John Carol Case: Baritone and teacher celebrated for his work in the English song repertoire


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The broadcaster and writer Michael Oliver described John Carol Case as "the aristocrat of English baritones". Fastidious of manner and with impeccable enunciation, Case was a renowned Christus in the Bach Passions and for 21 consecutive years (from 1956) a regular fixture at the Bach Choir's annual performances of the St Matthew Passion conducted in London, first by Reginald Jacques and then by his former King's College Cambridge contemporary, David Willcocks. Case had originally been engaged by Jacques when Norman Walker was taken ill only days before a performance. This record is almost equalled by appearances at the Three Choirs Festivals, totalling 20 years, from 1954, and at the Leith Hill Festivals, under the conductorship of Vaughan Williams himself until the composer's death in 1958.

He sang regularly as a soloist with the majority of choral societies throughout the country in the standard repertory as well as the English works to which his voice and character seemed particularly suited. Sir Adrian Boult chose him for the parts of Christ in his recording of Elgar's The Apostles and Evangelist in Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress; he also recorded A Sea Symphony and Dona nobis pacem (with Boult) and Five Tudor Portraits (with Willcocks), among other works by Vaughan Williams; and Fauré's Requiem with both David Willcocks and Nadia Boulanger.

Less well-known to the wider public were the solo song recitals in which he excelled, perhaps as the result of intimacy with his audience; there were also broadcast recitals and recordings. Again, he gave prominence to the English song repertoire, but also showed that he was a superlative performer of French and German song. He made his own translation of Schumann's Dichterliebe which, like Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, often served as an effective foil to an English group of songs. After his Dichterliebe at the Malvern Concert Club in 1961, a reviewer wrote of "a singer with so much personality added to superb vocal equipment".

He was largely responsible for reviving Arthur Somervell's Maud cycle, which he broadcast several times and then recorded for Pearl in the mid-1970s with his regular piano partner Daphne Ibbott, and for Lyrita he recorded all the Finzi song sets for baritone with the composer's friend Howard Ferguson. Case had met Gerald Finzi in 1951 and worked with him, discussing his songs and building up "very clear ideas of what he expected in performance, so that when Howard Ferguson and I created the first performance of I said to Love [after the composer's death], I had a fund of knowledge to draw on."

Among his earlier recordings is Schoenberg's Serenade, conducted by Bruno Maderna, and Case was delighted, and amused, when a comparison of available recordings commended his for being "more seductive" – "Not a word I would associate with Schoenberg!" he wrily commented.

John Carol Case was born in Salisbury, the son of William Henry Case, upholsterer and later funeral director, and Florence, née Bessant. Surprisingly, he did not sing in the cathedral choir; his father was the local "amateur tenor", but John claimed to have "no voice at all" as a child. After his voice broke at 14 and settled down he was discovered to have a singing voice after all, and his headmaster at Bishop Wordsworth's School suggested that he should apply for a choral scholarship at King's College Cambridge where, unusually, he sang in the choir concurrently as baritone and alto under the great Boris Ord and, during the War years, Harold Darke. He was eventually called up, but after service in the Army returned to complete his studies in 1945, receiving the degrees of MA and BMus; he also held the John Stewart of Rannoch Scholarship in Sacred Music.

After Cambridge he was director of music at King's College School, Wimbledon from 1948-51 and from 1954-58. Between these periods he served as music adviser to the National Union of Townswomen's Guilds and composed music for the pageant "With This Sword", which he conducted in 1954 at the then recently built Royal Festival Hall to celebrate the Union's 25th anniversary. His first venture into composition had been Requiem for an Unknown Warrior, which he composed at school, to his headmaster's libretto, where it received its first and only performance.

All this time he was gaining distinction as a solo singer (he had studied with Denis Noble), and after 1958 devoted his time primarily to singing until his retirement in 1976. But he also had a considerable flair for teaching singers, first at the then Birmingham School of Music, later at the Royal Academy of Music, and privately. He was also vocal coach to the choral scholars of King's College Cambridge in the 1960s, including some of the original King's Singers.

After his retirement he was in great demand and his inspirational masterclasses in particular were enlightening to both singers and audiences. His sometimes slightly parsonical manner on the concert platform (the result, perhaps, of all those "holy" roles) belied a wonderful sense of humour, sometimes bordering on the hilarious, which emerged on these occasions.

In 1981 a prize was awarded for the performance of songs by Gerald Finzi, and John was asked to be chairman; from this grew the English Song Award, of which he was president, wisely guiding it from 1984 to 1988, with the first chairman, Michael Oliver, and then myself. I had already been one of his singing pupils for several years.

His main preoccupations at the English Song Award were with the singers' diction and with their understanding (or, distressingly often, their lack of it) of the text. "Words! Words! Words!" and "Far too much in love with the sound of his/her own voice!", were two comments I remember seeing more than once on the mark sheets. As for the prize-winners, another yardstick was: "Would you pay money to hear this person sing again?"

Walking, rowing and motorcycling (on a series of machines including a Triumph Thunderbird and a Norton Navigator) were his hobbies at various times. Latterly he edited several solo vocal albums for the Oxford University Press and composed a series of carols for the choir of All Saints church, Thornton Dale, North Yorkshire, where he lived with his companion, Robert Wardell, who survives him, as does his elder sister, Mary.

John Carol Case, singer, teacher and composer: born Salisbury 27 April 1923; Director of Music, King's College School, Wimbledon, 1948-51 and 1954-58; teacher of singing, Royal Academy of Music; OBE 1993; died Malton, North Yorkshire 28 December 2012.