Clare McCaldin on Lieder

Ahead of her appearance at this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival, we sat down for a chat with Clare McCaldin about the artform. Clare is the director of McCaldin Arts.

clare mccaldin mezzo-soprano

© Ben McKee Photography 2018

What does ‘Lieder’ mean to you?

I think of landscape and drama – internal drama as well as the external. Sometimes it can be something simple like a tree that precipitates the poet’s responding to it. There’s this intimate connection between landscape and sentiment, and an internal or external narrative depending on whether the poet intends that.

What’s your first memory of Lieder?

I remember learning Die Forelle to sing at a music competition, or something. I guess I was about eight. That’s the first thing I mastered in German.

So the song being in German is important to Lieder?

Yes, Lieder is German song. It’s such an integral part of what the song is. Performing the song in translation cannot be the same.

When did you discover that this is the importance of Lieder? Did it coincide with studying modern languages at University?

No, it was when I started taking singing seriously. Obviously, studying the language meant I wanted to speak it properly, to understand the phonetics, but their relationship with song only began to matter when I became interested in singing.

So has the appeal of singing German poetry always been about the words or did you come to Lieder through this landscape, or abstract, connection?

I do know a lot of people who have a particular image for a particular song, that’s one way of working with music. That’s principally not how it works for me because I’m lucky enough to work in languages that I understand more or less well, because I speak French German and Italian, enough to understand what’s going on. I feel I have a detailed enough grasp of the text, that actually the text is the thing that takes me into the song. If images do come along then they have come from the text.

What Lieder recital has made the biggest impression on you?

I went to hear John Tomlinson singing, I think, his first Winterreise in public. I confess to having gone along a little bit out of curiosity as he’s not latterly done a great deal of Lieder, so I thought it would be an interesting thing to hear. It’s fascinating that it has stuck in my mind far more than recitals given by famous singers-of-Lieder, because it was an extremely powerfully felt story. Perhaps it was a natural choice, Winterreise, for someone who has done Wotan a lot. It felt that there was an enormous amount of direct experience in the songs. All of that was really distinctive and convincing and I just really liked how much it felt as if it came not just from him as an artist but through him, from a tradition. A different tradition perhaps, from the Lieder tradition, but a tradition nonetheless.

That’s idea of tradition is interesting. What then is the most ‘authentic’ Lieder performance you’ve heard?

Well in some ways, if that idea of tradition follows, then it needs to be a German native singer. One would hope they have the most direct, thorough understanding of the tradition. It needn’t be – it’s hard to say. We strive to get close to the tradition in terms of performing stuff that’s not ‘our own’. I mean, I’ve heard Holzmair and Gerhaher both of whom were tremendous, not just because they’re native speakers but something bound up with that. Oh… I don’t know whether it’s fair to say that Lieder feels most comfortable in the baritone range? It’s something about it being in the speaking range, somehow there’s a kind of intimacy to it. It’s interesting that I’ve named two baritones who I think excel in it. I don’t know if that favours me too as a mezzo-soprano!

You’re singing Röntgen, Brahms and Schumann. Do you like them?

Yes! The Brahms are quite finely wrought. There’s a lot of weaving with the viola, which requires a lot of control that’s really fun. Less so in the Röntgen which is more about passing the baton backwards and forwards. I’m really looking forward to them!


Clare performs at the Holywell Music Room at 5.30pm on Thursday 25 October as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival, with Simon Tandree (viola) and Libby Burgess (piano).

Clare returns the next day, Friday 26 October, for a song workshop at the Shulman Auditorium in Queen’s College at 10am, and then performs new songs, settings of Whitman by composer Ross Griffey, also in the Shulman Auditorium at 3.45pm.

Vivienne Orchestrated for Little Venice Music Festival

Publicity image following the original 2013 staged production of Vivienne

This Autumn, our musical show Vivienne (on the life of TS Eliot’s first wife) is being revived for two performances. Clare will sing Stephen McNeff’s dramatic cycle of songs  in its original version at the Poetry Swindon Festival on 4 October (at 12pm), with pianist Paul Turner.

