Richard Lewis, Lyric Tenor
*Recording courtesy of the Richard Lewis Trust
Richard Lewis was, quite simply, one of the finest lyric tenors Great Britain has ever produced. His wanderings, at the behest of music, took him all over the world and like Nanki-Poo in the Mikado, a role he played often, Lewis was infinitely versatile. Richard Lewis was born in Manchester on 10 May 1914. His parents, however, were Welsh, and it was only his father’s quest for work during the depression that took him out of his natural element. Being a Welsh family there was music in the home and in the Methodist Chapel. It soon became clear that the boy had a natural gift for music and an exceptional voice. He began to enter local competitions winning cups and medals and established himself as a boy soprano of outstanding quality. He was widely regarded as the North’s answer to Ernest Lough, whose 1927 recording of Mendelssohn’s Hear my prayer had firmly established itself among the best sellers of all time. Alas, there are no recordings of Richard Lewis’s unbroken voice to test the comparison. An invitation to record for the BBC was thwarted by an untimely cold and came to nothing. Then his voice broke and was lost for ever. And even if an early disc had survived, the chances are that few of its admirers would connect it with Richard Lewis, for in those days he was known by the name on his birth certificate: Thomas Thomas.
Richard Lewis’s journey into professional music making was by no means plain sailing. He left school at 15 and it was to be nearly ten years before he could embark on any systematic training. In the meantime he studied music intensely under the guidance of T. W. Evans and he found work in a cotton fabric factory. He started as a office boy but later put his artistic skill to good use as a designer. Indeed, there were times when he seriously thought of art and design as a career. In his spare moments it was always to painting that he turned for recreation. Of course it was music that won and when at last the chance came to further his studies it was to the Royal Manchester College of Music that he was sent. His singing teacher was the bass-baritone Norman Allin, then at the height of his very considerable powers. It was Allin who eventually advised a change of name. No one, he declared, would take Thomas Thomas seriously. It sounded too much like a comic Welsh stereotype. So one Thomas made way for his mother’s maiden name, while the other was dropped in tribute to his favorite tenor Richard Tauber. Thus Richard Lewis was born.
Lewis’ s studies had to be broken off. War had been declared, and although his natural instincts were for pacifism it was obvious that in the case of Adolf Hitler an exception had to be made. Lewis volunteered for service and was drafted in the Royal Corps of Signals as the Army had decided that musicians stood a better chance than most of mastering the intricate rhythms of the Morse Code.
In fact Lewis’s army career proved to be less of an interruption that it might have been. Once it was discovered he had a voice opportunities were made for him to sing, especially when the Allies began to liberate Europe. Smart in his army uniform, he began to fulfill engagements in Belgium, Norway and Denmark, and thus, at the Army’s expense, continued to learn his trade. It was through one of these engagements that Benjamin Britten first heard of Richard Lewis and determined that, when the time came, he would make good use of Lewis’s services.
On being demobbed Richard Lewis resumed his studies, this time at the Royal Academy of Music in London. But he was by now a seasoned singer. He was, after all, in his early thirties. He was beginning to be in demand and, up to a point, could name his price. It says much for his determination to consolidate his musical knowledge that he was able to combine duties as a student with opportunities as a young professional.
What really put Lewis on the map and swung him into full time professionalism was a performance in Brighton of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings. This occurred early in 1947. Britten was so delighted that he engaged Lewis to sing the part of the Male Chorus in the revised version of the Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne. He thus joined the English Opera Group and in November found himself singing Peter Grimes at Covent Garden. By the end of the year he was famous.
Richard Lewis proved to be an outstanding interpreter of Britten’s music, but his relations with the composer were not always comfortable. Britten was torn between his desire to exploit a superb voice and his fear that it might overshadow that of his friend Peter Pears. In fact the two voices were so different that competition scarcely came into the equation. However Britten was uneasy and showed his ambivalence by rehearsing Lewis only with the greatest reluctance. “I’ve still not had any rehearsals with Ben” complained the bewildered singer as he prepared The Rape of Lucretia. “I don’t understand- can’t he find the time?” But with or without the composer’s advice, Richard Lewis became closely associated with Britten’s music.
The career that followed Richard Lewis’s Benjamin Britten year, if we may think of 1947 in those terms, was remarkable for its breadth and diversity. Here was a singer who could move effortlessly from the lightest of music to the most serious, from intimate recital to operatic stage, from great classics to untested music of his contemporaries. He would shine in Mozart and Monteverdi and then go on to create leading roles inWalton’s Troilus and Cressida and Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage and King Priam. He could bring tears to the eyes as Elgar’s Gerontius as easily as he could rivet your attention as Aaron in the first British performances of Schoenberg’s operatic masterpiece. Whether he was called upon to be Pinkerton or Tom Rakewell, he was utterly convincing.
