Thursday April 25 2019
Soprano Heather Harper holds a significant place in the history of Britten’s music. Perhaps best known for accepting at short notice in 1962 the part in War Requiem that was originally written for Galina Visnevskaya, she maintained from then on a lengthy association with the composer, with Aldeburgh and also with the Britten–Pears School.
The Belfast-born singer initially studied piano, violin and viola at the Trinity College of Music, London. She was later awarded a scholarship to study singing, and eventually came under the mentorship of Helene Isepp whose influence prepared her for a professional career that encompassed many of the major operatic soprano roles. She performed on both stage in the major houses in San Francisco, Bayreuth, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires and Glyndebourne as well as on television. She developed not only as a singer but equally well as an actor, taking the role of Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Covent Garden in 1962.
Her professionalism and her musicianship were important to the composer, and perhaps never more so than when she sang the soprano part in his recently-completed War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. The Soviet Ministry of Culture’s decision to prevent Vishnevskaya from participating in the performance is now well-known and with only ten days’ notice Harper became one of the three soloists. Those who attended the premiere recall her singing confidently and with an expression and lyricism essential to this most poignant of works. The Times praised her voice as one that ‘rang out grandly,’ and Desmond Shaw-Taylor, writing in the Sunday Times, pronounced ‘I have never heard Heather Harper’s soprano sound so pure and so radiant.’
Another Britten role closely associated with her is that of Mrs Coyle, the wife of Owen Wingrave’s tutor (sung by bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk), in the 1971 BBC television opera. She brought an understanding to Owen’s plight which convinced the audience that she was one of the few characters in the opera to show him any degree of sympathy. She came to Aldeburgh to rehearse in The Red House and took part in the filming at the Maltings, under the direction of Britten and Steuart Bedford, in November 1970. Owen Wingrave was a highly important project for the composer, an opportunity to voice his anti-war beliefs to a universal audience. Given her connections with Britten’s other great pacifist statement it was perhaps appropriate that she featured in a work that Myfanwy Piper (Wingrave’s librettist) described as Britten’s ‘personal coda’ to War Requiem.
On a lighter note, she played a spirited Lucy Lockit in a 1963 BBC television recording of Britten’s realisation of The Beggar’s Opera, singing with other English Opera Group ‘regulars’ such as Bernard Dickerson, Bryan Drake and Janet Baker. In 1969 she appeared in the legendary film version of Peter Grimes, again made by the BBC, in the role of Ellen Orford. It was a landmark production: the first opera to be filmed in what was still a new Snape Maltings Concert Hall, under Britten’s musical direction. She established a perfect onscreen partnership with Peter Pears, the original Grimes, with whom she played out the tortured relationship of Ellen and Peter with great dramatic conviction.
Heather Harper was a frequent performer at the Aldeburgh Festival, appearing in numerous concerts from the 1950s to the 1980s. She was among the cast of Mozart’s Idomeneo, a production re-housed at Blythburgh after the Maltings was destroyed by fire in June 1969 (she was also in the film version of the same production broadcast by the BBC in 1970).
Britten was also a staple of her recording repertoire which included Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1966), the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia (1970) and Mrs Coyle (1970)—all Decca recordings made with Britten. Harper sang under Britten’s direction in the recording of his, Pears and Imogen Holst’s edition of Bach’s St. John Passion (1971). She also gave the first Aldeburgh Festival concert performances of Britten’s revised operetta Paul Bunyan in 1974, and the Quatre Chansons Françaises, an extraordinary piece of juvenilia, in 1980.
Her legacy to Aldeburgh is also recorded in the work she did as a teacher at the Britten–Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. With colleagues such as Pears, Nancy Evans, John Shirley-Quirk and Rae Woodland she was able to pass on her experience and knowledge to another generation of singers.
War Requiem is, perhaps, her lasting legacy. Although Vishnevskaya had been prevented from performing in the premiere, she recorded the work with Britten in January 1963. In 1991, nearly three decades after she introduced this music to the world, Harper sang the part in a superb recording under the guidance of Richard Hickox. Visitors to The Red House are also able to witness in our permanent exhibition a few minutes from a film of Harper in a 1964 Proms performance of this piece (with Britten conducting). The excerpt features her strong, beautiful soprano voice soaring above orchestra, choir, boy’s chorus and fellow soloists in the final moments, singing, fittingly as we pay tribute to her, æternam habeas requiem.