Steuart Wilson

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Steuart Wilson
Wilson in 1951
Born (1889-07-21)21 July 1889
Bristol, England
Died 18 December 1966(1966-12-18) (aged 77)
Petersfield, Hampshire

Sir James Steuart Wilson (21 July 1889 – 18 December 1966) was an English singer, known for tenor roles in oratorios and concerts in the first half of the 20th century.

After service in the First World War, Wilson became known for singing tenor roles in oratorios by composers from Bach to Elgar. He was a champion of music by English composers of his generation, notably Ralph Vaughan Williams and Rutland Boughton. He also appeared from time to time in operatic tenor roles.

After retiring from his singing career in the early 1940s, Wilson embarked on a second career as a musical administrator, in which he was generally regarded as unsuccessful. He campaigned strenuously against homosexuals in the musical profession.

Life and career[edit]

Early years[edit]

Wilson was born in Bristol, the youngest child of the Rev. James Maurice Wilson, headmaster of Clifton College who was once described as "something of a theological firebrand".[1] Steuart's elder brother was Arnold Talbot Wilson. Wilson was educated at Winchester College and King's College, Cambridge, where he read classics but developed a strong interest in music. During that time he formed friendships with Clive Carey, Edward J. Dent and Ralph Vaughan Williams.[2] Wilson's first public appearance as a singer was in Vaughan Williams's incidental music for Aristophanes' The Wasps in 1909. He made his first appearance in opera as Tamino in Mozart's The Magic Flute in 1911.[3]

At the outbreak of World War I Wilson volunteered for action and was commissioned as an army officer. He served in France and was twice wounded, then worked in the Intelligence Bureau of the General Staff at the War Office and General Headquarters in France.[4] Authorities differ on whether the wounds, which resulted in the loss of a lung and one of his kidneys, affected his singing voice. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that they did not;[3] Frank Howes, writing in 1951, and The Times in its obituary, both state that they did.[1][5]

Singing career[edit]

Wilson developed an interest in early English music, and was instrumental in founding the sextet, the English Singers in 1920. From 1921 to 1923 he taught music at Bedales School, an appointment that left him time to take singing engagements all over the country. In 1924 he left the English Singers and furthered his singing studies first with Jean de Reszke (1924–25), and then with Sir George Henschel (1925–28).[4][5] He also studied 17th- and 18th-century music with Wanda Landowska in Paris.[4]

Wilson became a leading interpreter of the Evangelist in Bach's Passions, and of the title part in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, which he sang under the baton of the composer and other conductors including Hamilton Harty,[6] Malcolm Sargent,[7] Albert Coates,[8] and Adrian Boult.[9] The Times called him "the best exponent of [Gerontius] at the present time".[10] The tenor Peter Pears said that it was hearing Wilson singing as Evangelist in Bach's St Matthew Passion that "started me off".[11]

Wilson also sang Mozart at the Old Vic (though Howard Ferguson complained "Steuart Wilson would sing out of tune"),[12] and regularly championed English music, making regular appearances at Rutland Boughton's festival in Glastonbury and on occasion at Napier Miles's festivals in Bristol.[1] He was praised by Gustav Holst, who credited him with rescuing the British National Opera Company production which had previously "ruined" his opera At the Boar's Head.[13]

Writing in 1968, The Gramophone critic Roger Fiske recalled that Wilson "stood out above other tenors both for high intelligence and for clarity of words, though his voice was not by nature of especial beauty; also he never sang quite as well in performance as at rehearsal, his tone tightening under stress."[14]

Wilson made respected English translations of German Lieder and choral texts in collaboration with A. H. Fox Strangways, and published volumes of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms.[4]

For many years, the conductor Adrian Boult had been a close friend of Wilson and his first wife Ann, née Bowles. When, in the late 1920s, Wilson began to mistreat his wife, Boult took her side.[15][n 1] She divorced Wilson on grounds of cruelty in 1931, and married Boult in 1933.[15] The enmity provoked in Wilson was to have lasting repercussions.[16] The stigma attached to divorce in Britain in the 1930s affected Wilson's career but not Boult's: Wilson was barred from performing in English cathedrals at the Three Choirs Festival but Boult was invited to conduct the orchestra at Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937.[17]

BBC libel case[edit]

Wilson achieved a wider fame for his successful libel action against the BBC in what became known as "the case of the intrusive H". The BBC had printed in its weekly magazine The Listener a letter accusing Wilson of the technical fault of aspirating his runs in decorated music: "I am amazed that the BBC engaged anyone quite so incompetent in his breath control. … 'Pilate's wife' became 'pigh-highlet's wife'; 'high priest' was turned into 'high-high pree-hiest', 'purple robe' into 'purple ro-hobe', and 'to' into 'too-hoo' – and so on through the entire performance. It was simply ghastly."[18] When Wilson sued the BBC it vigorously defended the action, believing the letter was justified criticism of a performer. Wilson demolished the accusations against him, pointing out in court that the supposed examples were fictitious, as the words quoted did not appear in the work in question.[18] He won £2,000 damages. On Wilson's victory the BBC Director General, John Reith, banned him from broadcasting for a year, a decision widely criticised as Wilson had won his case.

