COOPER, J[ohn] Wilbye [COOPER, John] (b Pershore, Worcestershire 24 May 1824; d 20 Castellain Road, Maida Hill 19 March 1885).
Prominent for some fifteen years, amongst the most popular and frequently-heard English concert and oratorio tenors, Wilbye Cooper spent his career in the giant shadow of Sims Reeves, and, in spite of his achievements, his death at the age of sixty earned him merely a couple of sentences in the press as ‘a popular concert singer fifteen years ago’.
Brown and Stratton include him in their British Musical Biography, without any birth details remarking only: ‘sang at Leeds Festival (1858) and Worcester Festival (1863). In the concert room he was a favourite for a good many years’.
Cooper was born in Worcestershire: he always said that it was in the village of Pershore, yet he was christened a few months later in Worcester itself, and it was there that his parents, William Cooper, an iron foundry pattern maker, and his Herefordshire-born wife, Lucy née Pitt, were wed (3 August 1820), and where they would bring up their family.
That family can be seen in the 1841 census, living in Tallow Hill, in Worcester’s St Martin’s: William, Lucy, daughter Mary and the three singing Cooper sons, John (later ‘Wilbye’, 15), Matthew 12 and William (sometime ‘Viotti Cooper’, 7).
All three sons became church vocalists, Matthew in the choir of Exeter Cathedral, William as a lay clerk at Rochester Cathedral, and John first at Armagh Cathedral and subsequently at Ely, before tardily beginning a career as a public vocalist whilst holding a position with the choir at Temple Church in London.
Sightings of Mr John Cooper – in his pre-Wilbye days – are rare. However, he evidently married at a young age, for his first son, Albert John, was born in Worcester in 1844. From the evidence of the 1851 census, his wife, Mary Ann, was professedly eight years his elder and came from Tipperary. A second son, Thomas, was born in Armagh.
It is in Armagh that I find my first mention of the young Mr Cooper as a vocalist. The Armagh Guardian of 12 August 1845 advertises ‘Mr J Cooper from England, vicar choral of Armagh Cathedral, begs to inform the nobility and gentry of Armagh and surrounding counties that he tunes, repairs and modernises pianofortes…. seraphines and accordions tuned and repaired… Vicar’s Hill, Armagh’.
The birth of Thomas places his family in Armagh in 1846, and the census of 1851 finds him, as a ‘teacher of singing’, living at 30 Windsor Terrace, Finsbury, with his wife and two sons, but by Christmas 1852, when he makes his first appearance, to my eyes, as a concert soloist he is ‘a member of the choir at Ely Cathedral’.
That first appearance was in a performance of The Messiah at Northampton (28 December 1852) alongside Sophia Messent and Louisa Bassano and the press commented: ‘he possesses a voice remarkable for its soft expression, pure quality of tone and truthfulness of intonation; if a little more power could be acquired he bids fair to become one of our best tenors in oratorio music for he displayed both sound musicianlike ability and an exceedingly pure method of vocalisation’.
However, ‘Mr J W Cooper’, as he had now become, apparently did not go on from there to an instant concert career. For the meanwhile, he evidently gave preference to his church work, and it is more than two years later before I spot him out in public again. This time, it is in London, on the occasion of a concert given at the Sussex Hall by the soprano Esther Jacobs (4 April 1855) and now, at last, he is going by the name of Mr Wilbye Cooper.
By the end of 1855, Wilbye Cooper was on his way. He was engaged to sing The Messiah (19 November) with the London Sacred Harmonic Society, alongside Georgina Stabbach, Charlotte Dolby and Tom Lawler, and the metropolitan press noted ‘an agreeable tenor voice, the high notes weak, the lower notes good, but scarcely power enough for Exeter Hall’ or again ‘a new tenor, and not without promise, though the lower parts of his voice are weak and ineffective’. Two days later, he made a debut at St Martin’s Hall, singing The Mount of Olives and Acis and Galatea alongside Lucy Escott, Bessie Palmer, Montem Smith and William Winn (‘A young singer of great promise. He is gifted with a clear, flexible tenor voice and sings with feeling and considerable power’), and in December he shared a bill with Clara Novello for the opening concert at the Beaumont Institution, and joined the Weisses, Fanny Huddart and Julia Bleaden to sing Elijah at Leicester. On new year’s day 1856, he took part in a performance of Méhul’s Joseph, rearranged by W G Cusins, and played before the Queen at Windsor Castle. Sims Reeves was Joseph, Clara Novello sang Benjamin and Cooper was Napthali.
