One of Britain's foremost sopranos between the two world wars, Dame Isobel Baillie (1895–1983) was particularly associated with the oratorio. She herself estimated that she had performed the most famous of all oratorios, Handel's Messiah, more than 1,000 times.
The oratorio, a dramatic but unstaged classical vocal work, usually on a religious theme and featuring a chorus as well as individual soloists, was found in most European musical cultures, but the English had a special affection for it. At the large choral festivals that did much to define English musical life, Baillie was a consistent presence for many years. Her voice inspired the adjective "silvery," and British musicologist Richard Capell, writing in the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, summed up the feelings of a generation this way: "The character of Isobel Baillie's singing and her fine technique will be indicated if it is said that her performance of Brahms's Requiem has hardly been matched in her time. The trying tessitura [vocal range] of 'Ye who now sorrow' becomes apparently negligible, and the term 'angelic' has sometimes been applied to suggest the effect, not so much personal as brightly and serenely spiritual, made here by her soaring and equable tones." Isobel Baillie, in other words, made beautiful singing sound easy.
Sold Piano Rolls
Red-haired and fair-skinned as a young woman, Baillie was born in Hawick, Roxburghshire, Scotland, near the English border, on March 9, 1895. Her original first name was Isabella, and she used the name Bella Baillie early in her career but changed it to Isobel at the suggestion of conductor Hamilton Harty, who felt that Bella Baillie sounded too much like the name of a music-hall performer. Baillie's father was a baker who was industrious but not an especially good manager, and her family moved from place to place in an attempt to improve its generally meager fortunes. When Baillie was five they landed in Newcastle upon-Tyne, England, and soon after that they moved to the large industrial city of Manchester, which boasted a flourishing musical life.
Things got even harder after Baillie's father died suddenly, but she won a scholarship to the High School in Dover Street. Singing nonstop around the house from earliest childhood, she now had the chance to perform in school pageants. The teenaged Baillie got a job at a music shop, selling piano rolls and walking to work, three miles each way. Her first paid job was in a Manchester church, where she received seven shillings and spent it on bacon for her family. A teacher named T.H. Bramwell who had recognized her talent persuaded her mother to let her take voice lessons, arranging them with a Madam Jean Sadler-Fogg. She sang the soprano part in Handel's Messiah for the first time when she was 15 and began to find more profitable singing jobs in local churches.
Taking a job as a clerk at Manchester's city hall, Baillie met her husband, entertainer Harry Wrigley, when she was 16. Their lengthy courtship lasted through Wrigley's deployment in France during World War I and his near-amputation after suffering a case of trench foot. They married in 1918 and had a daughter, Nancy; Wrigley returned to the front after recovering and suffered severe shrapnel wounds. He became essentially a house-husband for the rest of his life, and one day Baillie, as the main family breadwinner, totaled up her freelance singing earnings and found that they exceeded her clerk's salary. She resolved to devote herself to singing full-time.
Baillie's breakthrough into the mainstream of English musical life came about after she wrote a letter in 1920 to Hamilton Harty, the conductor of Manchester's Hallé Orchestra—one of the top orchestras in Britain outside of London. Harty, it turned out, had already heard her sing and been impressed by her voice. He assigned her to sing a difficult wordless vocal part in a new work, The Venetian Convent, by Italian composer Alfredo Casella. Although Baillie was convinced that she had sung poorly, and her husband concurred, Harty and the critics in the next morning's papers praised Baillie's voice, and her career was launched. Harty served as Baillie's mentor and patron. He engaged her frequently to sing for the Hallé Orchestra, suggested that she change her name, warned her against taking on roles, such as those in the operas of Richard Wagner, that were too large for her voice, and convinced her to go to Italy, leaving her daughter in her mother's care, for voice lessons with the renowned teacher Gugliemo Somma. Living in a room in what she later learned was a red-light district and fending off unwanted male advances, Baillie mastered Italian and deepened her talent.
Performed at Hollywood Bowl
Baillie made her London debut in 1923 after impressing conductor Sir Henry Wood with her performance in an unpaid touring concert that she agreed to sing as a kind of audition. She was hired to sing that season at six Promenade Concerts, the "Proms" that are central features of the annual classical music season in London. Singing light operatic arias and sacred selections, Baillie was by now a familiar face in British classical music circles. She was booked for busy seasons through the late 1920s, appearing in London and with symphony orchestras in such places as Birmingham and Liverpool in addition to Manchester. Baillie bought a cottage complete with pond, ducks, and orchard, in the English countryside, and in 1933 she took a more extended vacation to visit her brother in Hawaii. Inspired by a lifelong love of movies that led her to go to the cinema two or three times a week in between performances, she decided to stop off in California, and, given a letter of introduction by her mentors Harty and Wood, she became the first British singer to appear at the Hollywood Bowl. Baillie wrote in her autobiography, Never Sing Louder Than Lovely, that she "saw many of the legendary screen idols in action and even met some of them in off-screen moments: Cary Grant, for example, badly in need of a shave and concentrating on the demolition of a hamburger and beer."
