Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An Extraordinary Streak Through the Lives of Many: John Shirley-Quirk

I will begin with an excerpt from a recent obituary in The Telegraph:
John Shirley-Quirk, the bass-baritone, who has died aged 82, began his working life as a scientist and went on to become one of the most significant and prolific figures in Benjamin Britten’s circle at Aldeburgh ...

Wherever he went Shirley-Quirk was a distinctive, larger-than-life figure, who could hold an audience with the beauty of his phrasing and clarity of tone. “A singer needs to be three-dimensional, not simply a walking voice,” was one of his favourite maxims, and one he invariably applied to himself.
Britain's "least boring music critic" Michael White described meeting John Shirley-Quirk two years ago:
I’d only ever seen him from a distance on a platform, or on record sleeves, and not for decades. Back then, he was conspicuous for an extraordinary streak of white hair, badger-like, that ran back from his forehead through an otherwise quite thick black mane. And now that streak was gone, because the whole head had turned white.

I was thrilled to meet him on that afternoon, he’d been a hero to me for so long. And while meeting heroes can be disappointing, in his case it wasn’t. He was charming, thoughtful, modest, fascinating; happy to be back in England with a third wife, having had two previous marriages cut short by death.
Prior to his return to England, Shirley-Quirk spent several decades teaching at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland. His hair was all white during the time I studied there, and, more notably, he was on a wish list of teachers I especially hoped to learn something from. Since he taught voice and I played clarinet, I wasn't sure I would have such an opportunity. Fortunately, a soprano who studied with him asked me to perform Franz Schubert's "The Shepherd on the Rock" with her, and she invited me and a pianist to join her for a coaching during one of her lessons. That hour proved to be another example of how great musicians can transcend any particular instrument.

Again, thank you.

His impact beyond me at Peabody was made all the clearer from the many recent posts and comments I saw written by friends who studied there. In a private post he has allowed me to share here, pianist Michael Sheppard introduced a video with these words:
One of my very favorite songs, sung incredibly beautifully by one of my favorite teachers at Peabody, John Shirley-Quirk, who passed away today. I had the incredible good fortune of accompanying many of his students over the years, and learned so much of value about music and about collaborating with vocalists. This man was a true musician, who cared deeply about composers' intentions (he worked closely with Benjamin Britten for many years) but who was also not above exhorting his students to "SING, dammit, just SING!" And what a glorious example of both this video is. You'd never guess that the man I caught napping many times on that ratty old couch he kept in his studio was someone of such stature, because he never put on airs, and his artistry was just of that sort, too; not at all without subtlety, but just so perfectly direct and truthful. RIP, JSQ...may your ripples be felt for many more noons, silent or not.
I will end with the video shared by Michael and other friends--a performance by John Shirley-Quirk and pianist Martin Isepp of "Silent Noon" by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, based on a sonnet by English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The original sonnet "Silent Noon" by Rossetti:
Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,—
  The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
  Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
  Are golden kingcup fields with silver edge
  Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fiy
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:—
  So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
  When twofold silence was the song of love.

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