When the US soprano Jessye Norman appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1981, her first choice was Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, with the great African American contralto Marian Anderson. Norman had been ten years old when she first heard that recording. “I listened, thinking, ‘But this can’t just be a voice! A voice doesn’t sound this rich and beautiful,’” she told the music critic Matthew Gurewitsch.
Many felt the same about Norman, who died last week. Sumptuous. Voluptuous. Shimmering. Majestic. The descriptions of her voice inevitably embody a sense of awe
Born in 1945, in Augusta, Georgia, Norman grew up in the Jim Crow south. Like many black singers she initially honed her voice in church choirs. But her real love remained opera. The racial barriers in 1960s America meant that her operatic breakthrough necessarily came on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1968, she won the Munich International music competition. The following year, she made her operatic debut at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Through the 1970s, she sang in most of Europe’s great opera houses, from La Scala to the Royal Opera House. Her US debut, however, was not until 1982 and her debut at New York’s Met not until the following year. She was famous enough to be on Desert Island Discs long before was given a chance to sing in her own country.
Her repertoire ranged from Purcell to John Cage (‘pigeonholes are for pigeons’, she once remarked). But her voice seemed particularly crafted for German romanticism. Her version of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs is one of the great recordings of modern times.
Norman always acknowledged the trailblazing work of African American opera signers before her, such as Anderson and Leontyne Price. “They have made it possible for me to say, ‘I will sing French opera’”, she observed, “or, ‘I will sing German opera’, instead of being told, ‘You will sing Porgy and Bess’.”
I love Porgy and Bess. But to be able to listen to Norman singing Strauss is to be transported somewhere transcendent.
Here are five of Norman’s recordings to give a sense of her range and dramatic power. The first is Im Abedrot, from her famous recording of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. The second, Wiegenlied, another Strauss song (and from the same album). There’s a beautiful rendition of Schubert’s version of Ave Maria. And then Norman’s version of the traditional gospel song ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’. And finally her version of ‘La Marseillaise’ at the 200th anniversary celebration of the French Revolution at the Place de l’Etoile. It’s a poor recording, but a fascinating bit of history.
Richard Strauss, Im Abedrot (from Four Last Songs)
Richard Strauss, Wiegenlied
Franz Schubert, Ave Maria
Traditional, Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A version of the this article will appear in the Observer, 6 October 2019. The photo is courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.