Gone but not Forgotten is an occasional series featuring musicians from yesterday who deserve more attention today. In this installment, part 2 on the beloved Canadian soprano Lois Marshall.
In part one, we looked at Lois Marshall’s early days at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, her career break in New York and her first foray into European concert halls. It was there, in London in 1956, that the mischievous Sir Thomas Beecham had a little fun with Marshall at the end of her first performance for an English audience.
Beecham had hired Marshall to sing Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate. She got a great response from the crowd. What she didn’t know was that Beecham had engineered an encore of the fiendishly taxing aria, Martern aller Artern from the Abduction from the Seraglio. The music was tucked into all the players’ stands and it seems that the only person unaware of the encore plans was Marshall.
When Beecham called Marshall back to the stage to perform the aria – with absolutely no warning – Marshall was incredulous, asking if it was to be sung with or without cuts. “Without cuts” was the answer. Her professionalism and cool nerves saw her through the day in style.
Marshall’s composure was legendary, and she was also famous for being able to quickly memorize new music. Stuart Hamilton, a close collaborator in later years, related this anecdote by email to CBC Music:
“I remember working with her on the Shostakovich 14th Symphony. This was one of the last pieces she learned. We went through it a couple of times and at the next coaching, she had it from memory. She studied the Russian texts carefully and from what I understand, she was perfectly understood by the Russian speakers at the concert.”
Marshall was one of few Canadians to perform in the Soviet Union at that time. Glenn Gould had just done it, and Marshall followed with a recital at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1958 that was televised across the country. It was the first of six trips she made to the Soviet Union, visiting the major western cities of Moscow, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Kiev and Riga.
During intermission at Marshall's Moscow debut, audience members clambered to the few phones in the lobby to invite friends to hear this spectacular but unknown Canadian soprano. As a result, the hall filled up significantly after the break. The legendary pianist Sviatoslav Richter was in attendance, and when asked for his impression simply remarked, “miraculous”.
Among Marshall’s favourite records of her own work were two hard-to-obtain releases on Melodiya, the state record label of the U.S.S.R. Included in this set were selections from the Seven Spanish Popular Songs by Manuel de Falla.
Marshall never moved away from Canada during her career. Her roots were too deep here and she found abundant opportunities for broadcast work at the CBC, including this Oct. 15, 1962, performance of two songs for Gould’s television project called Glenn Gould on Strauss.
Marshall collaborated with contralto Maureen Forrester on more than 150 occasions, resulting in a deep musical compatibility on music ranging from Bach cantatas to the comical Cat Duet by Gioacchino Rossini.
Another fruitful partnership for Marshall was with the Austrian-born, Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti. Their live recordings of Schubert for CBC are an artistic high point.
[play audio Der Leirmann]
The song cycle, Winterreise, rarely performed by a female voice, is an account of tragic loss in love that certainly was an experience not foreign to Marshall by this time in her life.
Period of loss
In 1979, Marshall’s marriage to her one-time mentor, pianist and eventual husband, Weldon Kilburn, came to an end. They fell out of touch silently and abruptly, as if nothing had ever happened between them, despite their decades-long relationship that was so rich with history and experience.
Compounding that loss, Marshall began to detect failings in her instrument. By the beginning of the 1980s, it became clear to Marshall that her voice was no longer reliable and she decided to announce her retirement. In 1982, she made preparations for her farewell concert. Among the songs she included on her program was a lifelong favourite English folk song, Ae Fond Kiss, arranged by Healey Willan.
Lois Marshall, the voice teacher
Marshall took a limited number of students during her retirement. Canadian soprano Monica Whicher, whose own voice has something of the pure and unaffected vocal tone that Marshall was always known for, was one of her students. In an email sent to CBC Music, Whicher describes the totality of music making that Marshall brought to her lessons.
“It was utterly impossible for her to separate the music from the sound, so in finding musical solutions, one often found technical solutions," Whicher writes.
"She brought a truly awe-inspiring legacy of performing to the studio, and this, while initially overwhelming, became something which she shared simply and practically, with humour and kindness and opinion and empathy; her generosity knew no bounds; her love of music was true and so was her encouragement of yours.”
Modest, funny, generous and supremely talented; it’s no wonder Lois Marshall captured so many hearts during her career, and today remains a favourite singer among audiences in Canada and around the world. Marshall died in Toronto in 1997.
Much of the career details described in this blog were sourced from Lois Marshall-A Biography, written by James Neufeld and published by Dundurn Press in 2010.
Have you been touched by the artistry of Lois Marshall? Do you have a special Marshall memory to share? Let us know your thoughts in our comments section.
Gone but not Forgotten: Lois Marshall part 1
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