Louise Kirkby Lunn

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Louise Kirkby Lunn as "Dalila", from a 1909 publication

Louise Kirkby Lunn (8 November 1873 – 17 February 1930) was an English contralto. Sometimes classified as a mezzo-soprano, she was a leading English-born singer of the first two decades of the 20th century, earning praise for her performances in concert, oratorio and opera.


Kirkby Lunn (pronounced Kirby Lunn) had her early vocal training in her native city of Manchester, at All Saints Church. She sang there in the choir under Dr J. H. Greenwood, the church's organist, and later appeared at concerts in the city.[1] In 1890, she obtained a place at the Royal College of Music in London and studied for three years with Albert Visetti, also training for opera.[2] Winning a scholarship in her second year, she took the role of Margaret in Schumann's Genoveva in a College production at Drury Lane in December 1893, and then as the Marquise de Montcontour in Delibes' Le roi l'a dit at the Prince of Wales Theatre a year later.[3] She also studied for some time with Jacques Bouhy in Paris.[4]

Early career[edit]

In 1895, she appeared in the first season of Promenade concerts for Henry J. Wood.[5] Augustus Harris gave her a five-year contract almost upon first hearing. In 1896 she appeared as Nora in Stanford's Shamus O'Brien at the Theatre Comique, again under Wood, with Joseph O'Mara, Maggie Davies, W.H. Stevens and Denis O'Sullivan, a production which ran for 100 nights from 2 March.[6]

This was followed by a number of small roles at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. However, the Covent Garden contract expired with Harris's death in June 1896, whereupon she joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company, performing as principal mezzo-soprano in London and on tour in the provinces in Carmen, Mignon, Lohengrin, Rigoletto and other works. In 1898, at Queen's Hall in London, she sang as a Rhinemaiden in excerpts from Das Rheingold with Lillian Blauvelt and Helen Jaxon, with David Bispham appearing as Alberich.[7] She remained with the Carl Rosa until 1899, the year in which she married W. J. Pearson.

She was particularly active in the 1900–1901 Queen's Hall season with Wood, appearing with Blauvelt, Lloyd Chandos and Daniel Price, and the Wolverhampton Festival Choral Society, in Beethoven's last symphony on 16 March, and in Gilbert and Sullivan excerpts (with Lloyd Chandos and Florence Schmidt).[8] In the midst of a series of Wagner concerts with Marie Brema, Philip Brozel, David Ffrangcon-Davies and Olga Wood, on 22 November 1901 (the first anniversary of the death of Arthur Sullivan), she sang in a special performance of Sullivan's cantata The Golden Legend, with Blauvelt, John Coates and Ffrangcon-Davies.[9]

Operatic career[edit]

From 1901–14, Louise Kirkby Lunn appeared regularly at the Covent Garden, and for several of those years also in the United States, especially at the Metropolitan Opera in the seasons of 1902–03, 1906–08 and 1912–14.[10]

She was particularly successful in Wagnerian opera parts, especially as Fricka, Brangane, Ortrud and Erda, and in 1904 gave the first English-language performance of the role of Kundry (Parsifal) in America, at Boston. Her American 1902 debut, however, had been as Amneris in Aïda, a role in which she formed a long and famous partnership with the Czech dramatic soprano Emmy Destinn as Aïda.[11] (This partnership is preserved on record, not only in a 1911-recorded 'Ebben qual nuovo fremito' from Verdi's work, but also in a 1911 'L'amo come il fulgor', from Ponchielli's La Gioconda.[12]) Both in England and America, she was also a famous Dalila in the opera by Saint-Saëns. She sang, too, in the Covent Garden premieres of Saint-Saëns'Helene and Massenet's Hérodiade, Gluck's Armide and Tchaikowsky's Eugene Onegin.[13] Gluck's Orfeo, which she first delivered in 1905, was considered one of her best parts, and her showpiece aria, 'Che faro?', was committed to disc.[14]

Oratorio and concert work[edit]

Henry Wood first conducted the Prelude and Angel's farewell from The Dream of Gerontius, with Kirkby Lunn, in February 1901.[15] In March 1904, she was a principal soloist in the Elgar Festival concerts given at Covent Garden, appearing on the first night with John Coates and Ffrangcon-Davies in Gerontius, and on the second with them and with Agnes Nicholls, Kennerley Rumford (the husband of Clara Butt) and Andrew Black in The Apostles.[16] In this way she effectively replaced Marie Brema, the original choice for the Gerontius angel. Two years later she performed it with the same colleagues (but for Henry Wood) in Leeds.[17] She sang it under Hans Richter at Birmingham in 1909 with John Coates and Frederic Austin; The Athenaeum remarked, 'each, in turn, brought to it an accession of glory.'[18] Wood greatly admired her, and employed her frequently, choosing her for a Sheffield Festival presentation of a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Christmas Eve, with Francis Hurford, in 1908.[19]

In 1909, Kirkby Lunn performed the Sea Pictures songs under Elgar's baton at the Royal Philharmonic Society concerts. On that occasion she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society, when the Honorary Secretary, composer and pianist Francesco Berger, referred to her 'rare combination of personal artistic achievement added to a richly endowed nature.'[20] She made two further appearances before the society before the war, on the opening nights (November) of the 1913 and 1914 seasons. At the former she sang the scena from Wagner's Rienzi, 'Gerechter Gott!', for Willem Mengelberg, and on the second occasion the Ballade La Fiancee du Timbalier by Saint-Saëns, for Thomas Beecham.[21] She performed the Brahms Alto Rhapsody at Queen's Hall under Henri Verbrugghen in the Festival of April 1915, and she also sang in the Festival of British Music there the following month.[22] In November 1916, she reappeared with the RPO to sing Mozart's 'Non piu di fiori' from La clemenza di Tito.[23] She made a recording of the Clemenza item.[24]

Before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Kirkby Lunn had been in great demand for oratorio appearances on the European Continent, and she sang frequently as far afield as Budapest. New York also heard her during this period.[25] In 1912, she had made a tour of Australia with William Murdoch, the celebrated pianist who had made his London debut two years earlier.

