Astra Desmond

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Astra Desmond

Astra Desmond CBE (10 April 1893 – 16 August 1973) was a British contralto of the early and middle twentieth century.


Early years[edit]

Astra Desmond was born Gwendolyn Mary Thompson, in Torquay, England. She was educated at Notting Hill High School and Westfield College, where she was a classical scholar.[1] She studied singing with Blanche Marchesi (as did her colleague Muriel Brunskill) and Louise Trenton, and in Berlin with Ernst Grezebach and Coenraad V. Bos.[1]

Singing career[edit]

Desmond's career was mostly in concert and recital, but she made some operatic appearances. A 1916 review of the Carl Rosa Opera Company described her as a new singer of great promise.[2] At Sadler's Wells she sang Delilah and Carmen and at Covent Garden, Ortrud, and Fricka.[1]

In recital, Desmond was noted for her performances of songs by Edvard Grieg about which she wrote a 25-page article in Music and Letters in 1941,[3] reprinted in Grieg. A Symposium, ed. Gerald Abraham.[4] She also made a number of singing translations of Grieg's songs, published by Augener. For her work in this field she was awarded the Order of St. Olav by the Norwegian government. Her interpretation of Jean Sibelius's songs was also admired.[1]

On 5 October 1938 Desmond was one of the original 16 singers in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, the recording of which, made at EMI's Abbey Road studio shortly thereafter, has been transferred to compact disc by several companies.[5] Earlier, in 1932, Vaughan Williams had dedicated to her his Magnificat (for contralto solo, women's choir, solo flute and orchestra.[6] (Later, she received the contrasting tribute of having a variety of rose named after her.[7])

As well as the regular standard concert works including Sir Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (in which she frequently sang under the baton of the composer)[8] and Handel's Messiah, Desmond sang a wide repertoire, taking part in the first broadcast performance of Stravinsky's Oedipus rex in 1928[1] and a rare performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, with Peter Pears, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Adrian Boult in 1942,[9] and she was the first to introduce the songs of Yrjö Kilpinen to British audiences.[10]


Desmond made few commercial recordings: they include the first recording of Serenade to Music, under the baton of Henry Wood, and a series of recordings for Decca of songs by Purcell and Grieg;[11] she can be also briefly heard singing with Elsie Suddaby and Isobel Baillie in "To Heart Ceasing", recorded by EMI live from a Royal Command Performance in the 1930s.[12]

There also exist several 'off-air' recordings (home recordings from radio broadcasts) of Desmond. These include substantial excerpts of her "calm and serene" interpretation of the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius (a 1935 performance in Manchester under Malcolm Sargent, also featuring Heddle Nash),[13] and a performance of Serenade to Music in the Royal Festival Hall, 1951, under the composer.

Later career[edit]

Like many singers Desmond took up teaching later in her career (becoming Professor of Singing at the Royal Academy of Music) from 1947 to 1963.[8] but also wrote educational books on music, including one for the BBC Music Guides on Schumann's Lieder which is still (2007) in print.[14]

Desmond succeeded Liza Lehmann, Cécile Chaminade, Fanny Davies, Rosa Newmarch and Myra Hess as president of the Society of Women Musicians in the UK, and also president of the Incorporated Society of Musicians.[1]


In 1920, Desmond married Sir Thomas Neame. They had three sons - Basil, Geoffrey and Christopher.[1] She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1949.

Desmond died at the age of eighty.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g The Times, obituary notice, Friday, 17 August 1973, p. 16
  2. ^ The Musical Times, 1 December 1916, p. 518
  3. ^ Music and Letters, Vol. 22, No. 4 (October 1941), pp. 333-357
  4. ^ 'Music of the Masters' series, Lindsay Drummond, London, 1948.
  5. ^ notes to Dutton CD transfer, CDBP 9707
  6. ^ RVW Works List Choral
  7. ^ Astra Desmond Rose (Climbers, ramblers and scramblers) from Classic Roses - English Roses Rose UK Roses UK : Classic Roses the Peter Beales Collection :
  8. ^ a b The Times, obituary notice, Friday, 17 August 1973, p. 16
  9. ^ The Musical Times, December 1942, p. 383
  10. ^ The Musical Times, October 1973, p. 1045.
  11. ^ The Musical Times, June 1941, p. 222; October 1943, p. 308; and April 1944, p 115.
  12. ^ Review | Elsie Suddaby Songs and Arias by M. Arne, Bach, Beethoven, Boyce, Brown, Coleridge Taylor, Delius, Handel, Haydn, Henschel, Purcell, Schubert, Schumann, Scott and Hay...
  13. ^ ELGAR Dream of Gerontius by John Quinn - December 2007 MusicWeb-International
  14. ^ ISBN 0-563-20556-3


  • Brook, D: Singers of Today (Revised Edition - Rockliff, London 1958), 64-69.
  • Desmond, Astra: Schumann Songs, BBC Music Guide, ISBN 0-563-20556-3