Clara Butt: the greatest contralto of her generation or the butt of a joke?

A champion of Britain’s imperial anthems, contralto Clara Butt was both looked down on and celebrated for singing the songs of her era. Andrew Green believes it is time to readdress her reputation

circa 1900:  British contralto singer Dame Clara Butt (1873 - 1936).  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The legendary lungs of Clara Butt breathed their last within hours of those both of King George V and Rudyard Kipling. A neat coincidence for someone used to being dubbed the Queen of Song and blessed with a huge following around the British Empire. But like that Empire, much of what Dame Clara stood for was drifting into twilight in 1936.

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Clara Butt was just 63 when cancer of the spine finally defeated her long, brave resistance. She left behind little by way of a continuing musical legacy, although her Elgarian connections at least can never be erased. She premiered Sea Pictures, kitted out as a mermaid; Elgar apparently wrote the part of the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius and certainly the contralto contribution to the Coronation Ode with her in mind… its ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ became virtually her property, belted out at all manner of national celebrations.

No, it’s tempting to suggest instead that Butt is remembered chiefly as a cardboard cut-out figure of fun – notorious enough for Disney to lampoon as Clara Cluck. The folk memory is of a lavishly gowned and burly, shapeless six-footer who possessed a klaxon for a singing voice and whose very name seems faintly comic, the ‘Dame’ somehow making things worse. It hasn’t helped that significant advances in recording technology arrived too late to show off her voice in its prime. Much of what was shown off in her case was a faded glory. The electrical recordings from the later 1920s lack… well, electricity.

But as much as anything else it’s what Dame Clara sang that has contributed to the gentle mockery which has been her posthumous lot. Her most typical showcase once her fame was established was the ballad concert, although oratorio also figured prominently. OK, the English ballad tradition inspired many fine contributions from the likes of Vaughan Williams and John Ireland, but Dame Clara’s repertoire contained helpings of such sentimental frippery as ‘A Fairy Went A-Marketing’ or ‘How Pansies Grow’, with texts to cringe for. Arthur Sullivan’s mawkish
‘The Lost Chord’ was a staple, just as it was on the music stands of countless amateur warblers.

The audiences who packed the Albert Hall and venues around the UK for Butt’s concerts adored such stuff, but there always were those who scoffed. On one occasion Dame Clara’s watery baritone husband Kennerley Rumford found himself in court after taking exception to a critic who suggested the great lady was wasting her talent. Rumford detected ‘a gratuitous insult… so I went to the Queen’s Hall and boxed his ears’.

The cynical view would be that ballad concerts raked in considerable receipts, but Dame Clara insisted she was ‘…a great believer in giving the public what they want. There are a number of musical snobs who consider that because a song is popular it cannot be good.’ The emotional coloration of such repertoire struck a chord during the Great War (‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’ etc) but to many it must have grated in the brash, forward-thrusting, jazz-besotted world of the 1920s.

Who was Clara Butt?

However – and it’s a giant-sized ‘however’ – nothing should obscure the fact that Clara Butt was a musical phenomenon of her time, even allowing for the fact that she forsook the beginnings of a prestigious career in major European centres to concentrate on the English-speaking world’s passion for the ballad concert. Some claim her as the greatest contralto of the 20th century.

From her quintessentially humble origins as a seafarer’s daughter, the young Clara Butt shot to stardom while still a student at the Royal College of Music. She went on to a career which dazzled audiences of many kinds, whether at mass national occasions or private concerts for royalty. Much beloved of Queen Victoria (from whom flowed various personal favours) and indeed of Kaiser Wilhelm II, she was herself treated as all but royalty on her mammoth concert tours around the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Crowds would gather at remote railway stations just to see her pass through. She was a dab hand at prison, school, hospital and fire station visits.

I once traced her regal progress around Australia and New Zealand in 1907-08, via an astounding array of newspaper reports. I’d been wondering if I’d find much at all, but in fact there was no mistaking the gift she presented to news, feature and gossip writers wherever she went. She adored the exposure.

We also have the record of how audiences reacted to her on that trip via letters sent home by her manager, Robert Leigh Ibbs. Of the end of a Brisbane concert he wrote: ‘People went absolutely mad, stood on the seats, waved and cheered for about 20 minutes.’ Outside His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth after the box office opened, ‘people fought and struggled to get near, and the trams had to be stopped… to prevent people being killed in the streets.’ It was put about that the tour grossed £50,000. The England cricket squad touring Australia that winter was reported
to have been paid a total of £10,000.

