About Clara Butt
Dame Clara Ellen Butt, DBE (1 February 1872 – 23 January 1936), was a world famous contralto. Sometimes she was also called Clara Butt - Rumford after her marriage, was an English contralto with a remarkably imposing voice and a surprisingly agile singing technique. Her main career was as a recitalist and concert singer.
Clara Butt was born in Southwick, Sussex. Her father, Henry Albert Butt, was a sea captain who had been born in 1848 in Saint Martin, Jersey, Channel Islands. He married Clara Hook in 1869. She was born in Shoreham, the daughter of Joseph Hook, another mariner. (See the relevant British Census returns for 1861 and 1871.)
In 1880, the Butt family moved to the port city of Bristol in England's West Country, and Clara was educated at South Bristol High School, where her singing ability was recognised and her talent as a performer encouraged. At the request of her headmistress, she was trained by the bass Daniel Rootham (father of composer Cyril Rootham) and joined the Bristol Festival Chorus, of which Daniel Rootham was musical director. Butt won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in January 1890. During her fourth year of vocal lessons at the college she spent three months studying in Paris at the expense of Queen Victoria. She also studied in Berlin and Italy.
She made her professional début at the Royal Albert Hall in London in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s cantata The Golden Legend. This took place on 7 December 1892. Three days later, she appeared as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Lyceum Theatre. Then music critic Bernard Shaw wrote in The World that she ‘far surpassed the utmost expectations that could reasonably be entertained’ (14 December 1892).
She returned to Paris and undertook further studies with Jacques Bouhy (the teacher of two other deep-voiced female singers with international reputations, Louise Homer and Louise Kirkby Lunn). Later, she polished her skills in Berlin with the famous retired soprano Etelka Gerster. The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns heard her, and wanted her to study his opera Dalila, but due to laws then extant forbidding the representation of biblical subjects on the British stage, nothing came of it.
Soon she had acquired an excellent reputation for her vocal attributes back home in England, which was reinforced by her physical presence on the concert platform: she was 6 feet 2 inches tall. She made many gramophone recordings, often accompanied by the (uncredited) pianist Lilian Bryant. Among Butt's recordings are several recordings of Arthur Sullivan's song "The Lost Chord", and her friend Fanny Ronalds, in her 1916 will, bequeathed the original manuscript of the song to Butt. She was primarily a concert singer and only ever appeared in two opera productions, both of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, mounted in 1892 and 1920. Britain's leading composer of the era, Sir Edward Elgar, composed his song-cycle Sea Pictures for contralto and orchestra with Clara Butt in mind as the soloist, and she sang at the first performance of the work at the Norwich Festival on 5 October 1899, with the composer conducting. Butt's only recording from Elgar's monumental song cycle was Where corals lie.