Obituary: Sir Keith Falkner
Friday 03 June 1994
KEITH FALKNER, the concert singer and recitalist whose extensive, warmly resonant bass-baritone voice and superb diction were much admired, particularly in the music of Bach, throughout Britain, on the Continent and in North America during the 1930s, was also highly successful as a teacher and administrator, working for the British Council in Italy, becoming Professor of Singing (a new post) at Cornell University, and later Director of the Royal College of Music, in London, where he had himself studied.
Born in Cambridgeshire, Keith Falkner was educated as a chorister at New College School, Oxford, during the period when Hugh Allen was organist at the college and the reputation of its choir was especially high. Falkner later went to Perse School, Cambridge, and on leaving school, as the First World War was still in progress, joined the Royal Naval Air Service. On demobilisation he decided to make music his career, and in 1920 he entered the Royal College of Music, where his old mentor Hugh Allen was now director. Falkner remained at the RCM for six years, while from 1923 to 1927 he was a member of the choir of St Paul's Cathedral. In 1924 he created the role of the Constable (father of Mary, the heroine) in Vaughan Williams's first opera, Hugh the Drover, which was given its premiere at the RCM in July that year.
Falkner also studied privately in London with Harry Plunket Greene, the Irish bass-baritone renowned for his beautiful enunciation of the English language when singing, a skill that he communicated and passed on to his pupil. He studied in Vienna, with Theo Lierhammer, and in Berlin with Grenzebach, gaining equal fluency in the German language.
Embarking on a successful career as a singer in London and all over Britain, Falkner made his first grand concert tour of the United States and Canada in 1931, returning there annually until the beginning of the Second World war. He sang twice (1935 and 1937) at the Cincinnati Music Festival, of which Eugene Goossens had become director in 1931, and several times at the Bach Festival held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He also gave concerts and recitals in the Netherlands, France, Austria and other European countries.
Though his repertory was wide, Falkner became particularly well known for his interpretation of the part of Christus in Bach's St Matthew Passion and for his singing of the bass arias in Bach's Mass in B Minor. He recorded the Matthew Passion complete under Serge Koussevitsky. Falkner was also a fine singer of early English music and his recording of madrigals by Giles Farnaby, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Morley, John Wilbye and Thomas Weelkes, with Isobel Baillie and other soloists, drew praise from Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor in The Record Guide: 'Keith Falkner in particular can he heard drawing a delightfully firm and delicate bass line.'
During the Second World War he served in the Royal Air Force, then in 1946 became director of the British Council in Rome, where he promoted the cause of British music with great success, while still active as a singer himself. In 1950 he was appointed the first Professor of Singing on the Music Faculty of Cornell University, a position he held for a decade. Returning to Britain in 1960, he succeeded Sir Ernest Bullock as director of the Royal College of Music, a post he held for 14 years.
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