Classical: Twentieth century voice

Roy Henderson, 100 on Sunday, taught Kathleen Ferrier, sang for Delius and at Glyndebourne's first night. By Andrew Green
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The Independent Culture
The cricketing analogy will be far from lost on Roy Henderson. Poised on 99, patience has been his game until the chance for a gentle push wide of mid-wicket - the last, quiet crossing-off of a day on the calendar - and this Sunday he will be 100 at last. "I think I might just make it," he said to me last autumn.

The last survivor of the cast on the very first Glyndebourne night in May 1934 has always been crackers about cricket. Indeed, Henderson's passion clinched his place on stage (as Count Almaviva) for that inaugural Marriage of Figaro. The conductor Fritz Busch had wanted reassurance of Henderson's talents and had sent his right-hand man Hans Oppenheim to hear him in London. "John Christie, the founder of Glyndebourne, was there," says Henderson. "Oppenheim heard me sing, turned to Christie and said `Good voice, yes, but can he act?' `Of course he can act,' Christie said, `he's a cricketer!'."

With modest pride, Henderson recalls how Busch reckoned that his characterisation of Papageno in The Magic Flute, again at Glyndebourne, was the best he'd seen. But acting in the broadest sense of creative presentation was a Henderson trademark in concerts as well. "You must know your work off by heart so that you're free to communicate," he says. "It's no good if your head is stuck in the book. I saw the things I was singing about - the sea, a tree, a lover - and set about convincing the audience I was seeing them, by the way I stood and looked."

"Very good, but you must know your work," was the opinion Henderson offered the still raw Kathleen Ferrier after they first sang together in a Christmas 1942 Elijah. Her head, of course, had been "in the book". Such bluntness appealed to the lass from Lancashire and soon Henderson was her "Prof" - which is still his nickname - grooming her voice and platform presence until her tragic death in 1953. "The vocal line was never quite what it could have been if she'd started earlier," he reflects. "The great thing was her personality - yet at the beginning she seemed so shy. Then I went to dinner with her and her sister and saw them fooling around, throwing plates about the place! I knew then that I had something to work on."

Henderson retired from singing in order to devote himself to teaching almost half a century ago - John Shirley-Quirk and Norma Procter are among his distinguished pupils. Always the battle against "the book" and the dreaded vocal "wobble", the latter challenged with the aid of an oscilloscope to enlighten the mind and physical jerks to tighten the tummy. Even in his late seventies he would be down on the floor demonstrating some startling aerobic manoeuvre.

Henderson was born in Edinburgh, the son of a Congregational minister. A family move to Nottingham took him to the local high school, where he distinguished himself on the games field. But after service in the Great War he emerged with the ambition to sing. While still studying at the Royal Academy in London, Henderson received a flying start when he took on the baritone part in Delius's Nietzsche-drenched Mass of Life in the early 1920s. "I had just three weeks to learn the piece, but I was determined to sing it off by heart. And I did." Delius gave him a photograph signed "To the unequalled interpreter of Zarathustra" which now hangs above Henderson's bed in his room at Ivor Newton House near Bromley.

Henderson's career flourished in the days when the British musical market alone was substantial enough to sustain numbers of home-grown singers. He was soon on a Decca recording contract, some of the fruits of which appear on a new CD devoted to the English repertoire he excelled in. Typically forthright singing it is, sincere and direct, but with plenty of evidence of his tip-of-the-tongue agility and never better than in character numbers such as Hatton's "Simon the Cellarer".

Henderson sang under Elgar and was a favourite of Vaughan Williams, but it is reminiscences of admired singing colleagues which tumble out first of all: of Robert Radford ("a voice like a bass trumpet"), John Coates ("not a great voice, but a great interpreter") and Eva Turner ("every note produced beautifully. No wobble!"). He and Turner sang in that ultimate "collegial" event, the first performance by 16 solo singers of Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music at the Royal Albert Hall, for Sir Henry Wood's jubilee in 1938. Only Henderson remains of that line-up as well.

Wood and Beecham are remembered with affection, but the intriguing ultimate accolade among conductors goes to Hamilton Harty. But then he recalls Fritz Busch. "We singers had never come across anything like it...certainly not at Covent Garden! Busch insisted on goodness knows how many rehearsals. I remember he gave the London Symphony Orchestra two and a half hours just on the Marriage of Figaro overture! The result was absolutely terrific.

"Not that many people got off the train from London for that first night, and not for the second either. But when people saw the extraordinary press reviews, the audiences became bigger and bigger. By the next season the place was full." So do singers of today match up? "Well, there's Bryn Terfel. First class! But too many others have their noses in the book."

`Roy Henderson: A Centenary Recital', Dutton CDLX 7038