It is not generally known that Richard Lewis had originally been selected to join Kathleen Ferrier in Bruno Walter’s famous 1952 recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. This was an opportunity Lewis had to pass up because of other commitments.
Glyndebourne audiences in the 1950s and 60s had particular reason to be grateful to Richard Lewis. In Mozart Lewis was to be heard as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, as Don Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte and perhaps most remarkable of all as Idomeneo, King of Crete. It was this last role that he made especially his own.
Here we are celebrating the career of no ordinary tenor. Apart from the sheer gutsiness and uninhibited virility of his singing, what shines through again and again in his performances, is the intelligence and integrity behind them. Small wonder that British composers turned to him to launch their latest works. Two operatic firsts are especially famous. On 3rd December 1954 he created the part of Troilus in Sir William Walton’s only full length opera. Then scarcely two months later Lewis went on to create the part of Mark in Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage. What that says for his powers of concentration and assimilation need hardly be stressed. He was, in fact, a remarkably quick learner and was blessed with a photographic memory. Tales of his learning feats abound as in his first encounter with Sir Malcolm Sargent, for whom he was to work happily for over twenty years. Sargent needed a last minute replacement tenor for a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemenis. Lewis agreed to help out, but did not mention that he had never sung the part. He simply knew he would be able to learn it on the train journey from London to Liverpool.
So much for Richard Lewis’s career in Great Britain, but it should never be forgotten that he was equally in demand abroad and especially popular in America. Indeed, so often was he required to sing in both North and South America that from 1966 to 1972 he found it more convenient to live in Bermuda, half way, so to speak, between the two Americas. This coincided with the early days of his second marriage. The first had been to pianist Mary Lingard with whom he remained friends. His second wife, the soprano Elizabeth Muir, had worked with him at Glyndebourne and their wedding in the summer of 1963 had been especially memorable for its music thanks to their Glyndebourne friends. Richard went on to sing Fidelio that same evening, leaving Elizabeth to wonder if the audience had noticed that the chorus of prisoners seemed rather more cheerful than usual!
Back in England Lewis’s career continued to prosper although it is strange that none of the London colleges thought fit to offer him a teaching appointment. As an intensely thoughtful musician, he would have had so much of value to pass on to young students. For one reason or another a magnificent opportunity was lost. His recordings , on the other hand, remain as a permanent inspiration.
Richard Lewis gave his last Gerontius in 1983. The following year he suffered a stroke and his career, to all intents and purposes, came to an end. He lived on, cared for by Elizabeth, until the winter of 1990.
Which of Richard Lewis’s recordings should we choose as his testament? Luigi Nono perhaps whose Sul Ponte del Hiroshima he sang at the 1963 Henry Wood Promenade Concerts? He sang it brilliantly, but hated the experience. Maybe the aria Onaway awake beloved from Coleridge-Taylor’s Haiwatha trilogy which caused Isabel Baillie to ring up in the greatest excitement to congratulate him on “the most beautiful singing ever.” Or perhaps his Stockholm broadcast of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, which he made in November 1958; or the cycle Essence of our Happinesses by Elizabeth Luytens which he premiered in September 1970? Any of them would do, for Richard Lewis gave a total commitment to whatever music he was called upon to serve. But I prefer to recall Richard in a complete rarity, Berthold Goldschmidt’s Mediterranean Songs which he broadcast the first performance in Britain from the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in 1959. Michael Hurd © 1995.
Since Michael Hurd wrote this note for us back in 1995 ( this release has had a long gestation) we have added a recording of a recitative, aria and arietta from Handel’s last oratorio Jephtha. Richard Lewis was always in demand as an oratorio singer. Such engagements might have been seen as mere bread and butter to many singers, but here Lewis put just as much thought and effort into the music as he did in the opera house or in a recital. The short, only 18 bars long, larghetto For ever blessed is an exquisite example of Richard Lewis’s art.
Elizabeth Muir - Lewis, Richard Lewis’ widow, has recently provided some illuminating commentary on her late husband’s relationship with Benjamin Britten and in particular preparations for his performance of The Rape of Lucretia. Britten had heard about Richard from an agent who had worked with him during the war and called him to an audition at the Wigmore Hall together with Sir David Webster and Rudi Bing. But when it came to rehearsing the Rape, Britten never worked with Lewis because as Eric Crozier subsequently told him, “Ben knows your top notes are better than Peter’s; he won’t listen Richard”. © 2010 Michael Hodges