Bob Dylan and Sir Charles Santley

Bob Dylan’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature is reminiscent of a forgotten landmark in British musical history, says Anna Maria Barry

Bob Dylan and Sir Charles Santley
Bob Dylan

Yesterday it was announced that Bob Dylan is the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. This breaks sharply with tradition, as Dylan is the first songwriter to be awarded this literary prize.

The majority of commentators have celebrated Dylan’s receipt of this honour, arguing that his lyrics represent poetry of substantial cultural significance. On the other hand, detractors have argued that that Dylan’s words do not represent literature, with some even questioning claims of the singer’s cultural importance. These debates bring to mind a forgotten landmark in British musical history. 109 years ago another singer was granted a controversial honour.

In 1907 the British opera singer Charles Santley (1834 – 1922) celebrated his jubilee year, which marked the 50th anniversary of his first public appearance. Over the course of his long career the Liverpudlian baritone had appeared extensively in both Italian and British opera, as well as being celebrated for his skill in oratorio.

Later in his career he focused increasingly on the concert stage, establishing himself as the leading ballad singer of the period. Santley was also a major international celebrity. He performed extensively across Europe and America, also touring Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. He was well known to the public as a great traveller, penning two best-selling autobiographies which detailed his adventures around the world. Santley’s jubilee was celebrated with a gala concert at the Royal Albert Hall, attended by the great and good of society. However, festivities reached their peak when he was awarded a knighthood by King Edward VII. But why was this such a landmark event?

British Opera singer Sir Charles Santley

Santley’s receipt of this honour was greatly significant, as he became the first ever singer to receive a knighthood in Britain. This was a remarkable achievement, marking a real change in attitudes towards musical men. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it would have been unthinkable for a singer to be honoured by the establishment in this way.

In Georgian England singers were largely thought of as bohemian and disreputable theatrical personalities, fit for entertaining the establishment but not entering it. Singers were often slapped down in the press if they presumed on their aristocratic patrons. Just one example is the controversy that erupted when the British tenor John Braham dared to ask the Duke of Sussex to be Godfather to his son in 1821. Though the Duke graciously accepted, newspapers were filled with outrage that a brother of the King would associate with a mere singer.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, attitudes towards singers gradually started to change. Many credited this shift to Santley, including a journalist writing for The Times who argued that the baritone had ‘done a man’s share in producing a saner attitude on the part of the public towards singers’.

After Santley’s knighthood was announced, debate erupted. Though the majority supported Santley’s knighthood, there were still detractors who felt that a mere singer should not be admitted to the elite echelons of society.  Nevertheless, Santley’s receipt of this honour marked a real turning point. It represented the singer’s transition from bohemian outsider to respected artist.

Here we might see a parallel with Dylan, whose receipt of the Nobel Prize can be seen as marking his transition from countercultural rebel to establishment artist. Though Santley’s knighthood has been largely forgotten by historians, it was nevertheless significant. Santley paved the way for singers who followed in his wake.

Today, of course, singers are honoured frequently – from Sir Tom Jones and Sir Mick Jagger to Dame Julie Andrews and Dame Shirley Bassey. One wonders if Sir Paul McCartney (who later attended the same school as Santley) knows the debt that he owes to his fellow Liverpudlian. We might see Dylan’s Nobel Prize, like Santley’s honour, as representing a change in the ways in which singers are celebrated.

Anna Maria Barry is a writer and cultural historian. She is completing a PhD on nineteenth-century opera singers at Oxford Brookes University, where she is a member of the OBERTO Opera Research Unit. You can read more about her work on her website and follow her on Twitter: @AnnaMariaB87. In the January issue of BBC Music Magazine, Anna will be discussing the extraordinary British men who sang opera in the 19th century.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here