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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

Circa £45,000-£50,000 + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ac...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor