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Remembering Jessye Norman, Voice of a World-Weary Angel

The obituarists of Jessye Norman have said it all. And probably all of it is accurate. She had one of the greatest voices of any classical singer in the post-war epoch. She mastered an astonishing variety of repertoire from the 17th century (her Dido is one of the few who sounds like a Queen of Carthage) to the 20th. Whether in Purcell or in Poulenc, she excelled. She worked with many of the age’s leading conductors, from Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim to Sir Colin Davis and Sir Georg Solti. She possessed courage and class. In an industry which for the most part resembles nothing so much as Heathers with cultural pretensions, she had—as far as can be determined—not a single foe.

Even the anecdotes about her are eminently humane. Although some might have been fictions by a public relations agent, we can only hope that they are authentic. Did the majestically built Miss Norman really (as was famously alleged) rebuke the conductor who asked her to move sideways with the immortal words “Honey, I ain’t got no sideways”? She refused to countenance the tale. Her memoirs reveal so little that they make Clement Attlee’s look like Benvenuto Cellini’s. So we will probably never know whether the tale is true. But one feels by instinct that it should be true. (A similar tale is told about a far earlier diva, Ernestine Schumann-Heink.)

And did she really sing, as a Tel Aviv encore—in the presence of Ariel Sharon surrounded by his fellow peace-and-love avatars—the spiritual Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. Again, hard evidence is lacking, but the anecdote would be all wrong if its leading role had been credited to, say, Leontyne Price or Kathleen Battle. It needed the Jessye Norman Gestalt to convince: a Gestalt warm, loving, the reverse of explicitly hysterical, and with an occasional touch of mischief, yet matriarchal and queenly.

Wherein lay Jessye Norman’s supreme triumph? In her interpretations of Wagner? Of Berlioz? Of Schoenberg? Of Richard Strauss? Convincing cases could be made for each of these achievements. Permit this Common Musician (on the analogy of Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader) to suggest that her supreme triumph resided, rather, in her decision to leave off singing before conspicuous decline set in.

No expert in pianism can possibly dispute the eminence of Artur Schnabel and Alfred Cortot. No expert in opera can possibly dispute the eminence of Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano. But in retrospect, would these four outstanding musicians not inspire more consistently happy memories than they do if they had shown the prudence to retire with their techniques intact?

None of them did so. Each of them, as recordings demonstrate, retained till the end flashes of their former glory. Alas, in the age of beta-blockers and CD-enforced technical precision, flashes of former glory are not enough, cannot be enough, and are a wickedly inadequate substitute for being enough.

Jessye Norman concluded her public life in quietness: with dreadful ill-health; with almost no one in the wider world noticing; with less news coverage than Katy Perry would demand, and obtain, for a chipped fingernail. May all of us musicians—if and when it becomes obvious not merely to audiences but to colleagues that we are just getting too old, too nervous, and too technically inept to hack it any more—emulate her hard-won dignity. She sang with as much sublime effulgence at the end of her performing career as she did at the start of it.

It befalls many a musician to turn, almost insensibly, into King Lear. Once that happens, innumerable Regans and Gonerils in his entourage are what he always wants. But Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, and the Fool are what he always needs. Especially the Fool.

True confession time. I can never hear her recording of Ernest Chausson’s song cycle Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer and remain dry-eyed. It is hopeless for me even to attempt to hear it dry-eyed tonight, within 48 hours of the news about her passing.

If there could be such a creature as a world-weary angel, she surely would sing like this. RIP, Jessye Norman, 1945-2019. In Paradisum.

R.J. Stove is a TAC contributing editor who lives in Melbourne and was a regular church organist for more than a quarter of a century.

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