Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Myron Whitney, a Massachusetts bass

WHITNEY, Myron William (b Ashby, Mass 5 September 1835; d Sandwich, Mass 17 September 1910)


American bass who found considerable success as, in particular, a sacred singer, on both sides of the Atlantic.


The fine career of Mr Whitney, and the details of his life, have both been much written about, with only the occasional much-copied misstatement, but I shall nevertheless repeat them here. Myron Whitney was born in the small town of Ashby, Massachusetts, where his father, William Whitney, was a farmer. His mother was Fannie née Lincoln. We are told that sang as a boy in church, and by his twenties had moved to Boston, to study with E H Frost, and to work (although the 1855 census describes him as a mason) as a bass chorister in the choir of Boston’s Tremont Temple. There he met and married the young singer Eleanor (‘Nelly’) Breasha (b Chelsea, Vermont  4 November 1841, d Sandwich, Mass 20 December 1910) (m 4 May 1859).


It is said that he made his first significant appearance as a soloist singing the bass music of The Messiah at the Temple in 1858, and with the local Handel and Haydn Society in the same work in 1861. I can’t find a contemporary record of these occasions, for the soloists aren’t always billed, but I do spot him in 1858, assisting Frost in a ‘Musical Convention’ at the Temple, and in 1859-1860 featured with Father Kemp’s Celebrated Old Folks Concert Company, singing hymns and ballads with Emma Nichols. 

I daresay the Massachusetts papers of yore hold some record of the engagements he fulfilled over the next half-dozen years –I pick him up only in Hartford, Conn in The Messiah and performing a Festival Ode by local John G Barnett in June 1862. The press assured that ‘his voice and singing was very much admired’.


The name of Whitney was thoroughly current in the Boston area around this time – tenor James Whitney was a well-known local vocalist (until he eloped with someone’s wife), Mr H L Whitney also sang tenor, and Albert H Whitney was on the singing scene as well – so our basso Whitney soon became designated as Mr M W Whitney.


Between 1867 and 1869 I see Mr M W Whitney singing in a variety of oratorios, including on the occasion of the 1868 Boston Musical Festival, where he sang Samson and The Messiah alongside Parepa. Then, at over 30 years of age, having established a largely local reputation, Whitney decided to travel to Europe, for several months, to study. We are told that he went first to Florence, to take lessons from Luigi Vannuccini, a teacher who had attracted a useful American clientele, and thence to London, where he put himself under Alberto Randegger.  The Randegger connection won him his first British appearance (as it would win him many others) singing the bass parts in the quartets to Carl Stepan’s Elijah at St James’s Hall for Joseph Barnby.


Returning to Boston in March 1869, he staged a concert (21 April) of his own, which drew much praise: ‘the bass singer well known in our Oratorios, who returned a few weeks since from Europe, has certainly made the most of his short period of study in Milan and London. In the Complimentary Concert given to him in the Music Hall on Wednesday evening, April 21, a large audience listened with rare satisfaction to his greatly improved voice, as well as large and even delivery. His tones, always grand and manly, have grown more round and musical throughout their compass, especially in the upper range, and he does all with more artistic certainty and ease … a spirited song by the London Randegger, served well to show his vocal qualities and execution. The common trick of basses, of making a point of a very low bass note, because exceptional, may be pardoned on the occasion’.

Now established as the premier basso of the county, his performances were received with accolades, although the Boston press did not hesitate to find fault where it lurked, as on the occasion of the 1870 festive Messiah: ‘The grand Bass solos were entrusted on both nights, of course, to Mr. Whitney: for who else could do them better or so well? By his grand voice, and dignified, grand rendering, he bore among the chief honors. He seems in a great degree to have got the better of a certain heaviness and stiffness of delivery, as well as a certain hollowness in some of his large tones, so that he sings now with an unction and a sympathetic fervor, which, added to his other qualities, make him a very noble Oratorio singer’.

Indeed, if there were a fault to find with Mr Whitney as a performer, it was apparently a stuffiness, a pomposity of demeanour and tone, which was noted in America and Britain for much of his career. He sang for the first half of 1871 in America, featuring in the Boston Musical Festival alongside Mme Rudersdorff, at the National Music Conference, and delivering his Elijah, his Messiah, his ‘Qui sdegno’, his ‘Per questo bello mano’ or his ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ in concerts in the Eastern states, before heading back to Britain.


There, doubtless through Randegger, he had been engaged (along with the composer’s inseparable Madame Rudersdorff) for Rivière’s Covent Garden Proms. His ‘Beiden Grenadiere’ proved too ‘gloomy’ for the proms audience (‘A bass from Boston of whose powers it would be scarcely fair to speak before hearing him in something more effective that Schumann’s ‘Two Grenadiers’), but Randegger’s ‘There’s nothing like a freshening breeze’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘The Hunter’ soon set things to right. Over the season, he gave Rocco’s Gold aria (Fidelio), Guglielmo’s ‘A sailor’s life for me’, Cotter Nixon’s ‘Tubal Cain’, ‘The Wanderer’ ‘I am a Roamer’ and ‘O beauteous daughter of the starry race’, but scored by far his greatest success in the various oratorios staged for Madame Rudersdorff (Stabat Mater, Messiah, Mozart Mass in GElijah). ‘He is more at home in sacred than secular music’ nodded the press.

The Proms contract over, he continued on with the Randegger-Rudersdorff combination, and went out in a concert party with them and the couple’s other pupils Arthur Byron and Anna Drasdil. They gave Die erste Walpurgisnacht at Crystal Palace, Elijah at Birmingham and Glasgow, as well as concerts (‘How willing my paternal love’, ‘It is enough’ ‘Star of Hope, ‘Non piu andrai’, ‘Over a Green Hill’) before Whitney was forced out of the party by an attack of typhoid, which forced him, amongst other things, to forfeit his first appearance with the Sacred Harmonic Society.


