AESS Newsletter, June 2003

BOOK REVIEW

 

Pamela Bowden: Life of a low lady memoirs of a contralto. A Thames/Elkin Publication; distributed by William Elkin Music Services, Station Road, Salhouse, Norwich NR13 6NS. ISBN 0 903413 66 3. £16.95.

Our fellow-member, friend and colleague Pamela Bowden has written her memoirs, and very good they are too, and a very recommendable read, for not only do they record her remarkable and distinguished career, but also the life that led up to it, in Lancashire (with the north-south pull engendered by her mother's Kentish roots though her parents were from Devon), in the shadow of the Grove Dyeing Company, founded by her great-grandfather and under the control of subsequent generations of the Bowden family. Pamela writes candidly about these times and thus injects a real feeling of reality into the story, and a diary of daily life during 1941 serves to show the emotions of a sixteen year old girl during the Second World War, a defining moment for all who lived through it.

Eventually she became part of the War and those of us who know her may perhaps be surprised to learn that she became a wireless instructor in the 'Wrens', with many memorable anecdotes to tell. Singing had begun before the War at the (then) Royal Manchester College of Music, where she studied for a short period with Norman Allin, and then with Mrs Leslie Langford, widow of the Manchester Guardian's legendary music critic, Sammy Langford (predecessor of Neville Cardus). But a move to London after demobilization to study with Roy Henderson 'Prof', to his adoring pupils, who over the years included Norma Procter, Rae Woodland, Derek Hammond-Stroud, John Shirley-Quirk and, of course, Kathleen Ferrier signalled the real beginning of what eventually led to her distinguished singing career, by way of the BBC Singers and the Glyndebourne chorus. Her friend from the RMCM, Flora Kent, had by this time also moved south as Henderson's accompanist and indeed accompanied Pamela in her early recitals, including her Wigmore Hall debut in 1955, after she won the First Prize at the Geneva International Competition the year before.

The passage of time and her more recent career as a teacher, adjudicator and academic may have obscured the distinction she achieved as a singer, working with many famous musicians at home and abroad. She made some very fine records too, and she reveals at the end of the book that Jonathan Darnborough is undertaking a project to transfer them all to Compact Disc, I assume primarily for personal archive purposes. I have hoped for a long time that her superlative performance of Lennox Berkeley's Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila will be reissued commercially perhaps this Association should press Dutton, or one of the other labels specializing in historical reissues, to consider this (and perhaps other recordings of essential repertoire by a variety of performers now retired).

Pamela Bowden's splendid book is not merely a chronology of events, but dispenses much wisdom on the art of singing. It is good to have as an appendix two talks: her presidential addresses to the ISM in 1989 and to AOTOS in 1987; these alone are worth the price of the book. The author's warmth and generosity shines from every page, but she is not afraid to record her reasons for resigning from the Music Panel of the Greater London Arts Association in 1981, when classical music became sidelined in favour of 'political correctness', which began to emerge at that time.

Life of a low lady has a useful index, some interesting statistics and some excellent illustrations, and it is good to know that the wonderful smile that so captivated me in December 1961, when I first saw and heard her 'live', in Messiah at the Nottingham Albert Hall (conducted by Noel Cox), was there for all to see in October 1926, age 18 months (see frontispiece).

Buy this book, enjoy it, and be enriched by it.

© Garry Humphreys, 2003