Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Henry Piercy: a tenor to be remembered.

Here, in fulfilment of my promise to Dr Annie Stanyon Ley, the future biographer of Sir Arthur Sullivan, is a biographical note on the tenor Henry Piercy. No, I don't cough these things up in a couple of hours! This was one of the 900 like pieces which didn't make it into my Victorian Vocalists. So, it's rather a case of here's one I cooked before ...

Without illustrations, I'm afraid -- so I'm afraid only devotees and scholars will read it. If anyone can source some relevant pix, I'd be most grateful.

So, here you are, Annie.

PIERCY, Henry [?Richard] (b 33 Upper Dean Street, Birmingham ?20 May 1855; d 49 Oaklands Row, Willesden London c20 September 1900)

Henry Piercy was born in Birmingham, the son of a German silver spoon and fork maker, Joseph Piercy (1826-1895), and either of his official wife, Mary née Linforth, or his putative second, Jane, in what appears to have been 1855. It is difficult precisely to tell, for the Piercy family clearly didn’t believe in regularity. Joseph and Mary had a son, Joseph Henry, in 1851, at Hurst Street, but the births of both Henry and his younger brother Frederick [William] (d Birmingham, 25 September 1908) seem to be unrecorded. As was much about him and in his life.

Henry worked as Mr H R Piercy, Mr W H Piercy, married as Henry Richard and died as plain Henry. Brown and Stratton's unreliable opus calls him (surely wrongly) Henry Ralph, which various foolish virgins have copied. Take your pick: I’d go for plain Henry. So, perhaps he is the Henry Piercy baptised down Manchester way, with the given birthdate of 20 May. Mother Jane. Father Joseph ‘tea dealer’ of Bury. Really? But daddy was a spoonmaker. Anyway, one way and another he was pretty surely illegitimate. They all seem to be invisible in the 1861 census.

Henry started life, according to the 1871 census, as a merchant’s clerk, and, from 1878, he can be seen singing in local concerts. My first sighting of him is 25 January 1878 at Moseley Skating Rink, providing songs between the skating sessions. When he sang for the first time in Sheffield, at Christmas of the same year, the local press noted: ‘Mr Piercy has a tenor voice which, if it is somewhat light in power, is nevertheless thoroughly sound and pleasant throughout the various stages of its compass…’. Birmingham echoed ‘a light baritone or low tenor voice of very agreeable quality’, ‘a sweet tenor voice, but hardly powerful enough for so large a building as the Town Hall’. During 1879-80 he turns up in various Birmingham venues and at Sutton Coldfield, West Bromwich and similar, in The Messiah, Macfarren’s Joseph, The Lay of the Bell, and at the popular concerts (‘My Queen’, ‘The Distant Shore’, ‘The Sea’s Love’).

In 1880, he went to London, to study with J B Welch, and made a first London appearance at his teacher’s concert of 10 November 1880, at St James’ Hall. His first professional concert appears to have been on 4 October 1881 at the Hengler’s Cirque prom concerts, on a bill with Hope Glenn and the pianist Laura Rappoldi. He sang a Messiah at Leeds with Marie Roze, at W Henry Thomas’s concert with Santley and Lewis Thomas, but mostly his appearances were at modest affairs with unknown artists (‘a young and rising tenor who has already been heard with pleasure’). On 22 November 1882 he was heard at an afternoon instrumental concert at the Crystal Palace: it would be the first of many such at Sydenham over the next decade and a half. Those who had judged his voice too small for the arena were proven wrong.
In 1883, he took part in a concert party tour in the north, in the company of Clara Samuell, Marian McKenzie and Foli (‘Thy hand in mine’ by Blumenthal, ‘Tom Bowling’ ‘The Romany Lass’ of Stephen Adams), took part for what would, again, be the first time of many, in the Good Friday entertainment at St James’s Hall, and travelled the country in concert and oratorio (St Ursula, The Seasons at Birmingham, Stabat Mater, Lobgesang at Cardiff, The Desert at Glasgow).

In 1884, he went out with another Foli concert party, appeared at the Albert Hall ballad concerts, sang Elijah at Huddersfield and took over from Sims Reeves at half-time in a performance of The Messiah at St James’s Hall. He was adjudged to have coped very competently, even though a provincial critic could still say ‘[he is] ‘rather a light baritone than a pure tenor’.

His salvage performance, however, didn’t prove the turning point for him. The following year, he was seen, from Bath and Portsmouth to Paisley, in such as Schumann’s Der Sangers Flüth, Rheinberger’s St Christoforos, The May Queen, Acis and Galatea, Paradise and the Peri or Vizetti’s In Praise of Song, and he made his first appearance in a provincial musical festival, taking the third tenor spot behind Edward Lloyd and Joseph Maas in the Bristol Festival (20-23 October 1885). It was a fate to which almost any tenor of the age was likely to be condemned. However, Piercy would soon have his chance.

