Wednesday July 24 2019
In June the Archive was delighted to receive the papers of contralto Norma Procter (1928-2017). This adds yet another collection to those already held of singers, librettists and producers who worked with Britten and Pears; illustrating that our archive is not just about Britten and Pears but about a network of collaborating creators and performers. The papers are currently being catalogued; building on our recent work cataloguing the papers of a number of other significant female collaborators – those of Imogen Holst, Nancy Evans and Joan Cross.
Procter’s papers cover all aspects of her successful singing career and contain a variety of materials – including programmes, photographs, diaries, correspondence, press cuttings, annotated scores, vinyl records and reel-to-reel tapes.
Born in Cleethorpes, Procter showed a gift for singing at an early age winning numerous competitive festivals in Lincolnshire. She drew inspiration from the American contralto Marian Anderson and especially from Kathleen Ferrier. Amongst Procter’s papers is an obituary of Anderson, cut from The Telegraph in April 1993, on which she has written ‘The first contralto to influence me – glorious voice – and then came beloved Kathleen’.
Procter idolised Ferrier. As a teenager, Procter heard Ferrier sing Handel’s Messiah with the Grimsby Philharmonic and asked for her autograph in her own copy of the work, a gift from her mother – this volume is now in the archive. At another Grimsby Central Hall concert, Procter asked about singing lessons and Ferrier wrote the name and address of her own teacher on the back of the envelope containing her fee – again Procter treasured this item for many years and it has found its way into our strong room. Procter wrote to teacher Roy Henderson in January 1947 requesting an audition and so her vocal training and professional career began. Procter later studied German Lieder with Hans Oppenheim, and then Paul Hamburger with whom she made many recordings for BBC Radio 3.
After her first year training with Henderson, Procter sang in the Glyndebourne Chorus for the 1948 and 1949 Edinburgh Festivals. She already knew in Edinburgh that opera would never be her first love but she found the work a good experience. There is a short draft autobiography deposited amongst her papers, written in the late 1990s for a book by John Ketteringham called Lincolnshire Women; in this she wrote ‘I often sat on a box in the wings listening and learning from the great singers at that time’.
Procter did however briefly return to opera finding two contralto roles that she loved. She sang Lucretia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia with the English Opera Group at the 1959 and 1960 Aldeburgh Festivals. She then made her London debut at the Royal Opera House in January 1961 as Gluck’s Orpheus. It had been 8 years since Covent Garden’s last production of the opera in which Ferrier gave her final performance – Procter followed in her footsteps. Amongst Procter’s papers a press review from the Yorkshire Post entitled ‘Debut that had a Ferrier memory’ reports that this ‘Difficult task … must be both a pleasure and a hardship to Miss Procter’ but that she received a ‘well-earned ovation’. Procter even wore the same costume that Ferrier had worn. Procter wrote that she loved the music but neither the production nor set of this opera; she was unhappy but it was Ferrrier’s ‘love and spirit within her robe which cheered and urged me onwards, but I vowed I would never walk the boards again and never did …..for me I came into this profession for the music, not production’.
Procter did indeed make her reputation mainly in the concert hall, with her oratorio and recital work, singing 27 times at the Albert Hall Promenade concerts. She made her London singing debut in Southwark Cathedral in October 1948 with Handel’s Messiah. ‘Gradually’ as Procter writes, ‘I became known and in demand all over the UK at all the leading Festivals with all the great British orchestras, choirs and wonderful conductors and the, even greater surprise, travelling throughout Europe which I loved so much. Out to Israel an amazing tour, and also South America’. She worked with, amongst many others, singers Jennifer Vyvyan, Heather Harper and Joan Sutherland, and conductors Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, Josef Krips, John Barbirolli, Rafael Kubelik, Malcolm Sargent and Arthur Bliss. Her photographs show her with these and other colleagues, and the programmes and press cuttings record details of the performances.
Procter was Britten and Pears’ contralto of choice after Ferrier’s death in October 1953. Procter gave many concerts and recitals with them, particularly in the late 1950s and early 60s when they toured in the UK and abroad. They often performed Messiah and Britten’s Spring Symphony and Canticle II Abraham and Issac – works which had been written for and premiered by Ferrier – as well as Britten’s arrangements of folk songs. Procter gave the first performance of Britten’s arrangement of Soldier, won’t you marry me? with Pears, and Britten at the piano, in Dusseldorf in March 1958.
Norma’s voice and interpretation was often compared to that of Ferrier. The press reviews in Procter’s papers are invariably highly complimentary of her rich, warm, strong voice. The review of a 1958 recital at Beverley Minster describes ‘The beauty of the voice, its even matching from note to note, and the ease which characterises the production’, that of a 1969 recital in Market Rasen a ‘cream-and-honey voice, with its dazzling range and quite startling power’, and of a performance of Dream of Gerontius at Norwich Cathedral ‘Miss Procter, with her true contralto timbre, poured forth a stream of beautiful tone’.
After Ferrier’s death Norma was chosen to do several recordings which has been planned for Ferrier – Messiah with Adrian Boult and Britten’s Canticle II with Pears, recorded in February 1957, but not released until 2001. She also sang with Vyvyan and Pears for the 1960 Decca recording of Spring Symphony with Britten conducting. Amongst her many recordings, she was particularly known and praised for those of Mahler – one of her ‘most loved composers’ – including the first complete version of Das Klagende Lied.
Once catalogued Procter’s papers will be available for readers and other interested persons to consult. Her papers complement the other collections held in our Archive and will undoubtedly prove of use to researchers.
Procter’s short autobiography is reproduced in full on The Friends of Cleethorpes Heritage website.