Friday, June 5, 2020

Nelson Varley: a wrecked tenor ....

Most singers of any amount of fame who sang with the D'Oyly Carte companies did so at the beginning of their career ... But, then, there was ....

VARLEY, Nelson [VARLEY, John Smith] (b Stanningley, Yorks 21 April 1844; d Cardiff, 1/2 December 1883)

Pudsey News, dateline 7 December 1883. Death of Mr Nelson Varley. The local musical world will learn with regret of the death of Mr Nelson Varley, which took place at Cardiff, on Saturday afternoon.  Mr Varley who was the son of the late Richard Varley, of Stanningley, had been for some years engaged with one of Mr D'Oyly Carte's Iolanthe companies, though for the past fifteen month he has suffered, more or less, from bronchitis. Last week his illness got worse, and, the Iolanthe company leaving Cardiff, he was left in the care of his landlady, with whom he died rather suddenly from the rupture of a blood vessel. Mr Varley, who was 37 years of age was interred at Cardiff on Wednesday. He was apprenticed as an organ builder in his youth, with Mr Nicholson of Bradford but long before his indentures were out, he had shown himself to be possessed of a tenor voice of fine quality and power. Encouraged by some friends at Bradford, Mr Varley, on the expiration of his apprenticeship, was taken in hand by Chevalier Lemmens, to whom he engaged himself for five years, and under whose direction he was first introduced to the public at the Crystal Palace, with a success which was in the highest degree gratifying. He accompanied Madame Sherrington and a ‘concert party’ through the provincial towns four or five years in succession, and both in the country and in London made good his early promise. Mr Varley also accompanied Madame Rudersdorff to America, where his success was even greater than in England. After being in America rather more than a year, he returned to this country, and, with his wife (Mdlle. Theresa Liebe), fulfilled many successful engagements.’

Well, for an obituary it was a nice one. It chopped a couple of years off his age, which is nothing new, and it made his short life sound one of professional success and personal happiness. Well, he had both things for a while. But Nelson Varley, undeniably a fine talent as a vocalist, was a man and a singer wasted.