When, on 11 January 1856, he was featured with Mrs Sunderland in a concert at Hull, he was billed as ‘the new English tenor, of the Philharmonic and Exeter Hall concerts, also of her Majesty’s private concerts Windsor Castle’. The Philharmonic? But he was also ‘of the Temple Church’.
During 1856, Cooper was seen much more frequently – The Messiah at Myddelton Hall, The Creation at Exeter Hall and at the Panoptikon, the St Martin’s Hall Concerts for the People, and in a long series of glee and madrigal concerts given by a group calling themselves The Vocal Union, and including Marion Moss, William and Mary Winn, John Foster, Montem Smith and Lewis Thomas.
In reviewing The Creation, the press still found fault ‘[his] voice is by no means deficient in power and sweetness, yet his rendering of the music ... was inanimate and without expression. His singing of ‘In native worth’, however, provoked an encore.’
It would, for some time, be the principal criticism of Cooper’s singing that he lacked spirit. He was regularly given credit for ‘a remarkably clear and sweet tenor’, his ‘light tenor tastefully employed’, and for impeccable musicianship, but he had yet to learn to infuse sufficient spirit into his performance.
Through 1857 and 1858, Cooper became a more and more familiar figure on the concert platform. The Vocal Union continued its performances, the St Martin’s Hall concerts continued, he made the first of what would be a very long list of appearances, down the years, at the Crystal Palace (‘Il mio tesoro’, ‘List, dearest, list’, ‘I saw not her face’, ‘Goodnight beloved’, Macbeth music, Euryanthe quartet, Herman in Son and Stranger), and he joined Clari Fraser to supply to songs in George Linley’s entertainment, Mary Queen of Scots. He appeared on the programmes given by Miss Poole at the Hanover Square Rooms, and by Langton Williams at Store Street, and made a sizeable concert party tour with Charlotte and Amy Dolby and a group of the Vocal Union around Britain. In Glasgow, they performed the Stabat Mater and The Messiah, and in Liverpool, they gave a preview of J L Hatton’s manuscript Robin Hood.
He appeared in the People’s Concerts, at St James’s Hall (Athalie) and with the Philharmonic Society in Liverpool (Stabat Mater, Lauda Sion, Israel in Egypt), establishing with the last-named society what would be a long-running association, and visited Leeds for the People’s Concerts (Judas Maccabeus) -- ‘His distinct enunciation and perfect execution of very florid portions elicited warm approval. ‘Sound an alarm’ was equally meritorious in execution – the upper As being given from the chest’.
He gave Ipswich and Birmingham The Creation, made a first appearance in Dublin, and appeared in London in concert and oratorio (Judas Maccabeus) at St James’s Hall or at the Surrey Gardens.
At the end of the season, he was engaged for the Newcastle Festival (1-2 September), and the following week the Leeds Festival, where he sang alongside Sims Reeves in the St Matthew Passion and other oratorios. When Bennett’s The May Queen was premiered, it was Reeves who created the role of the Forester, but when the successful cantata was, subsequently, given its London premiere at St Martin’s Hall, Reeves cried off at the very last moment, and Wilbye Cooper took his place in both The May Queen and Lauda Sion. Many was the British tenor who, in these years, was summoned to stand in for the habitually ailing Reeves: none, however, would do it so often, nor with such success, as Wilbye Cooper.
