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
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
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
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
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
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
and Emmy Destinn were also in the cast. Richter was conducting; a dreadful
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Of all the music making that takes place in England, the most delightful
and satisfying is the Festival of the Three Choirs. Recollections going
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Fit again, he rejoined Beecham on 24 September to present a Bartolo that
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
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.
first five or so months of 1918, he was an active bass with Mozart and
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Prominent in this plucky attempt to keep the standard flying were Webster
Millar and Herbert Langley. They carried on until just before Christmas 1920
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
It was realised that the public, owing to past records of opera companies,
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,
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,
, he sang Ramfis with Beatrice
Miranda and Tudor Davies, but all eyes were glued upon the Amneris,
own. After fourteen operas in two weeks, and still reeling from the deadly
the troubadours visited Liverpool, Edinburgh, Leeds and Halifax, before
arriving at Covent Garden on 1 May. Here Bob faced a mighty challenge:
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
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
19 March to begin Glasgow’s first complete Ring
Fasolt and Allin’s
Fafner setting a very high standard indeed in singing, acting and
make-up. In Aida
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
Later he would advance to Ramfis and sing the Requiem
a Festival specialty. “I
was only looking over my old ragged copy of the Verdi Requiem
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
21 June and in a later performance with Edward Johnson and conductor
Frank St. Leger. Radford was also part of a revival of Louise
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
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
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
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
, Act 3 being aired. On 1 July, Entführung
given, Act 3 being broadcast with Bob the likely Osmin. Finally on
the 9th in Die
, 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
was staged in London as Coffee and Cupid
, he would
have been at home as a curmudgeonly Schlendrian. He left records
of this music,
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
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
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
with Miriam Licette, Heddle Nash and John Barbirolli.
But, he believed passionately in opera in English, so expended
much time and energy
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,
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
great.’ He had a great charisma and an exuberant personality, very warm,
and in modern terms would be described as ‘sending out friendly
During the lessons, I got occasional glimpses of what his voice
could have been. Once he was urging me to learn the Korbay settings
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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,
“ Robert Radford” Favourite Musical Performers
by Sydney Grew,
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.
Robert Radford” by William G. Kloet, The Record Collector
1962, (with fascinating interview).
Music In England, 1885 - 1920
by Lewis Foreman, Thames Publishing,
The Proms In Pictures
, BBC Books
The Musical Times
Robert The Devil” by Tully Potter, IRC
Robert Radford” - unpublished biography by Wayne Turner
Sir Thomas Beecham - A Calendar of his Concert and Theatrical Performances
Maurice Parker, 1985 and Supplement by Tony Benson, both supplied
by Denham Ford.
John Coates, a biography by Dennis Foreman, The Record Collector
38 No. 2, April - June 1993, pp 82-109
Ben Davies, a biography by Dennis Foreman, The Record Collector
41, No. 3, Sept. 1996, p. 169
I Remember” by Sydney Russell, Opera
, June 1923, p.
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,
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
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.