Noelle Barker: Soprano who championed new music


Noelle Barker had a distinguished career as a soprano, encompassing opera, oratorio and recital, but above all she was identified with new music: “There are few singers who devote so much attention to contemporary music as Miss Noelle Barker”, wrote The Times in the early 1960s of a performance of works by Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Francis Routh. She sang with Britten’s English Opera Group and other national companies before turning to teaching, and from 1976 was an influential professor at the Guildhall School of Music.

Noelle Barker was born in Aberdeen and intended to be a scientist, but after graduating from the University in her home city she turned to singing. She studied at Dartington Hall with Imogen Holst who, she wrote, “remains the measuring stick of my musical life and the invisible guide for my daily work ... She taught me so much without my ever realising I was learning anything.”

After Dartington, she studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory and with Hans Hotter in Munich and with Vera Rózsa in London. Her career began modestly as the Turk’s daughter in Joan Sharp’s ballad opera Lord Bateman with the New Opera Workshop at St Pancras Town Hall in 1958. In 1960 at the first concert of the newly formed Park Lane Group she sang Tippett’s Heart’s Assurance and Schoenberg’s Buch der hängenden Gärten. The next year came works by Egon Wellesz and six settings from Dylan Thomas’s Vision and Prayer by Riccardo Malipiero.

When Bryan Fairfax gave the first performance, 40 years after it was written, of Havergal Brian’s mighty Gothic Symphony at the Central Hall, Westminster in 1961, Barker was the soprano soloist. In 1962 in the Macnaghten concerts series, she and Colin Kingsley presented an ambitious recital including Roberto Gerhard’s L’Infantament meravellos de Scharazada and song cycles by Arnold Cooke and Nicos Skalkottas.

She also sang early English songs, and Purcell and Bach featured high in her concerts; when John Eliot Gardiner conducted Monteverdi’s Vespers at Cambridge with the King’s College Musical Society in March 1964, she Barker was one of two sopranos in a well-chosen team of soloists.

The last concert in the Park Lane Group’s 1963-64 season consisted of Boulez and Messiaen with Robert Sherlaw Johnson and led to the acclaimed recording by them of Messiaen’s song cycles. After a performance of Harawi in 1978, a critic commented that “she is able to achieve all the colour effects and variations of vocal timbre that are demanded”.

She gave the broadcast premiere of Birtwistle’s Ring a Dumb Carillon, a Christopher Logue poem, for soprano, clarinet and percussion, and for the ICA in 1965. Among the works composed by her recital partner Sherlaw Johnson, she sang Liturgia Redemptionis Nostrae for soprano and nine instruments.

She was Tekla in John Joubert’s opera Under Western Eyes (from Joseph Conrad) in 1969; Birtwistle’s Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments in 1971, and in 1973 Kurt Weill’s 1924 Frauentanz at the Purcell Room. There were also Charles Ives songs and Pierrot Lunaire, and Purcell, Bruckner, Fauré, Mozart. Ensembles with whom she worked include Spectrum, Dreamtiger, the London Sinfonietta and the Nash Ensemble. From 1976-88 she was head of vocal studies at the Guildhall, sometimes directing the Guildhall New Music Ensemble. Her warmth and generosity are mentioned again and again by those who came into contact with her.

Noël Camilla Berners Barker (Noelle Barker), singer and teacher: born Aberdeen 28 December 1928; OBE 1985; married 1961 Christopher Peake (three children); died London 15 May 2013.