Episode 161. Janet Baker: Subject of the Queen

Episode 161. Janet Baker: Subject of the Queen



The world changed yesterday with the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whose subjects in the United Kingdom just this summer celebrated the 70th year of her reign. How do I, as a progressive (and non-British) person, neither a royalist nor an imperialist, commemorate her passing with the respect that she deserves? I found my answer, as I so often do in other of life’s conundrums, in the artistry of Janet Baker, who celebrated her 89th birthday on 17 August, and who, in her day was often known as “the English Rose.” There is something about Baker’s artistic personality: her nobility of utterance, her gravitas, her humanity, that made her a particularly striking interpreter of various queens in the operatic literature, from Alceste and Dido to Mary Stuart. And because, from the time of her Carnegie Hall debut in 1966 until her final appearance there in 1989, seven years after her official retirement from the operatic scene, she was a fixture of the New York concert scene, she also fits quite comfortably into the framework of this summer’s celebration of musical life in New York between the years 1950 and 1975. Her towering operatic performances of roles by Gluck, Donizetti, Berlioz, and Purcell, are balanced with her profoundly moving performances of music by Bach, Gurney, and Schubert. Queen Elizabeth II is further memorialized by an excerpt from the world premiere performance of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, composed for, and premiered six days after, her coronation in 1953.


Johann Sebastian Bach: Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (Aria, Cantata BWV 170). Janet Baker, Neville Marriner, Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields [1966]

Jennifer Vyvyan (L) and Joan Cross (R) in the original 1953 Covent Garden production of Gloriana

Benjamin Britten, William Plomer:  On rivalries ’tis safe for kings (Gloriana). Joan Cross, John Pritchard, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden [live London 08.VI.53]

Christoph Willibald Gluck, Louis de Rouillet (after Rainer de’ Calzabigi): Je n’ai jamais chéri la vie (Alceste). Janet Baker, Charles Mackerras, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden [live London 12.XII.81]

Hector Berlioz, Pierre-Ange Vieillard: Ah, qu’ils sont loin ces jours (La Mort de Cléopâtre). Janet Baker, Alexander Gibson, London Symphony Orchestra [1969]

Gaetano Donizetti, Giuseppe Barbari [after Friedrich Schiller], Tom Hammond [English translation]: You murmuring breezes… In the peace of my gloomy seclusion [O nube! che lieve per l’aria ti aggiri… Nella pace del mesto riposo – sung in English] (Maria Stuarda). Janet Baker, Angela Bostock, Charles Mackerras, Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera [live London IV.82]

Pauline Tinsley and Janet Baker in Mary Stuart, ENO 1973

Gaetano Donizetti, Giuseppe Barbari [after Friedrich Schiller; English text by Tom Hammond]: Dead to justice… How dare you speak of dishonour?… Go, prepare yourself for sentence [Morta al mondo… Figlia impura di Bolena… Va, preparati, furente – sung in English] (Maria Stuarda). Janet Baker, Pauline Tinsley, Keith Erwen, Don Garrard, Christian du Plessis, Audrey Gunn, Charles Mackerras, Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera [live London 13.XII.73]

Hector Berlioz (libretto after Virgil): Ah! Now must I die [Je vais mourir – sung in English] (Les Troyens). Janet Baker, Raymond Leppard, English Chamber Orchestra [BBC telecast, first aired 17.IX.72]

Franz Schubert, Matthäus von Collin: Nacht und Träume, D.827. Janet Baker, Paul Hamburger [BBC 03.X.65]

Ivor Gurney, John Fletcher: Sleep (Five Elizabethan Songs, No. 4). Janet Baker, Martin Isepp [1963]

Henry Purcell, Nahum Tate: Thy hand, Belinda… When I am laid in earth (Dido and Aeneas). Janet Baker, John Pritchard, London Philharmonic Orchestra [Glyndebourne 1966]

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