However, things did start stickily. In January 1859, when Reeves scratched from the Monday pops, Cooper found himself screamed down by an angry audience deprived of its Big-Name Star, and finally had to quit the stage without singing. The following week, the management took care to advertise well in advance that Cooper and not Reeves would sing, things went better, and Cooper became a popular regular at the pops (‘[he sang] ‘Come Live with me and be my love’ in an artistic and masterly manner’). Come The Creation at St Martin’s Hall, one more week on, Reeves actually put in an appearance, before surrendering half his part to Cooper, but on 9 February the star was again a non-starter for a May Queen with the Vocal Association. Cooper again took over, and the press now began to regard him as an artist in his own right rather than as a replacement. ‘Mr Cooper has a fine tenor voice, is an excellent musician, and possesses both intelligence and feeling. He has one defect of which he may easily get rid: his manner is too subdued and constrained. With more boldness, freedom and laisser-aller he would be a singer of the first class’. On 15 February The May Queen was given at St Martin’s Hall. Reeves turned up, and sang the tenor music in the Choral Symphony, but the part of the Forester was allotted to Cooper. When the Vocal Association repeated the piece, Cooper was cast.
He sang the Choral Symphony and the role of Fingal in Howard Glover’s cantata Comala at the New Philharmonic Concerts, gave several performances of the same composer’s Tam o’ Shanter, performed Elijah, the Lobgesang, Beethoven’s Mass in C and Die erste Walpurgisnacht with Hullah at St Martin’s Hall, sang the role of Florestan in a concert performance of Fidelio at the Crystal Palace; shared the tenor duties in Edinburgh’s Handel Festival with George Perren, and took them on alone for Bristol’ equivalent, and, ever and again, took over the tenor music of The Seasons with the Sacred Harmonic Society when Mr Reeves was, yet again, indisposed. When the same oratorio was given for charity at Exeter Hall in May, Cooper was engaged.
He gave regular performances of The May Queen around the country, but when the Philharmonic Society scheduled the piece (30 May 1859), Reeves was engaged. Mr Cooper, however, was also included on the programme singing ‘Distressful nature’ from The Seasons. It is not difficult to imagine why.
In August, he and Reeves were engaged for the Bradford Festival as solo tenors. ‘Mr Wilbye Cooper sang his small share with very great ability’ whilst Reeves took the lion’s part.
However, Sims Reeves could not be everywhere, and Mr Wilbye Cooper – who seemed as if he, indeed, were everywhere -- was now thoroughly established as a leading tenor of great worth. When he led out a concert party with Louisa Vinning, Fanny Huddart and Allan Irving, Manchester acclaimed ‘a true tenor voice – pure though not powerful – and he sings like a musician and with great refinement. There are few singers before the public who could have sung Mendelssohn’s charming song ‘By Celia’s Arbour’ with a nearer approach to the composers intention..’, when he gave Elijah at St Martin’s Hall the London press found him ‘constantly making progress, acquiring boldness, force and energy, while his voice is improving both in power and quality’.
Amongst a vast array of Messiahs, Elijahs, Creations, Stabat Maters and May Queens, in London and the provinces, over the year that followed, Cooper also took part in some new and less familiar works. At the Crystal Palace he sang again in Son and Stranger and played Vogelsang in L’Impresario (12 August 1860), at St Martin’s Hall he appeared in Alexander’s Feast, in the British premiere of Johannes Hager’s St John the Baptist (16 May 1860), at Halle’s concerts in Manchester he sang Pylades in Iphigenia in Tauris, and he performed Benedict’s Undine with Clara Novello during her final concert tour, and selections from Macfarren’s Robin Hood with Mme Lemmens-Sherrington on another concert tour. In the 1860 Norwich Festival, he took part in the first performance of Molique’s Abraham, but once again the largest part of the tenor music fell to Reeves.
He also introduced a number of songs for concert-giving composers – Charles Salaman’s ‘The Modest Suitor’, Alfred Carder’s ‘There be none of beauty’s daughters’ – in a concert repertoire where, from the Surrey Gardens to the Floral Hall, such pieces as ‘The Mountain Maid’ and ‘Goodbye sweetheart’ jostled with ‘La donna è mobile’ and ‘Parigi, o cara’ for repetition.
