John Steane, or JBS as he was known to many generations of Gramophone readers, died yesterday: he was 83. One of the most respected writers on the voice in the English language, JBS started writing for Gramophone in 1972. His entry into Gramophone's pages was at the suggestion of the celebrated record producer, Walter Legge, a great admirer of JBS's judgement and ability to characterise individual singer's vocal qualities. Very soon JBS was contributing a quarterly second-opinion column, ‘Quarterly Retrospect’, subtitled the ‘Gramophone and the Voice’, where he would offer his beautifully judged, invariably generous and always elegantly crafted thoughts about the vocal art on disc.
A mine of information and knowledge on singers of the 20th century, JBS was an inveterate member of the audience of thousands of opera performances and song recitals and there were few singers of the past 60 years that he hadn’t heard in the flesh – and his thoughts on the great vocalists were gathered together in his now-classic 1974 book The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record, 1900-1970. Further books followed including Voices, Singers and Critics (1992), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Career on Record (with Alan Sanders: 1995), and the three-volume Singers of the Century (1996-2000) and most recently a privately-published memoir (2010). Other publications to which he contributed included Opera, Opera Now, Classical Record Collector, The Musical Times and Grove. He was also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3's 'CD Review' (and its various earlier incarnations) as well as broadcasting about singing for Radios 3 and 4.
For his entire working life JBS taught English at Merchant Taylors’ School in Northwood, a convenient location from which to descend on the musical venues of the capital and make it back on the last Metropolitan tube out of London. His other passion was for the plays of Christopher Marlowe and he wrote a critical study of the dramas in 1964, as well as an introduction to the Penguin collection of Marlowe's plays.
John was a delight to work with: his copy – until recently typed out by hand and then ‘polished’ with fountain-pen emendations – was always glowing with wisdom and with characteristically perceptive comment. And it was never late! His wicked sense of humour was a joy and his slightly wheezy laugh infectious in the extreme (I can hear it clearly in my mind as I type!).
If there was one singer from the pantheon of great vocalists that JBS could be persuaded to name his favourite, it was the tenor Giovanni Martinelli, a signed photograph of whom adorned the wall of his dining-room at his house in Coventry.
It was an honour and a rare privilege to work with JBS, and Gramophone's pages were enriched beyond measure for nearly four decades by his quiet wisdom and unique style.
John Steane's final article for Gramophone - a defence of the 1957 recording of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, featuring Maria Callas, Luigi Alva and Tito Gobbi, in The Trial feature, will appear in the May edition of the magazine.