Dame Janet Baker talks to Alan Blyth (Gramophone, October 1967)
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Intelligence, joie-de-vivre, humility, friendliness – one’s impressions on meeting Janet Baker are as manifold as the musical gifts evident in her singing. No wonder a New York audience recently greeted her as it will only greet a great artist. ‘It touched me deeply’, she says. ‘It’s wonderful that people who are as sophisticated as New Yorkers can welcome you in such a wholehearted way. When my recital was over they wanted to show how they appreciated my work by practically possessing me as a person. In fact the stage became just like a reception room. If they do go overboard for you there it’s really like nothing else’. Explanation enough why she will be lost to us for half of the next twelve months on an American then an Australian tour.
However, that kind of success has not been gained overnight; it is the product of sound training, hard work, a touch of genius perhaps, and more recently, as she readily admits, the backing of ‘the wonderful EMI organisation’. However, it was once touch and go whether Janet would pursue a musical career. ‘As a child I was determined to do something in life, but in those days the spoken word meant as much to me as the music I sang in local choirs – a high soprano until my voice changed to contralto. One day my father said I had to make up my mind whether I was to take up music seriously. Well I didn’t need much pushing. But I decided I would have to make a success of it within a short space of time, or else give it up.
‘Anyway, I went to London in 1953 and straight to Helene Isepp, who has been my singing teacher ever since. I had been in a bank up North and they luckily were able to transfer me to their London branch. For six months I worked by day and studied by night until I realised I would have to cut loose, give up security – including a room at the bank hostel – and start a singing career in earnest. I managed to get a part-time job, three days a week, at Morley College, which paid the rent and helped me to meet an interesting circle of people connected with music, while studying the rest of the time.
‘When my technique was settled, I took a place in the Ambrosian Singers on Heather Harper’s advice. That was in 1955. It was a marvellous experience because I really learnt how to listen to everyone else, so that now, with an orchestra, I can really hear what individual instruments are doing. In 1956, I won the Ferrier award – lots of publicity – and then took part in Lotte Lehmann’s masterclasses at the Wigmore Hall. Emmie Tillett spotted me and put me on her books’.
Janet’s career since then has been a steady progress to national and now international fame. I asked her to whom she owed most. ‘Helene Isepp undoubtedly – she taught me my technique and how to sing Lieder. But I also learnt a lot from Meriel St. Clair. I went to her on Helene Isepp’s recommendation, and she made words, and therefore singing, valid and significant for me. Through these two teachers I have had the pick of two worlds.
‘Since then, everyone I have come into contact with has had some bearing on my development. Every conductor, pianist and orchestra I have worked with has given me something. Other singers too, but I feel I must approach a piece from my own standpoint. Obviously, if I follow the score there will be similarities with artists of the past.
‘Perhaps most influential of all – at any rate in retrospect – was all the music, the chanting, I heard in York Minster and local churches when I was a child. The treatment in the high Church of England services of the psalms, I now realise, is a heritage I’m most grateful for. I think it is in many ways, the purest style of singing – it teaches you legato above everything’.
Today she has perhaps a more varied repertoire than any other singer with the exception of Fischer-Dieskau (whom she admires deeply), and she is very conscious that it would be foolish to attempt the heavy repertoire that is outside her range. She also realises the disadvantages as well as the advantages of not being attached to a regular opera company, and she is very anxious to continue singing in opera for at least two or three months a year – in Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel – ‘wonderful florid roles’ – Gluck, Mozart, Rossini and modern composers, especially Britten. ‘I was particularly pleased to play Dorabella in Scottish Opera’s Cosi this year as it proved that I can play comedy’.
We can expect a steady stream of recordings as EMI seem disposed to let her do what she wants – within practical and commercial limits. The day I met her she was busy cutting Kindertotenlieder to be backed by Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (with the Hallé and Barbirolli). Then she wants to do a disc of Handel arias, probably including the cantata Lucrezia (which she sang magnificently in the series of opening concerts at the Purcell Room), another of French song, then possibly some Lieder.
‘I love the studio – singing into a microphone’, she said. ‘Broadcasting and making records have never presented any problem to me from the point of view of missing an audience. But I have come to realise the difficulties involved in achieving first-class results. It is not easy to capture sound – that is to convey the beauty and the clarity of a voice. If you are not very careful something that isn’t really alive will come out of the loudspeaker – the edge will be taken off an interpretation. I find now that I must slightly exaggerate dynamic and expression so that the result doesn’t sound ‘dead’. When I listen to a playback in the studio, I am too involved to really distinguish things so that when I hear the finished product months afterwards I’m often furious at what I’ve let pass by. Still, it’s a very exciting medium – even if one is sometimes dissatisfied with the end-product’. She likes to work with a variety of accompanists. ‘Martin Isepp and I have grown up together musically, but he thinks I’m quite justified in working with other pianists. In this way, I can approach the music from a different point of view – especially Lieder. For instance, it has been very helpful for me to sing Frauenliebe und -leben with different accompanists – and I hope that my interpretation has gained something from them all. Then, sometimes it’s good to have a specialist. If I did a Handel record, for instance, I would love to work with Raymond Leppard’.
This insatiable desire to learn all the time is reflected in her spare time activities. She is a voracious reader. ‘I am not popular with my family because, whenever I can break off from practising or answering my mail, I always start reading. I wasted my time at school and now I want to make up for it. I would even go as far as to say that I could live without music but not without books. Away from home, reading is an ideal form of escapism, and with a book it’s no hardship for me to be alone’.
At the moment she is in the middle of Jung’s collected works. ‘He has already taught me a deeper understanding of myself and other people, and of my work as an artist. He has also made me aware that I live in a particular time and that the whole ethos and atmosphere of that time makes me what I am.
‘This has helped me to understand and appreciate other arts – and the music being written today. I don’t attempt to sing it very often because I haven’t got perfect pitch. I hear classical sounds in my head and I don’t hear today’s music well enough to be able to reproduce it. However, I do feel it’s my duty to try to understand and perform the work of as many modern composers as I can’.
She would love to teach. ‘But I don’t want to do it intermittently. A good teacher must be a regular one and at present I haven’t the time to give students my full attention. Still, the masterclasses I held recently in Swansea were a fabulous experience for me – it was wonderful to hear the students actually putting into practice what I had told them’.
Janet Baker has been married for ten years to a businessman. As an experiment, he is taking off the coming year to be with his wife during her tours abroad. ‘What’s the use,’ she said, ‘of spending half our time separated if we don’t need to. Still, I know it’s difficult for a man to be a hanger-on. All I can say is that my husband is unselfish enough to realise how it will help me to have him with me all the time. I know I shall be the gainer in every way’.