Gwen Catley was once known in Britain as the "highest voice in the land". Standing only 4'11" tall, she had a high and accurate coloratura voice, with often a very lovely poise of delivery. She was a natural. She came from a family of serious musical amateurs, and as a child always sang around the house. At two and a half, she joined in a concert performance of Oh! For the Wings of a Dove.
She received no teaching until she began attending the Guildhall at the age of sixteen for twenty-minute lessons on a Saturday morning. She first worked on the Air du Rossignol by Saint-Saëns. Her professor took her to the Principal Sir Landon Ronald (who had been accompanist to Patti and Melba). Sir Landon said "she reminds me of Melba – bring her back in a year's time."
At that time a Gold Medal was awarded every year to the student who was thought would make an impression in the profession. Catley was to get the Medal, but her father argued with Ronald, saying he wouldn't have any daughter of his enter such a profession. So the Medal was withdrawn.
A year later she became engaged. On telling the good news to Landon Ronald, he asked, "to whom?" She replied, "a cellist". He said, "Oh, they never have any money – you'll have to sing. You'd better have the Gold Medal after all". Sir Landon Ronald then sponsored her debut at the Wigmore Hall, which had to open its gallery to accommodate the crowd. Her first half was a mixture of early Italian, French and German songs, and the second half consisted of operatic arias. She received work in musicals, the radio and Sadler's Wells Opera, where she was to be a Queen of the Night, Nanetta and Gilda. At the time of singing Gilda, she weighed a mere 6 stone 5 lbs.
During the war, she was on the stage in London a good deal, and appeared on such radio shows as the Richard Tauber Hour and Friday Night is Seaside Night. She was requested to appear on Children's Hour. Sir Walford Davies (then Master of the King's Musick) was one of its organisers and, dispensing with small talk, he greeted her with "I hear you haven't got a wobble!"
Her voice was not large, but in the right circumstances she could be heard to good effect in the theatre. She was a good judge of these circumstances. She reported turning down Queen of the Night at Covent Garden on the grounds that in their productions the Queen would in all likelihood be two-thirds of the way towards the back of the stage. She did however try to get into Glyndebourne. Her agents Ibbs & Tillett sent her there to audition. She got as far as the Chorus Master, who said, "If you come for some singing lessons with me, I might get you into the chorus."
She did not enjoy oratorio particularly, and said she simply did not like the Messiah aria "I know that my redeemer liveth". She chose her radio work with some care too. In the interval of a Proms performance of hers in 1947, Kenneth Horne came to her on bended knee. He asked her to perform in his radio show Much Binding in the Marsh. She took a singing part as the "vet's niece", but left after six shows, as the music and scripts arrived only on the day, and she did not feel it was for her voice.
Much of her radio, and then TV, work was conducted by one or other of the Robinson brothers. Eric Robinson conducted an opening programme on TV with Margot Fonteyn dancing, Campoli playing the violin, and Norman Wisdom and her singing.
Stanford Robinson, a pillar at the BBC for 47 years, conducted many of her recordings. He was known for being cruel to some singers. "What are you trying to do there?" he asked as she did a downward portamento of an octave. "I'm not trying to do anything," she replied, "this is what I am doing."
In her concerts around the country, people always asked for Bishop's Lo! Here the Gentle Lark. This of course required a flautist, whom the local organisers would have to find. Far too often, she said, all you would hear from the flautist was "spit & blow". Her repertoire did include some more modern opera, and she took part in the first British broadcast of Stravinsky's Rake's Progress.
She suddenly retired when she said her voice no longer sounded right to her. She went to Italy for twenty years. When back in England, she began to teach. She taught Judi Dench to sing in Cabaret, after "going down and down to find the right key".
Gwen Catley's comments on present-day singers in 1995 (when she was 85 years old) were: "Today I don't hear the words, neither their ends nor their beginnings".These notes were written with the help of a radio interview in 1995 when Catley was 88.
Catley has left us a number of records of charm, purity and fine coloratura technique. One of the most beguiling is her account of "Echo, viens sur l'air embaumé", Catherine's ballade in Bizet's La Jolie Fille de Perth, which she sings in inimitable English.
The ballad starts with four bars of ornaments just to "Ah!", marked alternately forte and piano, pitched at the top of the stave, and culminating in a top C. The voice begins with a heavenly but instrumental beauty, as Catley articulates all the notes cleanly, but within the context of a lovely legato musical line. Just as with our McCormack example, the voice is poised and relaxed, and the feeling is of spontaneity of expression. Then a trill on the G and two beautifully articulated notes to make a quick turn out of F and G (she does these two little grace notes marcato, and in no way loses her musical line) and lands cleanly and effortlessly on a top C.
Then when Catley starts the ballad proper, we realise she has just as winning a way with words and a tune at normal register, as she does with coloratura. She has the same liquid diction as McCormack. The lightly voiced consonants never interfere with the basic flow, and she has the same ability to carry all the phrases along without effort. We catch every word.
Catley then makes each of the rising phrases of the ballad, and the intervals within them, sound so beguiling and easy. By the fourth and fifth phrase she is incorporating a top A within the line with complete accuracy and ease, and on "calling from above" she touches not only the A but also the top C as if it is a perfectly natural part of the tune. Then, keeping to the score all the way, she does a quick downwards portamento of two octaves to restart the main tune – heavenly singing. The second verse gives her a set of divisions to sing – semiquaver triplets, demisemiquavers, long trills, & chromatic runs, over a range of two octaves and a fourth – while the orchestra has the tune. Checking against the score shows how accurately she manages these, whilst singing with ease and great variety of musical expression. She reiterates the main tune again slowly with beautiful taking of intervals and finishes on a poised and relaxed F in alt!
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