John Shirley-Quirk: Striking bass-baritone who became a central member of Benjamin Britten's English Opera Group

 

When the voice of John Shirley-Quirk came to be heard publicly in the early 1960s it caught the imagination of many music lovers and aspiring baritones for its unusual timbre and delivery, quite different from anything previously heard: rich and smooth, with impeccable enunciation. His appearance was also striking: he was tall and somewhat saturnine, with the faintest suggestion of a stoop, and luxuriant black hair with a characteristic silver streak.

He was born in Liverpool, where his father worked in the passport office and his mother was “the proverbial housewife”. He won a science scholarship to the Holt School and,later, studied chemistry at Liverpool University; but joining the local church choir as a child gave him “the singing bug”. He later took up the violin, winning a music scholarship at 13, and then, at university, got involved in musical activities as an instrumentalist and singer. “I've enjoyed music all my life,” he told an interviewer last year. “It's always been an absolute thrill and delight.”

After university, and an abortive attempt at a career in industrial chemistry, he joined the education branch of the Royal Air Force; and then, despite opportunities to sing and lessons from the baritone Austen Carnegie, he became a lecturer in chemistry at Acton Technical College. At the same time, he studied singing with Roy Henderson, who is best remembered as Kathleen Ferrier's teacher, and as one of the original soloists in Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music.

Shirley-Quirk briefly joined the choir of St Paul's Cathedral in 1961, and in July of the same year was engaged at Glyndebourne to sing the role of Gregor Mittenhofer in the first English performance of Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers, the character having been created by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the German premiere a mere two months earlier. This was remarkable progress for a newcomer who had only just taken the plunge – and he resigned his post at Acton in favour of music rather than chemistry.

A month earlier, in June 1961, he had sung in the first performance of Havergal Brian's mighty Gothic Symphony, conducted by Bryan Fairfax, and was noticed by The Times as “a young baritone of remarkable potentiality”. (In fact, his first notice in The Times had been as early as 1958, as soloist in Kodaly's Hymn of Zrinyi, with the Elizabethan Singers at The Arts Council, and several others had followed in 1959 and 1960, for his singing of Purcell, Bach and Handel.)

His excursions into modern music began early, and in 1962 he was the singer (and speaker) in Goffredo Petrassi's Propos d'Alain, at an International Society for Contemporary Music festival concert at the Royal Festival Hall. There were also more opera appearances – some onstage and some in concert performances – including Der Freischütz, and Berlioz's Damnation of Faust and Beatrice and Benedict, both conducted by a very young Colin Davis, the latter with Vanessa Redgrave taking one of the spoken parts.

He returned to Glyndebourne between 1961-63 for Pelléas et Mélisande, L'Incoronazione de Poppea and Capriccio, and in 1987 for Così fan tutte.

In 1963 he was a fellow soloist with Peter Pears in a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio at Ipswich: Benjamin Britten was in the audience, expressed his appreciation, and within 18 months had engaged Shirley-Quirk for the role of the Ferryman in Curlew River, first performed at the 1964 Aldeburgh Festival. “Absolutely stunning, John”, was Britten's verdict on his performance, according to an anecdote of Robert Tear, who alternated the part of the Madwoman with Pears.

From then on, Shirley-Quirk was second only to Pears as the singer for whom Britten created his principal operatic roles, notably in the television opera Owen Wingrave (Mr Coyle) and in Britten's final opera, Death in Venice, as Aschenbach's nemesis, The Traveller, who is also the Elderly Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber, Leader of the Players, and the Voice of Dionysus. Perhaps he identified best with Spencer Coyle, at whose military crammer the pacifist Owen is a student. “There's an awful lot of you in it,” Britten told him, and Shirley-Quirk admitted that “it fitted me like a glove”.

Death in Venice took him to the United States – where, perhaps, it was more popular than in Britain – and in 1974 he made his debut singing his multiple-character role at the Metropolitan Opera. In the televised performance of Billy Budd (now available on DVD) he was Mr Redburn, with Pears as Captain Vere and Peter Glossop in the title role. He undertook an astonishingly wide range of engagements, in Britain and overseas, but, he said, “I think it was at Aldeburgh I did my best work.”

Among his earliest recordings were Bach's cantatas, Nos 56 and 82, for solo bass, and two LPs of English songs, including Vaughan Williams's Songs of Travel, still much-treasured. Some 80 recordings were to follow, ranging from Schubert to Mahler and Tippett.

After his first wife died in 1981, Shirley-Quirk married the American oboist Sara Watkins and later emigrated to America. From 1991 to 2012 he was a member of the Voice Faculty of the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, and concurrently, from 1994-98, at Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh. He returned permanently to England in 2012 to live in Bath and to teach at Bath Spa University.

His final appearance as a singer was as one of the Mastersingers in the closing concert of the 2006 Edinburgh Festival.

Garry Humphreys

John Stanton Shirley-Quirk, bass-baritone singer and teacher: born Liverpool 28 August 1931; married 1st 1955 Patricia May Hastie (died 1981, one son, one daughter), 2nd 1981 Sara Van Horn Watkins (died 1997, one son, one daughter and one daughter deceased), 3rd 2009 Teresa May Perez (née Cardoza); CBE 1975; died Bath 7 April 2014.

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