‘The son of the late Richard Varley of Stanningley’. Anyone reading that line would surely and immediately jump to the same conclusion that I did. For the name Varley was famous, nay, notorious, in the little cloth and clothing-making town of Stanningley in the first half of the nineteenth century. John Varley ‘worsted spinner and manufacturer’ was the owner of the biggest and most controversial cloth mill in the town, a mill which supplied a great part of the employment which the place so very needed, but which rolled its worsted looms, and worked it workers, by day and by night. When his employees attempted a strike, he simply sacked them and brought in men from the next village. The Stanningley men snuck back into the fold. On another similar occasion, he contacted the poor law officers to inform them that they need pay no more parish relief: everyone on relief was offered a job at the mill to replace the recalcitrant ‘strikers’. He was also a bête noir of the mill safety and legal officers. He was had up numerous times for employing under-aged girls and, in 1852, he was fined 100 pounds when one girl was badly hurt in the mill machinery. So, John Varley of Providence House, Stanningley, was a well-known man. A rich man, too, and his sons, who carried on his business after his death became even richer.
But not his eldest son. For John actually outlived his eldest son, Richard Varley. Richard Varley, who had taken up his father’s trade with vigour and profit, died on all fools day of 1849, in his early thirties, leaving a widow, Mary, and a five-year old son, John. Our John?. It fits precisely.
But Richard Varley, although not a common name, is not wholly rare in this part of the world. And there were, around this time, at least two other Richard Varleys in Stanningsley, Pudsey, Calverley, Bradford and related areas. 
There is, for example, the Richard Varley from Pudsey who married one Ann or Nanny née Smith from Stanningley. They gave birth in 1844 to a son whom they registered in Bradford and whom they christened John Smith Varley. This Richard was not a millionaire, but a stonemason. And he fits perfectly, too. For Richard the stonemason died on 12 May 1881, and was indeed the ‘late’ Richard at Nelson Varley’s death.
So which John is our John? Well, I would have liked it to have been the mill millionaire one – and, to start with, I was sure it was, thanks to the fact the paper had thought it worthwhile to name his parent  -- but it wasn’t. It was the stonemason. Here’s the evidence.
In the 1861 census, the two Johns are in very different circumstances. John-the-rich (‘born Stanningley’, aged 17) is being educated at Rugby. John-the-not-rich is living in Rickanshaw Lane, Pudsey  (‘born Stanningley’, aged 16), and is working as a ‘piecer at a woollen factory’. All is still possible, either way, in spite of the woollen mill.
The 1871 census does it. John-the-rich, having been educated (?), is now back, living ‘on own means’, with his mother in Henley. John-the-not-rich has seemingly left home. And where is he? Well, I assume it is he. He is in lodging house, run by widow named Elizabeth Leeming, in Manningham, Bradford. He is now 25 and he is John N Varley (sic) and … ‘vocalist’. 
So, I’m not sure where the organ apprenticeship fitted in – presumably between the woollen mill and the vocalising -- but it seems we have found our man. And, now, one last clincher. From this time on, John referred to himself in documents as ‘John Nelson Varley’, his death certificate (apparently organised by D’Oyly Carte’s responsible manager) calls him plain ‘Nelson Varley’, but, in the 1881 census, taken when he was on the road with Carte, John was a little more truthful. He filled himself in as ‘John S Varley’. S for Smith.
So, the Pudsey paper’s summary probably didn’t tell any untruths. It just left out such things as the fact that father was a stonemason, and that John had at one time worked in the kind of mills that his namesake had once owned.
Oh, by the way, I’m not wholly discounting that there may have been a lien of parentage between the stonemason and the rich family up the road. For, in fact, Samuel Varley, the most successful of old John’s sons, had his home just a few doors up the lane from the house of Richard and Nanny Varley in Pudsey.