1861 was no less a busy year. He gave Undine at St James’s Hall (‘sang with a vigour and energy for which we were hardly prepared and indeed sang throughout in a most finished manner’), and created the role of Rizzio in Henry Leslie’s Holyrood (1 February 1861) (‘he displayed his refined artistic feeling to great advantage in Rizzio’s Italian canzonet ‘Colla stagione novella’), he sang in H A Lambeth’s By the Water of Babylon at the Glasgow Choral Union, repeated his part in Abraham at Exeter Hall (17 April 1861), sang Max when Halle gave a concert Der Freischütz (22 November 1861) and, if he seemed, for the most, barred at the Sacred Harmonic Society by the presence of Reeves, he took the leading tenor roles in oratorio with George Martin’s National Choral Society, on occasion with Titiens as principal soprano. In the middle of the year, he took time out for a visit to Italy, but he does not seem to have performed during his stay.
In 1862, another Mr Cooper – Mr Viotti Cooper – joined the ranks of London concert tenors. This was, in fact, brother William, and the essay was not a success, inspiring the witticism that ‘one brother was Wilbye and the other was Would-be’. William put in occasional appearances in mostly minor venues for a handful of seasons before putting Viotti to rest.
Wilbye, however, went from strength to strength, fulfilling vast lists of engagements in London and all the major provincial centres. He sang Francis Howell’s The Captivity in Birmingham, Abraham in Liverpool (this time without Reeves), joined Titiens in the Installation Ode at Cambridge University, and sang the Tancredi duet with Sainton-Dolby at one concert, ‘The long waves come and go’ at another. However, in spite of his thoroughly earned reputation, Cooper was still not above deputising for Sims Reeves. But this time, when he gave ‘Adelaide’ and ‘The very angels weep’ at the Monday pops, or the Lobgesang and Stabat Mater with the Sacred Harmonic Society (with whom he later appeared in his own right), in loco stellae, there was no booing. So little vanity did this tenor have, in fact, that when the Royal Academy of Music produced The May Queen and their tenor fell ill, Wilbye Cooper stepped in, not this time for Sims Reeves, but for student Wallace Wells.
Cooper was, nearly forty, at the peak of his skill and his career, and his ‘clear voice and musicianly skill’ were widely in demand. Amidst the usual run of London and provincial oratorios and concerts, during 1863 he visited Scotland regularly (Engedi, Stabat Mater, Israel in Egypt), he sang at the Monday pops and Mellon’s proms and even a Bardic Festival, he took a concert party tour with a team headed by Marietta Alboni (‘Voglio dir’, ‘Al dolce canto’, ‘The shades of evening close around’, ‘The long waves come and go’), created Arthur Matthison and Virginia Gabriel’s cantata Dreamland, or Light Through Darkness (27 March 1863), which he featured on the 8 April following at a concert of his own at St James Hall, he gave several performances of G B Allen’s Harvest Home, and he introduced Benedict’s Richard Coeur de Lion (6 November 1863). At the end of the year, he was the tenor in Halle’s Manchester performances of oratorio, with Jenny Lind as soprano, and also in the Sacred Harmonic Society’s performance of Costa’s Eli (‘unquestionably the best performance [of the work]’ that has been heard anywhere since the Birmingham Festival of 1855’) in which he was judged ‘eminently serviceable and, even in the great war song of the Philistine giant, exerted himself with such good effect that though his physical powers are scarcely equal to certain passages, he obtained the approval and applause of the audience’. On Christmas Eve he sang The Messiah at Her Majesty’s Theatre with Titiens, Annie Lascelles and Santley.