Recording activities and final performances[edit]

In the same year (1912) as her Australian tour, Kirkby Lunn recorded two duets with the famous Covent Garden and Met tenor, John McCormack, from operas composed by Wolf-Ferrari.[26] These duets have been re-mastered and re-issued on CD, as have some of her other, solo, 78-rpm discs. Her main body of her recordings were made for the Gramophone Company between 1909 and 1916 but there were also Pathe records cut earlier, including duets that feature Ben Davies, another tenor. Among the operatic excerpts on her recorded output are music by Wagner and, as we have seen, Verdi, Ponchielli, Gluck, Mozart and Wolf-Ferrari. The acoustic recording process of the day was not particularly kind to Kirkby-Lunn's "warm rich notes of true contralto quality" (as critic Herman Klein spoke of her voice),[27] although in some pieces such as the Gounod 'Entreat me not to leave thee', or the Arthur Goring Thomas 'A Summer night',[28] her famed control of the broad compass, and the poise and grandeur of her delivery, are apparent.

In 1919–22, Kirkby Lunn reappeared at Covent Garden, choosing her celebrated part of Kundry for her last appearances there with the British National Opera Company.[29] After this she remained before the public for several years more in concert and recital. (At much the same time, Marie Brema was making her reappearances in Orfeo.)


She died in London in 1930, aged 56, from undisclosed causes.


  • Although she could speak four different languages and sing fluently in them, she had always retained her distinctive Manchester regional accent in conversation.[30]
  • Her name has sometimes been transcribed as Louise Kirkby-Lunn.


  1. ^ G. Davidson, Opera Biographies (Werner Laurie, London 1955), pp. 172–73
  2. ^ M. Scott, The Record of Singing I (Duckworth, London 1977), p. 45
  3. ^ Davidson 1955, p. 173
  4. ^ Scott 1977.
  5. ^ H.J. Wood, My Life of Music (Gollancz, London 1946 edn), pp. 77–78
  6. ^ Wood 1946, p. 85
  7. ^ Wood 1946, p. 121
  8. ^ Wood 1946, pp. 149–51
  9. ^ Wood 1946, p. 155
  10. ^ A. Eaglefield Hull, A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians (Dent, London 1924); M. Scott, The Record of Singing I (Duckworth, London 1977), pp. 45–46
  11. ^ G. Davidson, Opera Biographies (Werner Laurie, London 1955), pp. 172–74
  12. ^ HMV Italian, 2-054020 and 2-054023 (both 1911); Bennett 1967, pp. 76–77
  13. ^ See also H. Rosenthal and J. Warrack, Concise Dictionary of Opera (London 1974 edn).
  14. ^ HMV Italian 2-053121, c1915; Bennett 1967.
  15. ^ Lewis Foreman, Elgar's Interpreters on Record IV insert (Elgar Society 2000).
  16. ^ Percy M. Young, Letters of Edward Elgar (Geoffrey Bles, London 1955), pp. 131–32
  17. ^ Wood 1946, p. 205
  18. ^ M. Lee-Browne, Nothing so charming as Musick! (Thames, London 1999), p. 38
  19. ^ Wood 1946, p. 213
  20. ^ R. Elkin, Royal Philharmonic (Rider, London 1946), pp. 103, 135
  21. ^ Elkin 1946, pp. 139–40
  22. ^ R. Elkin, Queen's Hall 1893–1941 (Rider, London 1944), pp. 77–78
  23. ^ Elkin 1946, p. 144
  24. ^ O righteous God, HMV 03440. (J. R. Bennett, Voices of the Past: Vol I (Oakwood Press 1955)); Non piu dei fiori, HMV 2-053001. (J.R. Bennett, Voices of the Past: Vol II (Oakwood Press, 1965)).
  25. ^ Eaglefield Hull, 1924.
  26. ^ 'T'ieri un giorno ammalato' (I gioielli della Madonna), 2-054040, and 'Il dolce idillio' (Il segreto di Susanna), 2-054041. (Bennett 1967, p. 77)
  27. ^ Herman Klein, Thirty Years of Musical Life in London, 1870–1900 (Century Co., New York, 1903), p. 467
  28. ^ HMV 03395 (1915) and HMV 03259 (1911); Bennett 1955.
  29. ^ Scott 1977, p. 45
  30. ^ Davidson 1955.


  • J R Bennett, Voices of the Past: Vol I, A Catalogue of Vocal recordings from the English Catalogue of the Gramophone Company (1955).
  • J.R. Bennett, Voices of the Past: Vol II, A Catalogue of Vocal recordings from the Italian Catalogues of the Gramophone Company (Oakwood Press, 1965).
  • G. Davidson, Opera Biographies (Werner Laurie, London 1955).
  • Arthur Eaglefield Hull, A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians (Dent, London 1924).
  • R. Elkin, Royal Philharmonic – The Annals of the Royal Philharmonic Society (London 1946).
  • H. Klein, Thirty Years of Musical Life in London 1870–1900 (Century Co, New York 1903).
  • M. Lee-Browne, Nothing so charming as Musick! The Life and Times of Frederic Austin (Thames 1999).
  • H. Rosenthal and J Warrack, Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera (OUP, London 1974 reprint).
  • M. Scott, The Record of Singing to 1914 (Duckworth 1977).
  • H. Wood, My Life of Music (Gollancz, London 1938).
  • P.M. Young, Letters of Edward Elgar (Geoffrey Bles, London 1956).