Wilson used the money he won in the libel case to support a London production of Boughton's opera The Lily Maid, which he himself conducted at the Winter Garden Theatre in January 1937.[19] He was praised for his assured beat and experienced direction.[20]


In 1937 Wilson settled for a time in the United States with his second wife, Mary (who was a cellist), and joined the faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; there he taught singing, English diction, vocal repertoire, and vocal ensemble.[4] He continued to give recitals into the early 1940s.[21] In 1941 he resigned from the Curtis Institute in protest against the dismissal of the director Randall Thompson,[22] and the following year the Wilsons returned to England. This was the end of Wilson's career as a singer, he himself observing, "The whole place [America] is jammed full of singers from every country in the world, all rampaging around for jobs."[23]

Musical administrator[edit]

Wilson joined the BBC in 1942 "in a minor capacity with hopes of preferment".[24] In 1943 he was appointed music director for the BBC Overseas Service. After the war, in 1945 he was appointed music director of the Arts Council of Great Britain, newly formed from the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), and he helped reorganise the music department for peacetime work.[1]

In 1948, the year in which he was knighted,[25] he became director of music for the BBC following the sudden death of Victor Hely-Hutchinson. The Times described this appointment as "not a success",[5] and it is chiefly remembered for the controversy Wilson provoked by engineering the forced retirement of Boult as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. When Boult had been appointed director of music at the BBC in 1930, the Corporation's director-general Sir John Reith had informally promised him that would be exempt from the BBC's rule that staff must retire at age 60.[26] However, Reith left the BBC in 1938 and his promise carried no weight with his successors.[27] In 1948, when Wilson was appointed head of music at the BBC, he made clear from the outset his intention to see Boult replaced as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra,[28] and he used his authority to insist on Boult's enforced retirement.[29][n 2] The director-general of the BBC at the time, Sir William Haley, was unaware of Wilson's personal animus against Boult and later acknowledged, in a broadcast tribute to Boult, that he "had listened to ill-judged advice in retiring him."[30]

In 1949 Wilson moved to Covent Garden to take the post of deputy general administrator of the Royal Opera House. While in that position he gave support to the Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik, who had recently defected from communist Poland, by introducing him to the concert agent Harold Holt.[31] Wilson was responsible for securing the premiere of Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress at the Royal Opera House in 1951.[32] Wilson resented being subordinate to the general administrator, David Webster, and he resigned from his Royal Opera House post in June 1955.[33] The following month it was announced that he was launching "a campaign against homosexuality in British music" and was quoted as saying: "The influence of perverts in the world of music has grown beyond all measure. If it is not curbed soon, Covent Garden and other precious musical heritages could suffer irreparable harm."[34]

Wilson's last major appointment was as principal of the Birmingham School of Music, 1957–1960, but this is described by Grove as "an unhappy episode".[35] The Gramophone critic Roger Fiske commented that Wilson "'administered' with an aggressive sensitivity and wit that veered between the inspired and the impossible".[14]

Wilson died in 1966 in Petersfield, Hampshire, aged 77.[3]


On a recording made in 1927 during a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, London, Wilson sings in extracts from The Dream of Gerontius conducted by the composer. He also recorded Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge and songs by Denis Browne.[35]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Richard Aldous in his biography of Malcolm Sargent (p. 156) alleges that Boult and Ann Wilson were having an affair before her divorce from Wilson, but the source he cites (Kennedy, pp. 81, 111, 161–63) does not corroborate his statement.
  2. ^ In a biography of Wilson (English Singer, London, Duckworth, 1970, ISBN 0715604686), Wilson's third wife Margaret disputes this and says that relations between the two were now amicable, and it was others at the BBC who were pressing for Boult's removal.
  1. ^ a b c d Howes, Frank. "Sir Steuart Wilson", The Musical Times, March 1951, p. 110
  2. ^ Banfield, p. 153.
  3. ^ a b c Glasgow, Mary and Ian MacPhail,"Wilson, Sir (James) Steuart (1889–1966)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, May 2006, accessed 2 July 2007 (subscription required)
  4. ^ a b c d e Overtones, The Curtis Institute of Music, November 1937
  5. ^ a b c The Times, 19 December 1966
  6. ^ The Times, 19 February 1926, p. 12
  7. ^ The Times, 28 March 1930, p. 12
  8. ^ The Times, Thursday, 23 March 1933, p. 12
  9. ^ "Elgar memorial concert", The Times. 15 March 1934, p. 12
  10. ^ The Times, 13 September 1930, p. 8
  11. ^ Pears, p. 225
  12. ^ Letter to Gerald Finzi, 14 June 1928, in Hurd (2001), p. 39
  13. ^ Short, p. 233
  14. ^ a b The Gramophone, October 1968, p. 128
  15. ^ a b Kennedy, pp. 161–63.
  16. ^ Kennedy, p. 215, et seq.
  17. ^ Kennedy, pp. 162 and 181
  18. ^ a b "Libel action against BBC", The Manchester Guardian, 20 June 1934, p. 12
  19. ^ Hurd (1993), p. 220.
  20. ^ "Winter Garden Theatre", The Times, 13 January 1937, p. 10
  21. ^ See Curtis Institute's "Recital programs 1940–41"
  22. ^ Cobbe, p. 316
  23. ^ Recorded Sound, Issues 33–40, British Institute of Recorded Sound, 1969, p. 663 [1].
  24. ^ Letter to Vaughan Williams, 9 November 1942, reproduced in Cobbe, p. 354
  25. ^ Mitchell & Reed, 1991: p. 169.
  26. ^ Kennedy, p. 214
  27. ^ Kennedy, p. 185
  28. ^ Kennedy, p. 215
  29. ^ ODNB; Kennedy p. 215; and Aldous, pp. 156–57.
  30. ^ Kennedy, p. 222
  31. ^ Jacobson, p. 48
  32. ^ Vaughan Williams's letter to Wilson, 27 April 1951, reproduced in Cobbe, p. 480.
  33. ^ Haltrecht, pp. 157–58
  34. ^ The People, 24 July 1955, cited in Mitchell, 2004: p. 7
  35. ^ a b Kennedy, Michael. "Steuart Wilson", Grove Music Online, accessed 5 May 2011 (subscription required)


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