In 1864, amongst the now usual run of engagements, Cooper produced another new piece by Virginia Gabriel, playing Rupert Lyle to the Graziella of Parepa on the occasion of his concert at St James’s Hall (22 April 1864), and later the same month took the tenor role in the first London performance of Benedict’s The Bride of Song (23 May). He also sang in a performance of Loder’s The Island of Calypso, put up by Alfred Gilbert. The following season, however, he went even further and made an actual appearance on the stage. The occasion was the production of Comus (17 April 1865) at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Cooper, Miss Poole, Augusta Thomson and Henri Drayton were hired to sing the principal music. Cooper sang his music splendidly (‘wins laurels in a new sphere of action’) but ‘[he] looks very conscious and uncomfortable in his bacchanale’s dress and beard’. Comus was a success, and was brought back for a second run later in the year.
Through 1866 and 1867, the singer the Pall Mall Gazette dubbed ‘The English Gardoni’ continued as ever, giving Hiller’s Loreley with Rudersdorff, introducing C J Hargitt’s The Harvest Queen (4 June 1866) and Regaldi’s The Universal Hymn (31 May 1867) and giving an umpteenth May Queen, amid the usual busy run of concerts (including the new Boosey Ballad concerts) and standard oratorios and cantatas. In early 1868, however, Mr Wilbye Cooper found himself at the centre of an incident which led to his ending up in a court of law.
During a Messiah at Liverpool, the resident organist W T Best decided that he would restore the original organ part to the accompaniment of ‘I Know that my Redeemer Liveth’. Hermine Rudersdorff was not impressed. She apparently qualified the effect as ‘beastly’ and Mr Best wasn’t exactly polite back to her. Mme Rudersdorff called upon Mr Cooper to back her up, and he agreed: it was ‘perfectly beastly’. Mr Best lashed out with a fist and ‘rattled Mr Cooper’s teeth’. It cost him a trip to court, fifty pounds damages and an apology. Whether the event had anything to do with it, I know not, but, during 1868, Wilbye Cooper was very much less in evidence than heretofore. The following year, things seemed to be turning back to normal, but it was not to be. The Glasgow press assured ‘his voice retains all its purity’, the Birmingham paper dubbed him ‘one of the few English tenors who combines with natural gifts musical culture sufficiently sound and thorough to justify their artistic pretensions and qualify them for attempting music of the higher order’, but Mr Cooper was moving into a lower gear.
It would later be written that he ended his career in 1870. He didn’t, but during 1870 and 1871 he was barely seen performing in public. In 1872, he returned a little, and he would appear on occasion, thereafter, almost right through the 1870s. Performing was replaced by teaching, and by organising musical parties for city dinners and mayoral occasions. He also gave intermittent concerts and penned a number of ballads of the kind he had himself purveyed so well (‘Out with the tide’, ‘What makes the tears flow’, ‘Angel whisperings’ ‘Katty O’Ryan’, ‘Dreams’, ‘I’ve a secret’, ‘Thine and Mine’, ‘The sea maiden’, ‘Upon a bank of daisies’) as well as performing the duties of adjudicator for the Royal Academy of Music.
In 1874, he wrote an essay on The Music of Language (aka The Voice, the Music of Language and the Soul of Song), which was published by Cramer & Co.
At some stage during his life, Wilbye Cooper lost his wife, Mary Ann. They are not together in the 1861 census, and in 1871 he is with his parents and she is with their son, Alfred. So, quite how and when ‘lost’, I cannot be sure.
However, in 1878, Cooper remarried. His bride was Clara Eugenie M Valentin from Boulogne, France. She would outlive him, dying in 1904.
Cooper himself died at the age of sixty, in 1885. Although the papers made it sound as if he had been fifteen years forgotten, it was in fact not that long since he had last raised his voice in concert. But they were right in one way, Wilbye Cooper had become quite quickly forgotten.
His name, however, had a little longer in a very small spotlight. Brother William-Viotti named one of his sons Wilbye, Wilbye Pitt Cooper (b Rochester 1862) to be precise. Wilbye the second trained as a musician with Frederick Bridge, and went on to become a music hall performer and the manager of the Gaiety Theatre of Varieties, Chatham, before his early death (11 December 1907).