Although I have spotted a certain ‘Master Varley’ singing in a Bradford Messiah as early as Christmas 1855, alongside such local celebrities as Belina Whitham, Amy Empsall, J George Inkersall and the Messrs Croxall, Hallam and Chadwick, my first sighting of John (as he was then) Varley, as a professional singer, comes in 1866 when he was something like 22 years of age. The occasion was a concert by the Bradford Festival Choral Society at the local St George’s Hall, and it merited a rather larger review in the Musical Times than was normal on such occasions. Amongst the list of items performed, came ‘Mr Varley of Stanningley sang ‘Sound an alarm’ in a manner which gained a well merited encore’ and ‘Mr Varley was again encored in the song ‘Yes let me like a soldier fall’.’
Good young tenors being as rare then as they ever were, I’m sure Mr Varley was a popular man in the northern concert halls, but I have picked up just a handful of such events: a concert (10 January 1867) for the Barnsley Oaks Colliery Relief Fund at which The Messiah was given with Mr Varley as tenor soloist and others, in September 1867 at Glasgow’s Saturday Evening concerts, and at Dundee’s Kinnaird Hall for the local Philharmonic Society in which Mme Lemmens-Sherrington and Signor Foli took part, second tenor in The Messiah at the Huddersfield Choral society (‘a local singer .. although he is endowed with a fair share of confidence, he might with advantage study the cultivation of his voice’), as well as a listing in the prospectus for William Rea’s always substantial series of Newcastle concerts.
I would be nice to know how Varley’s connection with the Chevalier Lemmens came about, but it appears that the celebrated musician took the young singer on under one of those ‘apprenticeships’ dear to the Victorian music world. For a certain sum, and a large percentage of the performer’s earnings, the master took complete control of the pupil’s education and promotion for a number of years. In this case the period was five (some said six) years.  And, whatever ‘Mr Nelson Varley’ paid, this particular master gave him a most splendid return for his money. For, for the next five years, Nelson Varley worked solidly, the length and breadth of the British provinces, and even in London, as principal tenor to the concert party of Britain’s most eminent oratorio soprano of the era, Madame Helen Lemmens-Sherrington.
The Scottish engagement, in September 1867, seems to have been the beginning of the alliance, and Lemmens lost no time in introducing his new pupil-cum-discovery to London. ‘Nelson’ made his London debut on Saturday 11 October 1867, at the Crystal Palace concerts, sharing the platform with Helen Lemmens and a certain and equally new Signor Ronchetti. He gave his ‘Sound an alarm’ and the tenor aria ‘My own, my guiding star’ from Macfarren’s Robin Hood and was credited with ‘a tenor voice of fair range and pleasant quality’, even though the critic judged him rather ‘overmatched’ by his oratorio selection. Augustus Manns like him well enough, however, to bill him again, this time with Miss Banks and George Perren, just a fortnight later.
London was put briefly aside, as the latest Lemmens concert party headed out to the country. Signor [Stefano?] Ronchetti and contralto Lucy Franklein made up the team, through Hanley, Scarborough and the like, but when Glasgow was reached and the party was hired to sing solos with the Choral Society in Samson, reinforcements were called in. Anna Drasdil was contralto and Lewis Thomas bass, but Nelson Varley held the tenor spot alongside his prima donna.
Back in town, the Lemmens influence doubtless came to Mr Varley’s aid again Although he was immediately booked for appearances without Mme Lemmens back at the Crystal Palace, he was also put on the bills, amongst a list of the finest ballad singers in the country, for Mr Boosey’s London Ballad Concerts at St James’s Hall. It was billed as ‘his first appearance in London’, concerts in the Crystal Palatial wilds of Sydenham apparently not counting.
For this ‘debut’. he sang ‘Maid of Athens’ and joined Winn in two duets, ‘Albion’ and ‘Love and War’ And he did extremely well: ‘Mr Nelson Varley whose fame preceded him to the metropolis strongly impressed the audience in [Maid of Athens] which he sang with admirable expression ... Mr Varley’s voice is strong, unusually strong, in fact, and of pleasant quality. He is at present young but evidently possesses that enthusiasm which carries the aspirant swiftly along to road to celebrity’. [he] will soon no doubt occupy an honourable position among the concert singers of the day’.

Blackburn Dettingen Te Deum 26 October 1867: ‘Mr Varley was in capital voice and rendered the parts allotted to him with considerable ability’.
Leeds Messiah December 1867 ‘a young tenor singer has great musical feeling and a capital voice, at once powerful and soft in quality..’

In January, he sang again at the Boosey concerts (‘My pretty Jane’, ‘Maids of Athens’, Lemmens’s ‘Mary Dhu’), and in February at the Crystal Palace, with Mme Lemmens and Foli, and later with Henry Leslie’s choir, alongside Natalie Carola and Janet Patey. In spite of the dubious review on his Sydenham debut, he still gave ‘Sound an alarm’ at every opportunity in town and in country and no one else thought it was beyond his powers.
He appeared in concert at St James’s Hall (‘Death of Nelson’, ‘Maid of Athens’) and in the Boosey concerts of March and April (‘Death of Nelson’, Virginia Gabriel’s ‘I will not ask to press that cheek’, The prayer from Mose in Egitto with Mme Lemmens and Mr & Mrs Patey, ‘The Beacon that lights me home’, Samson duet with Mme Lemmens), but in between these town engagements he fulfilled a busy series of out-of-town concerts and oratorios with the Lemmenses. Lucy Franklein and Foli made up the team in the first months of the year, joined on occasion by Helen Lemmens’s younger sister, Jose Sherrington. In April, however, Mme Lemmens joined the Italian opera company at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and for the moment the travelling had to stop. 
Nelson Varley took a trip to Liverpool to sing Elijah with the local Philharmonic Society, and was teamed for the occasion with the other star soprano who would have an effect on his life and career: Hermine Rudersdorff. Janet Patey and Charles Santley were the other names on the bill.
At the end of her commitment to the opera house, it seems that Mme Lemmens headed ‘home’ to Belgium. Nelson is not on view in the months that follow, but on 1 October he advertises in the press that he has ‘returned from the Continent’, so it does rather seem that the Lemmens family may have taken their protégé to Europe with them.
On his return the routine soon picked up. He played the Crystal Palace with Mathilde Enequist, sang The Creation at the Agricultural Hall with Lujza Liebhart, Anna Drasdil and Orlando Christian, visited Glasgow for the Saturday concerts, and joined Rudersdorff and Drasdil to provide the vocals at the Lord Mayor’s Day banquet, before picking up with the Lemmens family once more (plus Christian and Jennie Meenan/Julia Elton) to do the rounds from Samson at Brighton, to The Messiah at Bolton, to Judas Maccabaeus at Rawtenstall.