A small parenthesis to correct a persistent bit of misinformation here. A squadron of web bioglets insist on the fact the M W Whitney sang Elijah at a Birmingham Festival. He didn’t. The organisers would have been slaughtered had they hired anyone but the irreplaceable Charles Santley for the Festivals of 1873 and 1876. There wasn’t even a Birmingham Triennial Festival in 1871 or 1872. Whitney sang Elijah with the Birmingham Festival Choral Society in October 1871, which is not the same thing at all. At all.

Myron Whitney

Whitney was back on the scene by February 1872, singing St Paul at the Crystal Palace (‘a marked success … His enunciation is stately and impressive, he has an admirable voice and sings like an educated musician’), Jephtha with Sherrington, Patey and Sims Reeves at Manchester, The Last Judgment and Lauda Sion, Haydn’s Third Mass, and The Messiah with the Sacred Harmonic Society, Israel in EgyptElijah, St Paul at the Oratorio Concerts, The Last Judgment, Mass in C and Messiah at Birmingham, the Dettingen Te Deum at Leeds, at the Crystal Palace Good Friday sacred performance (with Rudersdorff, Peschke Leutner, Patey, Lemmens-Sherrington, Reeves) … In May, he sang at the concerts of Elizabeth Philp and Mme Lemmens-Sherrington, in June he took part in the Oxford Commemoration, singing ‘Qui sdegno’ and Acis and Galatea with Edith Wynne and Edward Lloyd.  The biogs say that he sang Polyphemus in the ‘original low’ version. Perhaps so, but no-one seems to have commented on the fact at the time. Which knowing the ‘knowledgeable’ British music press of the time, would have been odd.


In July, he arrived home and began the round of concert and oratorio dates with which he was familiar. 7 November 1872 he made what was billed as ‘his first appearance in NYC in concert’ at the Academy of Music. When he took part in the Cincinnati Festival in May 1873, the press dubbed him ‘the best and truest oratorio singer in the States’: and they may have very well been right. Give or take the odd visiting English singer. The Boston Festival, with Edith Wynne as star guest, followed, then a tour with Theodore Thomas, but in 1874 he turned towards Britain again. He had been engaged by Joseph Barnby for six months at the Albert Hall. And that is more or (a bit) less what he did. Starting with a Messiah with Sinico, Anna Williams, Sterling and Rigby on 12 November, he appeared several nights a week in oratorio (Elijah, Stabat MaterSt Matthew Passion), popular concerts, ballad concerts, national concerts and even the occasional operatic selection.

He was loaned out from time to time to the Crystal Palace (L’Allegro, the initial performance of Holmes’s The Death of Jeanne d’Arc) or a provincial engagement: a concert at Liverpool (‘his method is good and his intonation true but there is a ponderosity in his style…’), a Creation in Glasgow, but the bulk of his appearances were at the Albert Hall. The final ones, however, at the end of March, were at the Crystal Palace (‘My spirit was in Heaviness’), before Whitney turned back to America, and the year’s Cincinnati May Festival.

The Festival season over, however, he returned once more to Britain, where he gave more Elijahs and Messiahs (now become his specialties), rumbled out his ‘Qui sdegno’ at the Aquarium and took a tour with Jose Sherrington and Nelson Varley, until it was time for the annual engagement at Cincinnati. This time, however, he did not return to England when it was over. He did the rounds with, in particular, his Elijah, appeared at Festivals, toured his own concert party, and then took an unexpected turning.

HMS Pinafore was the musical-theatre rage of the country, and Boston’s Miss Ober was setting up a company to give a thoroughly sung version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera. She cast her show advisedly, and for the role of Captain Corcoran, she hired Myron Whitney. For the next five years, between oratorio, festival and concert (The Damnation of Faust, Rubinstein’s Tower of Babel) engagements, Whitney played the leading baritone roles – Corcoran, Kantuschoff, the Pirate King, Gaspard, Arnheim, Beppo, Mourzouk -- for the Boston Ideal Company in Boston, New York and on the road.

In 1884, he announced that he would not play in comic opera any more, and the following couple of years were spent on a reduced schedule, which nevertheless included a visit to England to sing Liszt’s St Elizabeth with Albani and Santley at the Crystal Palace (17 April 1886).

However, the stage was to regain him. The following year, the ambitious National Opera Company hired Whitney (alongside William Ludwig!) as a principal bass, and with them he made operatic appearances as Marcel (Les Huguenots), King Henry (Lohengrin), Daland to Ludwig’s Flying Dutchman, Sarastro in The Magic Flute, Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Babillius in Rubinstein’s Nero, before the enterprise crumbled.


In the later 1880s, Whitney continued on a reduced schedule with his concert, oratorio and festival activity, and although the biogs tell us he ‘retired in 1890’, I spot him doing Messiahs in Boston and Philadelphia, and singing in concert in Baltimore and Philadelphia with pianist Adele aus der Ohe and ‘cellist Victor Herbert thereafter. Eventually, he retired to Massachusetts where he carried on his life in music as a teacher.


Whitney was the father of one daughter, ‘Lizzie’ Gertrude, and of two sons, both of whom made a mark in vocal music: ‘Willie’ Lincoln Whitney and Myron William Whitney jr .


Willie (b Boston 11 June 1861; d Massachusetts, 27 December 1949) made a career as a voice teacher with some notable pupils (Louise Homer, Eleanor Steber), while Myron (b Boston 15 January 1873; d Washington 3 June 1954) followed his father as a bass singer—making an appearance in comic opera with Fritzi Scheff (The Two Roses) – before, like his brother, becoming a singing teacher.







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