool, Graham Oakes in Wales, Dennis Foreman and Euan Gibby in Nottingham, Mike Langridge in Rustington and the late Wayne Turner of Deeside. A great, great team of supporters! Many thanks to all.

The Editor thanks Tully Potter and Euan Gibby. Christian Zwarg, Paul Steinson, John Bolig, Peter Chaplin and Dave Mason provided information for the discography. Special thanks to Christian for checking it,

Published in the Record Collector Vol. 54, No. 3, September 2009, and reproduced with permission. 


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