A visit to London for the Boosey concerts, and the Lemmens combination was back on the road. The Pateys were on board this time, varied by Alexander Angyalfi, Miss Meenan and a not very durable mezzo by name ‘Mdlle Alma’, as the team went on through Elijah at Nottingham, The Messiah at Southampton, Judas Maccabaeus at Glasgow, and a round of concerts from Liverpool and Newcastle to Warrington, Huddersfield, Wolverhampton, Weston-super-mare and dates betwixt and beyond, then after a quick seasonal Messiah at Exeter Hall, with Foli as bass, it was back off to Birkenhead, and to Dublin’s Exhibition Palace, as part of a hugely busy round. In October, for example, I have spotted them at Leicester, Tunbridge Wells, Carlisle, Glasgow (Messiah) and Accrington, and in November at Clifton, Newport and Sheffield (Elijah), as they covered the country singing, sometimes, nightly, between the bouts of travelling.
The year of 1870 simply continued the same trend – concerts and oratorios the length and breadth of Britain. More often now with Jose Sherrington taking the soprano leads instead of her hard-worked sister. At Eastertide, however things came back to normal. On Good Friday, Nelson Varley and Mme Lemmens appeared both at the Holborn Amphitheatre in selections from The Messiah and the Stabat Mater, and at St James’s Hall in concert. Varley gave ‘If with all your hearts’ and ‘Thou shallt break them’. On 16 April, the pair played the Crystal Palace, duetting from The Seasons while the tenor gave ‘In native worth’. ‘He is learning fast how to use a capital voice to good purpose’ nodded the critic.
The five years were not yet up, but Nelson Varley was now appearing regularly with prime donne other than his master’s wife. When he sang The Ancient Mariner at Cambridge it was the composer’s relatives, the Doria girls, who took the female music, when he sang Judas Maccabaeus at Plymouth Blanche Cole sang soprano, for The Messiah at Bow it was Ellen Horne, for Judas Maccabaeus at Manchester no less than Therese Titens and for St Peter at Bradford it was Rudersdorff. However, there were still regular occasions when one or the other of the Sherringtons was Varley’s opposite number, such as during Kuhe’s Brighton Festival, when he and Mme Lemmens sang Eli together, with Elena Angele and Lewis Thomas. 
In the latter part of 1871 the two sisters and Nelson Varley, with Jules Lefort making up the team, went out on a long concert tour which reached right through into the early part of 1872. In April the two women and Varley can be seen in concert at Cardiff and singing the Stabat Mater at Clifton, before May sees them all in London. On 23 May Mme Lemmens-Sherrington hosted her own matinee, and ‘her team’ were of course all part of the programme. They were soon, however, back on the road and, with the occasional reinforcement of a contralto (Mrs Fanny Poole) or other, giving a wide variety of programmes. In Preston, during September, they gave a chunk of Faust with Varley in the title-role.
Varley’s contract was now obviously up, for within days of his last concert with the band of the 12th Lancers in Bradford he stepped on to a very different and further-flung stage.