Why did audiences love her?

Yes, the voice was richly coloured and warmly sympathetic in the way we associate with such contraltos as Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. In a BBC interview her sister Ethel Argent emphasised that ‘…her soft singing was wonderful’. Her diction was impeccable, allowing those ballad texts to hit home, for good or ill. She clearly had a natural stage presence, enhanced by her 6’2” stature and a limitless wardrobe of gownery.

But what clinched things was surely the sheer physical thrill of that cavernous voice, with its almost masculine quality. This was the weapon she had used to blast the ears of the Royal College of Music professors she thought were laughing at her during her entrance audition. In fact they were simply sharing their astonishment at what they were hearing. Sir Thomas Beecham suggested
her voice could project across the Channel. Well, halfway, perhaps.

An elderly friend once described for me the sensation of hearing Butt sing in Trafalgar Square without benefit of microphone. ‘I couldn’t get nearer to the platform than one side of the Square, but that great booming voice came across despite the traffic going by and the noise of many thousands of people present. It was an incredible experience.’

Dame Clara rather traded on the power of her lower register, little worried if getting down there involved an almightily unsubtle gear change. But in her earlier years the voice had a wide range, with a lightness of colour at the top that occasionally confuses the mind: is this really just one singer? And there’s plenty of agility, too, in getting round the demands of, say, ‘Lusinghe più care’ from Handel’s Alessandro. Which reminds us that Clara Butt’s ballad concert repertoire was in fact plenty broader than might be supposed.
One in the eye for the scoffers. Operatic arias, French chansons, German Lieder – even Russian songs delivered in the original tongue – were fully a part of things.

Why just the one professional operatic appearance – Gluck’s Orfeo in 1920 at Covent Garden? Well, her height would have put many a leading man literally in the shade,
but it’s also said that Kennerley Rumford wasn’t too keen on the idea of witnessing his wife wrapped in romantic stage embraces. We do know, however, that Saint-Saëns considered the young Clara Butt as the ideal Delilah for his Samson and Delilah and was mortified when the Lord Chamberlain banned a London production on account of the opera’s Biblical subject matter.

One measure of Colossal Clara’s household celebrity was her appeal to manufacturers as an endorser of commercial products. Not just the obvious musical fare (she somewhat promiscuously gave her seal of approval to various pianos) but for example Pep’s throat pastilles (‘their invigorating effect on the throat and the chest’), Kallos facial cream (‘a most excellent Skin Food’) and even cigarettes, despite the fact, as her nephew John Heming once told me, ‘She couldn’t even get a cigarette alight… she couldn’t suck it at all.’

Curious to relate, Clara Butt’s DBE was bestowed in 1920 not primarily for her status as a singer, but for ‘ungrudging and patriotic service during the war’. Her tireless charity work (including the bizarre feat of organising a six-day week of Dream of Gerontius performances with the same cast in the Albert Hall, raising a whopping £4,500) was the tipping factor. Damehoods for ‘mere’ stage performers were then virtually unheard of.

A comprehensive biography of Clara Butt is long overdue to replace the informative yet fawning 1928 effort of Winifred Ponder. Sadly no one can be alive who heard her voice at its pre-1914 best. In the 1980s I appealed in some UK local newspapers for memories of her, and in they flooded. ‘Oh that voice!’ wrote a one-time Edinburgh schoolgirl who sang in Butt’s ‘backing chorus’ at a 1920s concert, ‘so deep and velvet and wonderful’. Another letter recounted how on a visit to Malvern College, Dame Clara could easily be heard above a choir of 565 boys and a blaring organ. Someone else recalled sitting as a child in the stalls at Victoria Hall in Bolton to hear her sing: ‘She towered over us majestically and I felt afraid!’

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 I read that another formidable Dame, Joan Sutherland, had heard Clara Butt sing in Sydney as a very young child, and never forgot the experience. Alas, hours after I emailed a few questions to her PA, news came through that Dame Joan had died. Had she been able to respond, I suspect she might have had a good chuckle at the old girl’s caricatured image… but also have confirmed that Dame Clara was a giant of a figure in her day.