Baillie was always primarily a concert singer, although she sometimes appeared in operas such as Christoph Willibald von Gluck's Orphée, which she performed at the Covent Garden opera house in 1937, and Charles Gounod's Faust. As she advanced to middle age, she became more and more identified with oratorios and other large choral works, both British and imported. She made the premiere recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music and sang such weighty pieces as Sir Edward Elgar's The Kingdom. Baillie felt at home in these pieces. On one occasion when she sang Franz Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Creation under the baton of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, she wrote in Never Sing Louder Than Lovely, "my enthusiasm for the genre in general and The Creation in particular was perhaps revealed a little too earnestly, for after we had rehearsed "On mighty pens" he turned to me, beamed, and said, 'You like singing that, don't you?' I, of course, agreed." Baillie sang with the most celebrated conductors of the golden age of English orchestral music: Beecham, Sir Adrian Boult, and Malcolm Sargent. Even the famously tough Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was quieted by her vocal charms, seizing Baillie's hands and complimenting her with a "bene, bene:" when he came to England to conduct the Johannes Brahms German Requiem that Richard Capell later wrote about in such glowing terms.
Frequently heard on the BBC radio network, Baillie made a large number of 78 rpm recordings between the late 1920s and the middle 1940s. Some were collected on a CD entitled The Unforgettable Isobel Baillie, released in the early 2000s on the Dutton label. Reviewer Robert Levine of the Classics Today website heard "an exquisite technique, a manner of singing as natural as speech, an ease in fioriture [flowery vocal passages] devoid of aspirates, divine pianissimos, absolute control at all dynamic levels, a real trill, precise but unfussy diction, and an interest in the text that is to be admired…. Perhaps it will strike some as precious; for the most part such wonderful singing should simply be appreciated."
Baillie sang oratorios such as Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah over much of her career, making 18 appearances at England's annual Three Choirs Festival. It was Messiah with which she was identified above all. She sang the work with the Hallé Orchestra in the early 1920s, the first time a performance of Messiah was broadcast on the radio, and she performed the work with the Hallé Orchestra for 26 years in a row. She also performed the work 33 times with the Royal Choral Society at London's Royal Albert Hall, appeared at a massive Handel festival organized by Sir Henry Wood in 1939, and sang it, she wrote in Never Sing Louder Than Lovely, "in practically every corner of the British Isles, from London, Belfast, Cardiff, and Glasgow, to Truro, Carlisle, and Aberdeen."
Sang for Arms Builders
As World War II broke out, Baillie decided to honor bookings she had made in New Zealand, to which she traveled by way of the U.S. Her ship was hit by a German shell on the way across the Atlantic. On the return trip, an American asked her where she was going, and when she answered that she was going home to England he questioned whether there would be any England left. An aggrieved Baillie bet him ten dollars that her country would survive, and soon after she landed she sent the American a letter. He never paid, but an American woman in an audience to which she told the story made good on the debt. Baillie kept performing throughout the war, despite rationing and extreme difficulty in traveling. At one point she was taken to a secret bunker inside a mountain to sing for a group of munitions workers.
Baillie never abused her voice, and her career was an unusually long one. She made appearances all over the world, including Kenya and Korea, in the 1950s. When her concert bookings finally began to wind down in the late 1950s, she found herself in demand as a teacher and gave lessons at the Royal College of Music in London (1955–57 and 1961–64), at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (1960–61) and at the Manchester School of Music (from 1970 onward). As a teacher, Baillie stressed the importance of natural voice production. "Singing is a natural process, and the more naturally the sound is made the more beautiful a sound will emerge," she wrote in a list of rules in her autobiography. The last item on the list was "Always listen to the sound you make and never sing louder than lovely."
Baillie continued to live in Manchester, giving lectures and working on her autobiography. Having been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1951, she was elevated to the rank of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1978. She died in Manchester on September 24, 1983, at the age of 88.
Baillie, Isobel, Never Sing Louder Than Lovely, Hutchinson, 1982.
Blom, Eric, ed., Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., St. Martin's, 1954.
"Isobel Baillie (Soprano)," http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Baillie-Isobel.htm (January 11, 2006).
Review of The Unforgettable Isobel Baillie, Classics Today, http://www.classicstoday.com/review.asp?ReviewNum=5672 (January 11, 2006).