On 22 November 1872, Nelson Varley made his American concert debut at New York’s Irving Hall.  He had gone to America at the behest of Hermine Rudersdorff, who was leading there a small concert party comprising otherwise her pupil Alice Fairman (contralto) and the teenaged violinist Terese Liebe. The pace with Rudersdorff in America was no less than it has been with the Lemmens in Britain. The day after the Irving Hall concert they were in Washington DC, and it went on from there.
In February, in Boston, the team ventured into oratorio, performing Elijah and Judas Maccabaeus with the help of Myron Whitney (with whom Varley had already sung in England) and Carrie Brackett. The Boston press ventured ‘[this was] his first appearance in oratorio in this country and he more than fulfilled expectations. His voice is sweet, ringing of great breadth and power and would be almost faultless were it not for an unfortunate manner he has of forcing it to the back of his throat which occasionally show itself quite unpleasantly…’. A little tired, perhaps? But the next day was the YMCA concerts, then the Mendelssohn Quartet concert, with a whole series of other Boston events to follow.
Following a concert with the Harvard Musical Association, Dwight’s Musical Journal did the young man proud, and also cleared up (?) a bit of his history: ‘Mr Nelson Varley comes from the land of lusty English voices; he is a Yorkshire man; quite young, not more than twenty-five, we think; so small in stature, that his robust, large tones surprise you.  He has a manly, healthy look; is full of animation and nervous quickness, easy and agreeable in manner, with a certain frank, fresh, and winning cordiality in his aspect.  The foundation of his vocal training was laid at the Conservatoire in Brussels wither he was sent by the Chevalier Lemmens, the husband of Mme Sherrington, who undertook the whole charge of his education, and to whom he has been for the past six years an ‘articled’ pupil, singing in choir, oratorio and concert, in various parts of England, mostly in the present interest of his patron, but in the future interest of himself.  The contract expired in November, and he come now a free man to join for a while the fortunes of Mme Rudersdorff in America.  His appearance in the concert, therefore, was almost literally, his first ‘coming out’. And his success was instant and complete.
 Mr. Varley has a very sweet, full ringing tenor voice of good compass, evenly developed, well schooled.  He knows how to sing, and is equal to whatever he undertakes, which, when we consider that his chief sphere has been oratorio, is saying a good deal.  His recitative is excellent; his holding out and shading of the tone, his phrasing and expression in cantabile, are all that could be asked of one yet in his early prime.  And there is a manly fire, a truthful, honest ring in his strong passages, to which the hearer yields himself most willingly.  In the Handelian roulades, and in all florid passages, his vocalization is very even, accurate, and easily sustained.  There is now and then a little dryness in a tone or two, but the golden quality of the voice seems all the richer in emerging from the momentary veil.’ The Atlantic Monthly simply dubbed him ‘without doubt the finest Handelian tenor that this country has heard for a long while’. When the Rudersdorff engagement came to an end, Varley decided that he would stay a little longer in America
In April he returned to New York for a first concert at the Steinway Hall, after which he visited Cincinnati for their top-flight Music Festival, sharing the bills with Annie Louse Cary, Whitney, a Mrs Smith and local Mrs Emma R Dexter. In October I spot him doing concert and oratorio in Philadelphia, and in Hartford singing the Creation with Rudersdorff and Chares Guilmette. Early in 1874, he can be seen performing in Boston alongside another member of the old concert party, the violinist Liebe, and in May he took part in the same city’s Handel and Hayden Festival with the visiting Edith Wynne, Miss Cary, Whitney and others.

