Described by Opera Now as “one of the best loved sopranos of the post-war years,” Dutch singer Elly Ameling’s remarkable vocal control, purity of tone, and subtlety of interpretation captivated audiences from her debut in Holland in 1961 until her retirement in 1995. She attracted a legion of fans, according to Andrew Porter of the New York Observer, by “her freshness, naturalness, ease, and beauty of timbre.” Her work displayed wide range. She performed music from the Baroque period to the modern, including Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Satie and Faure; but she is particularly renowned for her interpretations of the songs of Schubert and Brahms and for her performances of early music. In all, she has been an influential figure in vocal music of the late twentieth century.
Elisabeth Sara Ameling was born on February 8, 1938 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. As a teenager, Ameling studied voice with several Dutch teachers including Jo Bollenkamp in Rotterdam. She also traveled to Paris to study under Pierre Bernac who encouraged her to perform French songs. When she was 18, Ameling won a vocal competition at ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands; two years later she won another in Geneva, Switzerland. At the age of twenty three, in 1961, Amerling held her debut recital in Amsterdam.
Ameling’s recording career began in the mid-1960s when she made a series of recordings for the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label. The albums were notable for a variety of reasons. Andrew Porter of the New York Observer described them as “intimate, gentle, communicative, bold, passionate, or twinkling where necessary; never forced, never exaggerated in expression and with a kind of freshness of discovery that brings each song to life.” On them, Ameling showed her ability to sing in a broad palette of musical styles.
The Deutsche Harmonia Mundi records introduced Ameling as one of the premier singers of so-called early music—music composed in or before the seventeenth century, performed using original instruments and vocal techniques. Accompanied by the Collegium Aureum, one of the first early music ensembles, Ameling recorded chamber cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Georg Friedrich Handel. Ameling’s pure voice and precise intonation was uniquely suited to singing early music and her rendering of J.S. Bach’s Wedding Cantata has been recognized as one of the most beautiful performances of all time. In Classical Pulse!, David Patrick Stearns called her “the godmother” of all early music vocalists who followed.
Ameling’s early recordings also introduced her as a talented interpreter of the nineteenth century German songs called Heder. Stearns described the qualities that made Ameling’s first Heder recordings so effective. “[Ameling’s] girlish timbre, sunny openheartedness and refusal to record anything so glitzy as opera remind us that the basis of the early 19th-century lider movement was folk-inspired poetry, and she never gives it a sense of false sophistication.” Ameling would record and rerecord classic liederthroughout her career.
Ameling’s English debut took place in London in 1966 and, two years later, when she was 30 years old, she held her first American performance in New York City. She returned to the United States and Britain regularly and performed in other countries throughout the world. Through her career she concentrated on concerts and vocal recitals, frequently with pianist Dalton Baldwin. She also performed opera occasionally. Her most notable role was Ilia in the Netherlands Opera’s 1973 staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo, a role she repeated with the same company in Washington, D.C. a year later.
But whatever Ameling sang, her warm, unaffected personality brought a light touch to the material. She delivered it with a technique that seemed effortless. Her interpretive freshness exuded wit and charm. Furthermore her linguistic facility further enabled her to sing with confidence lyrics written in German, French, Italian, or English. She was awarded the Edison Prize twice, in
Born Elisabeth Sarah Ameling, February 8, 1938 in Rotterdam, Netherlands; studied voice with several Dutch teachers, including Jo Bollenkamp; later studied in Paris with Pierre Bernac.
Won first competition in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1956; won competition in Geneva in 1958; gave first recital at the age of 23 in Amsterdam; made London debut in 1966 and New York debut in 1968; played Ilia in Idomeneo with the Netherlands Opera in 1973, and in Washington D.C. in 1974; performed with several accompanists, but most frequently with pianist Dalton Baldwin; released more than a dozen albums between 1970 and 1998.
Awards: Edison Prize in 1965, Edison Prize in 1970, Knight of the Order of Oranje Nassau in 1971.
1965, the year of her Schubert recordings, and in 1970, the year she recorded the Bach Cantata No. 130. In 1971, she was made a Knight of the Order of Oranje Nassau.
Ameling was frequently in the recording studio in the 1970s and 1980s. Those recordings demonstrated the remarkable range she was capable of. Between 1970 and 1973 she released five albums of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1971 and 1976 she released albums of material by Ludwig van Beethoven. She made an album of Brahms lieder in 1972, two albums of the Melodies of Gabriel Faure in 1974 and 1975, and recorded Symphony No. 4 of Gustav Mahler in 1979. She also recorded albums of works by Claude Debussy, George Frideric Handel, Domenico Comarosa, Anton Bruckner, two albums of Christmas songs, and two collections of songs and arias.
1995 was a landmark year for Elly Ameling. She retired from music, her last record was released, and her very first records were re-released. The recordings gave critics the opportunity to look at her career in overview. Elly Ameling: The Early Recordings, 1964-1968, a four CD set, showed her at her best for many critics. David Patrick Stearns described her singing as “a clear prism…a crystal clear mirror of the composer’s intentions.” Critics noted that Ameling’s performance on her last album, Songs of Hugo Ball, recorded in 1991, hinted at the reasons she chose to give up her career at age 57. She no longer possessed what she herself in Opera News had called “a very young voice, girlish and pure.” Instead, noted David Patrick Stearns, singing the Ball songs, Ameling’s voice “seems rough, worn and effortful.”
Despite the inevitable changes that age brings to a singer’s voice, Ameling could look back on a distinguished, prolific, and successful career. It will serve as a benchmark for future vocalists. Through her recordings she will continue to thrill both old and new fans alike with her unflinching purity of tone, her delicacy of emotion, her adroit mastery of material, and her “visceral outpouring of supurb musical instinct,” according to David Patrick Stearns. They offer timeless insight into the work of the world’s great composers. Few vocalists have devoted themselves so completely and so successfully to the work that Ameling held dearest.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata No. 130, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 1970.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Mass in C, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 1971.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantatas No. 147 and 3 Motets, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 1972.
Elly Ameling Singt Lieder von Johann Brahms, OHM, 1972, reissued as Elly Ameling Sings Brahms Lieder, DHM, 1977.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Actus Tragicus, DHM, 1973.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Weihnachts Oratorium, DHM, 1973.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Actus Tragicus, BWV 106, DHM, 1973.
Gabriel Urbain Faure: Melodies, DHM, 1974.
Gabriel Urbain Faure: Requiem, DHM, 1974.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, Op. 123, DHM, 1976.
Handel’s Messiah Arias and Choruses, DHM, 1976.
Christmas Songs from Europe, DHM, 1977.
Cimarosa’s Requiem, DHM, 1978.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G, DHM, 1979.
Christmas with Elly Ameling, DHM, 1980.
Claude Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliees, DHM, 1980.
After Hours, DHM, 1982.
Sentimental Me, DHM, 1984.
Soiree Francaise, BMG/DHM, 1986.
Songs By Hugo Wolf, Hyperion, 1995.
Elly Ameling: The Early Recordings, BMG/DHM, 1995.
Orey, Leslie (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Opera, Charles Scribner and Sons, New York, 1976.
BBC Music, October 1995.
Classical FM, October 1995.
Classical Pulse!, December 1995.
Gramophone, li 1974.
New York Observer, July 23, 1995.
Opera Now, October 1995.
—B. Kimberly Taylor