Obituary: Jessye Norman

Sarah Kirkup Tue 1st October 2019

The great American soprano: born September 15, 1945 – died September 30, 2019

Jessye Norman (photo: DG)

Jessye Norman (photo: DG)

Jessye Norman has died in New York at the age of 74. The soprano was proud of her African-American heritage, while admitting that racism in classical music, and in society in general, was still prevalent. ‘It’s one thing to have a set of laws,’ she said, ‘and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer.’

Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, into a musical family; her mother played the piano, and her grandparents’ house had a harmonium, which Norman was allowed to play from a young age. She also sang regularly at church: ‘The training ground of my community was as crucial to my performance life as to my spiritual journey,’ she wrote in Stand Up Straight and Sing!, her 2014 memoir. ‘Music has always been an essential part of the African-American worship service.’

Having encountered opera on the radio and identified with the common narrative of ‘boy meets girl’, and also fallen in love with recordings starring Leontyne Price, specifically Porgy and Bess and Aida, Norman studied music at Howard University and then at the University of Michigan and the Peabody Institute. She first made a name for herself in 1968 when she won the top prize at the Munich International Competition. The following year, she made her operatic debut as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Norman subsequently made appearances at La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, and other major opera houses, including, eventually, the Met in 1983, singing Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens.

She was also a regular recitalist; in a review of an Avery Fisher Hall recital in 1992 in which she sang music by Tchaikovsky, Wolf and Bizet (although she was equally at home singing Baroque, spirituals and jazz), her voice was described in the New York Times as ‘a grand mansion of sound’. The reviewer, Edward Rothstein, went on to describe the astonishing range and versatility of this so-called ‘soprano’: ‘It is impossible to classify the voice by range and type … Each descriptive term is too limited, made for other, more constrained talents.’

Norman sang at the presidential inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and at the 60th birthday celebrations of Queen Elizabeth in 1986. Three years later, she sang La Marseillaise in Paris on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day, dressed in an eye-catching gown representing the Tricolore flag. She was also the recipient of numerous accolades, including five Grammy Awards and the Kennedy Center Honor (making her, at 52, the youngest to win the prize in its 20-year history).

Jessye Norman on the October 1985 cover of Gramophone

Jessye Norman on the October 1985 cover of Gramophone

When she was admitted into Gramophone’s Hall of Fame in 2014, Philip Kennicott praised her immense contribution to the recording industry: ‘By the time the CD burst on to the market and infused new vigour into the recording industry in the 1980s, Jessye Norman was more than ready,’ he wrote. ‘She had spent the 1970s doing the kind of work too many artists now eschew: learning obscure, difficult repertoire, early Verdi, unknown Haydn. The voice had darkened, grown full beyond measure. Then came an astonishing series of recordings and performances, of Berlioz, Strauss, Wagner, Mahler and Schoenberg. Her 1983 traversal of Strauss’s Four Last Songs won just about every accolade that mattered, including a Gramophone Award.’

That Four Last Songs recording with Kurt Masur and his Leipzig forces on Philips has remained in the hearts of all who encountered it; in his review of October 1983, Alan Blyth summed it up in his inimitable style: ‘Her generous heart, dignified manner and noble voice seem ideally suited to Strauss's valedictory utterances … Her breath seems almost endless at times, her tone refulgent and full so that I doubt if the Vier letzte Lieder have sounded so rich in texture since Flagstad.’

Five years later, Norman reunited with Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for Ariadne auf Naxos, Michael Kennedy writing in his review (11/88) that the singer ‘brings to the title-role opulence of tone, nobility of phrasing and Straussian richness’; in the same issue, meanwhile, Edward Seckerson, who attended the recording sessions in Leipzig, wrote of Norman (who he described as ‘the Prima Donna to her fingertips, resplendent in black and pearls’) that ‘no one would dispute that this particular Strauss role is hers by all but legal charter’.

Despite her extensive discography, which included roles as varied as Bizet’s Carmen and Beethoven’s Leonore (Fidelio), Norman’s perfectionism meant that Philips, the company for which she recorded the most, has a number of unissued, because unapproved, recordings in its archives including substantial ‘bleeding chunks’ from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (in which she sings Brangäne as well as Isolde) and another version of the Four Last Songs (with James Levine and the Berliner Philharmonic).

Norman was committed to helping those from non-privileged backgrounds experience music. The Jessye Norman School of the Arts opened in 2003 in Augusta to provide a free, fine arts education to disadvantaged children; the street on which it sits is due to be named Jessye Norman Boulevard on October 11.

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