At one stage during his American stay, Nelson Varley had announced that he and local tenor Fred Packard were going to chuck it all and run away to Italy together. But they didn’t go. Perhaps they should have. Perhaps, then, Nelson Varley would not have made the worst mistake of his life. The mistake which would, in the end, finish his career and then his life. In June, Varley announced that he was going home. And that he was getting married. The foolish virgin was none other that little Miss Liebe with her violin. They did the deed almost as soon as they hit London. In August, at St James’s Church, Notting Hill.
At first, things went on pretty much as they had before the American adventure. Nelson Varley was seen regularly on the concert and oratorio rounds, often in groups including the Sherringtons or Alice Fairman. In the last months of 1874, he sang in the Covent Garden proms, in St John the Baptist at Plymouth and at Glasgow, in Fridolin with both Sherringtons at Nottingham. When the same trio and Robert Hilton gave a concert at Leicester, Varley sang ‘Sound an alarm’ and his singing of it won ‘special mention’. No, everything was still all right.

1875 began with a concert party tour, just like those of yore, Jose Sherrington was soprano, Varley was tenor, Fanny Poole contralto and a fine, rising basso named Wadmore made up the forces of Henry Webb’s second concert and oratorio tour. And Mrs Varley-Liebe (sic) came too, and played her violin. And when they returned to London, they gave a concert of their own (24 June 1875) in Park Lane, with old associates Santley, Foli and Edith Wynne joining in.
Nelson Varley appeared at a number of concerts during July, and became a regular at the Alexandra Palace, before early in the new year setting out – usually with Jose Sherrington and, of course, Mrs Varley – for a new round of dates. That round fizzled out round about the middle of the year, some time after the couple’s engagement at Loughborough (26 September) with Agnes Larkcom. And everything was not all right.
What was wrong was the marriage. The marriage which, for reasons one can of course only surmise, should never have happened. It would all come out, of course, -- well, not utterly all -- because the marriage came to an end in les than three years. And when it did, Miss Liebe and her violin took to the stand and had her say. Soon after their marriage, she related, whilst they were living in London with his mother (!), her husband had taken to drink. He got abusive, then he got violent. And so forth. Varley hadn’t taken a lawyer. He wanted to have his say in his way. And he did. The trouble was that his denials and his cross-examination went round and round, in emotional concentric circles, until he had quite worn out the court’s patience. So he lost. Whether he should have lost, whether he would have lost had he confided his defence against his child wife (and her violin) to a competent lawyer, is something else. But he lost.
And that was more or less the end of Nelson Varley. If he’d been drinking and stressing before, I dare say he was doing it as much or more now. For, while Madame Varley-Liebe (still!) and her brother Theodore (‘cello) continued on their concertising way, Varley went to ground. But it was over.

He had one more job, and it was a job that would last him out. When HMS Pinafore and The Sorcerer went on the road, Richard D’Oyly Carte hired Nelson Varley to go with them. He was seen in the leading tenor roles of both shows at times, but it seems that he was along for the trip, basically, as an understudy. And a chorister. It was murmured that he was ‘in declining health’, but he was sent on in both leading roles during an interregnum in leading tenors between August and October of 1881. But then he returned to the chorus. He was hired again, for the company of 1883, playing HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance,but his health got worse – bronchial, came the word, in what was surely a euphemism --  and, while the company was in Cardiff, he became too ill to move on to the next date. He died in his digs there soon after the company left town.  The doctor signed a death certificate quoting ‘haemhorrage of the lungs’, before, at Carte’s expense, what remained of a, once, very fine singer was consigned to a grave at Cardiff’s New Cemetery.
He left a note. Not for Mrs Varley. Its simply said ‘Love to my profession and God bless all the world’.
What a waste.


djp said...

Thanks for this. I Found it when researching my ancestor - John Smith "Nelson" Varley is my 1st cousin 4x removed. It has given me so much background on his life and career.


Wow! Great to have found you! I think the poor fellow may have been gay. ... and couldn't cope. but he had his moment in the sun