English bass-baritone whose distinctive voice and acting skills defined the Britten era passes away at 82.
John Shirley-Quirk, the English bass-baritone whose honeyed tones adorned so many of Benjamin Britten’s finest recordings, has passed away in his home town of Bath aged 82.
Shirley-Quirk was born in Liverpool, England, and learned to sing in his school choir. Choosing to study chemistry and physics at Liverpool University, he also decided to take singing lessons with Austen Carnegie. Initially taking up a teaching appointment at Acton Technical College, he kept up his singing at a pro-am level until the late 1950s when he began to take things more seriously.
Ultimately making the decision to turn professional, he made his operatic debut in Pelléas et Mélisande at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1961. Famously spotted by Benjamin Britten singing in a choral concert in Ipswich, he was invited to join the English Opera Group in 1964 and sang with them right through until 1976, the year that Britten died.
His performances of the bass roles in Britten’s operas, church pieces and choral works led to a number of key recordings and premieres. Possessed of a rich, warm, instantly recognisable bass voice, Britten composed many works with Shirley-Quirk specifically in mind. These included Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, the role of the sympathetic Spencer Coyle in the television opera of Owen Wingrave and parts in all of the church parables.
Perhaps most importantly was his role in Death in Venice where the composer required him to juggle multiple parts as the nemesis of the central character of Gustav von Aschenbach (as originally played by Peter Pears). His performance is captured on Tony palmer's film of the opera where he plays opposite Australian tenor Robert Gard who substituted for an indisposed Pears.
In 1971 he was the soloist in the first recording of Sir Michael Tippett’s The Vision of St. Augustine and in 1977 he created the role of Lev in Tippett’s The Ice Break at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He also performed and recorded A Child of Our Time under the composer in the 1980s.
After the death of Britten he went on to appear regularly with major orchestras and opera companies throughout the world and notched up an enviable discography. Notable recordings include Collatinus in Britten’s own recordings of The Rape of Lucretia, Mr Redburn in Billy Budd, Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Ferryman in Curlew River and the father in The Prodigal Son.
He was also a soloist in Solti’s legendary Mahler Eight on Decca and many of Vaughan Williams’ vocal works under Sir David Willcocks for EMI including the first complete version (including the Epilogue) of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. He sang in the premiere recording of Delius’s Requiem in 1968.
In later years he continued to make important recordings, singing the baritone soloist in Britten’s War Requiem under Richard Hickox in 1991 and the cameo role of the Recorder of Norwich in the premiere recording of Gloriana under Sir Charles Mackerras in 1992.
John Shirley-Quirk was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975. He taught for many years after his retirement and was also on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore up until his death.
Shirley-Quirk was married to Patricia Hastings, who died in 1981, then the oboist Sara Watkins, who died in 1997. In 2009 he married cellist Teresa Perez. He will be greatly missed.