There followed a debut at the Monday pops (‘Would you gain the tender creature, Euryanthe), a visit to Dublin to sing Azarias in Stanford’s Three Holy Children, to Leicester for the Nicholson Memorial, more Crystal Palace concerts, a concert party tour with Fanny Moody and,in September 1886, an engagement for the Wolverhampton Festival. Edward Lloyd scratched, Joseph Maas was dead, and thus Henry Piercy was drafted to create the tenor music of Corder’s cantata  alongside Alwina Valleria, Hilda Wilson and Santley.

‘A surprise … the first Festival success won by Mr Henry Piercy a young tenor with a voice which strongly recalls that of the late Joseph Maas and who bids fair to become an infinitely better artist than that once lethargic vocalist. Mr Piercy is quite a youth, and is a native of Birmingham and a pupil of Mr J B Welch. Hitherto he has only sung tentatively at the Popular Concerts but since he has climbed, almost at a bound, at any rate half way up the ladder of fame at Wolverhampton, he has accepted engagements for the Albert Hall, Sacred Harmonic, Crystal Palace and other of our best concerts’.

Piercy’s schedules filled at speed. The days of the concerts filled with amateurs were over. And so were the references to ‘light baritone’. At thirty-two years of age, his voice had developed, at last, into a fine tenor, capable of taking on Jephtha, Elijah, Samson, of a L’Enfance de Christ at the Crystal Palace, The Redemption alongside Albani and Santley, and The Messiah with Valleria at the Albert Hall. In January 1887 he was engaged at the Boosey Ballad Concerts, in February he was tenor soloist in Henschel’s London Symphony Concerts and joined Lloyd at the Sacred Harmonic Society (25 February) in Moses in Egypt, he visited Belfast to sing the Prince in Cowen’s Sleeping Beauty and was engaged by Prout to sing Calvary at Hackney (‘especially distinguished himself’). On Good Friday, he was the tenor in the Albert Hall Messiah.

When he appeared at the Covent Garden proms in the autumn (‘Sweethearts’. ‘Phyllis is my only joy’, ‘The Bay of Biscay’) he was billed as ‘the new tenor’. He’d been singing tenor for a decade, but he was ‘new’ on the fame front.

He sang with a Santley party in September, at the Crystal Palace proms series in October, and in November Elijah at St James Hall, the Patti concert at Albert Hall (‘Where e’er you walk’, ‘The Sailor’s Grave’, I’ll sing thee songs of Araby’, ‘bids fair to become a very popular tenor’), with Albani and Trebelli at Belfast, and at St James’s Hall in more Boosey concerts. More Crystal Palace, the Sacred Harmonic Society Messiah singing the whole tenor music, Glasgow, Leeds (Alexander’s Feast), York with Trebelli in a concert party which would carry on into 1888 (Pinsuti’s ‘The Light of Love’). Mr Piercy’s engagement book had taken on a whole new dimension.

During 1888, he sang further engagements at the Albert Hall (Good Friday Messiah), the Crystal Palace, the Sacred Harmonic Society, the Covent Garden proms, the Boosey ballad concerts, as well as creating Varey Roberts’ Joshua at Oxford, and taking part both in the National Eisteddfod at Wrexham and in the Birmingham Festival. He was intended to create Parry’s Judith, but finally Edward Lloyd – still top of the heap – was given that, and Piercy performed the tenor music of Saul, as well as seconding Lloyd in Elijah.

His success in the Boosey Ballad concerts was such that he sang at a number of these in 1889, and was engaged for the complete series in the 1889-1890 season (Marzials ‘Stay, darling, stay’, ‘Eily Mavourneen’, Pinsuti’s ‘The Last Watch’) and on, until 1892.

He sang in Saul at St James’s Hall, The Creation at the Crystal Palace, Moses in Egypt at Blackburn and gave his ‘Sound and Alarm’ at the Alexandra Palace alongside The Great Monkey Show. He gave his usual run of repertoire at Covent Garden and a swatch of Messiahs come festive time 1889, but the feature of his year was his appearance at the Leeds Festival, where he created another Corder cantata, The Sword of Argantyr, with Valleria, Foote and Brereton, and took the role of Acis, to the Galatea of Margaret MacIntyre in Acis and Galatea.

During 1890, in which the Boosey concerts featured again largely in his schedule, he ran the gamut of the oratorio and cantata repertoire: Elijah at the Albert Hall and at Leicester, The Creation, The Golden Legend and MacCunn’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel at Birmingham, The Mount of Olives and The Golden Legend at Crystal Palace, Berlioz’s Faust and St Paul in Dublin, the Stabat Mater at St James’s Hall, The Creation and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater at the Cheltenham Festival, Dr Swinnerton Heap’s The Fair Rosamund at Wolverhampton, and, during the lead up to Christmas, an almost daily Messiah: Manchester, London, Huddersfield, Leeds, Liverpool. The absence of Lloyd in America, during the year, upped his desirability and he did not flinch. But he had made his reputation now, and when he went on tour again with Trebelli, the provincial papers nodded: ‘[he is] an artist scarcely inferior to Mr Edward Lloyd, the doyen of English tenors’.

In 1891, he toured with another Boosey Ballad concert party, and in 1892 those concerts dominated his schedule. But otherwhere, he brought The Bridal of Triermain to London, sang the King of the Norsemen in the premiere of MacCunn’s The Queen of Caledon at Glasgow (28 January 1892) and in its London showing at the Crystal Palace, gave The Spectre’s Bride at Oxford Commemoration and Samson, with his familiar partner, Florence Nordica, at St James’s Hall.

He sang at a Lincoln and Peterborough Festival (The Last Judgement, Messiah, J M W Young’s The Return of Israel to Palestine) in June and in October at the Leeds Festival in Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and as David to the Walther of Lloyd in a Meistersingers selection. He, once again, had to cover for Lloyd, but this time only in rehearsals. Nevertheless, those knowledgeable who were present approved his performance thoroughly.

Weeks after the Festival, Henry Piercy showed upon an unlikely bill. It was for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where Augustus Harris was presenting an opera season which was to feature The Bohemian Girl and Maritana. Harris’s selection of singers was unusual to say the least, and his Thaddeus was Henry Piercy.

5 November 1892 was Piercy’s stage debut, and the notices were unanimous ‘singing very well although obviously lacking experience as an actor’, ‘acted with fair effect and sang the music extremely well’. He was, however, the success of the evening as his Arline, Miss Charlotte Walker of New York, was pretty much of a disaster, and the opera was kept on through the season.
It was at this stage that one gossipy scribe decided to describe the physique of Mr Piercy, which I have never found referred to anywhere else: ‘a typical tenor, round and rosy with a mass of rich black hair and bright blue eyes’. How nice.

After his écart into opera, Piercy returned to the concert stage and in the final weeks of his extraordinarily busy year played Judith at Blackburn, Elijah at St James’s Hall and at Liverpool, The Golden Legend at Leeds, Christus at the Crystal Palace, Faust at Birmingham, and the usual round of Messiahs, as well as travelling to concerts on both sides of the border.

 Piercy was again announced to return to play Thaddeus at the Lane in both 1893 and in 1894. However, a Mr Eadie (?) ended up playing the first season, and in the second, where rising opera star Joseph O’Mara played Maritana, Faust and Carmen, Piercy only repeated Thaddeus, briefly, opposite Carla Dagmar. It seems that his operatic stage experience was to be limited to one role.

Around the operatic fragments, he continued his busy concert schedule, from the Verdi Requiem at Dublin, to the proms at Covent Garden and the Crystal Palace, Job, Lobgesang at St James Hall, and a season on Llandudno Pier. He sang Faust at a North Staffordshire Festival with Esther Palliser, The Golden Legend at the Cheltenham Festival, and in 1894, Samson and Cowen’s St John’s Eve at a Western Counties Festival at Exeter. In 1895 he sang in Dublin in a concert version of Ivanhoe and Joseph Smith’s Festal Mass. And on top of all this, as he had done for a number of years, he fulfilled his function as principal tenor at the Temple Church.

The later years of his career continued as before, but on a less hectic schedule. He was on the bills at the Crystal Palace up till 1900, but in 1897 his engagements also included concerts at Yarmouth Aquarium, Southsea Pier, and the Blackpool Tower. In 1898 he sang at the Savage Club and on Albert Chevalier’s bill, alongside Biograph pictures, in 1899, again at the Savages. In 1900, he sang at Bow, as Turiddu in a concert performance of Cavalleria Rusticana with amateurs. 

And a few months later, he was dead. Just as his appointment to the London College of Music teaching staff was announced. But I couldn’t discover why or, exactly, when. Just cemetery records which show him having been interred 22 September. The music press was strangely silent on the whole subject. In fact, I couldn’t find a single mention of his passing, except in the summaries at the year’s end. And then a tiny squib in a provincial paper surfaced. There had been an inquest. And Piercy had died of ‘alcoholic excess’. Oh. That doubtless explained the fading of his career.

Piercy had married, in 1888, the schoolmistress and authoress of text and language books, Margaret Hamilton Merington (b Islington, 1842). They’d been living together for a while: he’s her ‘boarder’ in the 1881 census. In 1891 they have a 7 year-old ‘niece’ named Daisy. But she doesn’t appear in the registers.

I haven’t been able to discover what became of her either. The Piercys really didn’t go in for registration. Margaret apparently predeceased him, in 1896, if she is the plain Margaret who died in Holborn that year. And that might explain the booze.

I guess I just have to be satisfied that the Piercys are not precise. But Henry got his career right. Rising steadily, until age, bereavement and alcohol stepped in. From a nobody, to the ‘best tenor after Edward Lloyd’ in the British musical world. That was quite something.

Post scriptum, or the advantage of asking ...
From Terri in the USA this clipping from the Kilburn Times, detailing Henry's death

And from the ineffable Dr Annie herself ... a picture! Date 1892.

Long live team work!!

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