Then on the following Saturday 6 October (at 7.30pm), Clare will perform Vivienne once again but in a new, orchestrated version for the Little Venice Music Festival in London’s Maida Vale. The evocative musical styles of Stephen McNeff’s witty score cry out for instrumentation. Stephen has created his own orchestration to make the most of the character of the work, which is the first half of an evening concert also featuring Olivier Messiaen’s transcendental Quartet for the End of Time.

Vivienne was first performed at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in 2013 to a five star review in the Evening Standard. You can watch the original production of Vivienne as recorded by Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, here:

Hell, we’ve got to sell that body!

For the final scene of the film version of Evergreen

Trying to cram two lives into an evening concert is a challenge, and in writing Over My Shoulder about the lives of Elisabeth Schumann and Jessie Matthews, I inevitably had to leave out a lot of lovely detail. One of subjects there wasn’t space for was their wardrobes and the outfits that caused a stir.

In my show I quote director Victor Saville who said “Hell, we’ve got to sell that body!” in reply to press comment on Jessie’s scanty outfits in one of his films. His response was to commission the silver sequinned bodysuit on the left for the next film.

Jessie was famous for wearing clothes that left little to the imagination, and not always by design. In Evergreen she had accidentally gone onstage one evening having forgotten the special skin-coloured leotard that should have been worn under her chiffon pyjamas. The audience saw rather more of her at that performance than they expected.

Chiffon was ideal for Jessie’s dresses because she loved to exploit the fabric’s floatiness as she moved, as in this video of Dancing On The Ceiling from the film of Evergreen (this sequence is 1’10” in if you are watching the whole film).

Elisabeth Schumann’s concert attire was generally more sober, although she did create a sensation in a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in Vienna. It being a midday concert, an evening gown was not appropriate and Elisabeth felt that the purple dress she finally agreed on was still rather too smart. So she ‘softened’ it with the addition of a matching hat. This startling choice attracted as much press attention as her singing: “ES made an entrance…as if she had just popped in from a stroll on the Ringstrasse for a moment, to sing about the heavenly life. With a hat. Let us hope that (Richard) Mayr will not appear for the Ninth in a top hat…”

Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

History doesn’t record what the conductor, Bruno Walter, thought of Elisabeth’s outfit and sadly I haven’t been able to find a photo of it. But I particularly like this one of her and Richard Strauss, with whom she toured the US in 1921. Elisabeth appears in many publicity shots in a fur coat and holding her favourite pet dog, Sorry (so named after the English habit of apologising, which she found hilarious). This lovely shot seems to catch her mid-rehearsal and more relaxed in her casual clothes.




Schumann & Shakespeare – 16 July 2017

Schumann & Shakespeare by Clare McCaldin Stephen Dickinson has written a new group of songs for me entitled A Shakespeare Quartet, which we will be premiering together on Sunday 16 July at 3pm. The songs are settings of speeches from four different female characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Rosalind’s teasing of Orlando (As You Like It), Viola to Duke Orsino (Twelfth Night), Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s watery death (Hamlet) and Hermia’s dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Stephen will be accompanying me in these new songs, as well as in a duet he wrote last year for baritone Paul Sheehan and me, setting Prospero’s closing speech from The Tempest.

Stephen has also written a new Benedictus duet for us, commemorating the death of his great-uncle Oxley Jones Frost, who was killed in action on 15th March 1917 aged 24. This will be performed alongside a Pie Jesu which Stephen wrote in 1997.

Paul will also be performing Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, accompanied by Michael Papadopoulos, and the three of us will open the concert with three duets by Schumann: Tanzlied, In der Nacht and Ich bin dein Baum.

The concert is at St Paul’s Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge at 3pm on Sunday 16th July, and lasts an hour without an interval.

Over My Shoulder

Over My Shoulder: Elisabeth Schumann and Jessie MatthewsSeptember 16th will be the first performance of Over My Shoulder, my latest McCaldin Arts project, about soprano Elisabeth Schumann and musical comedy star Jessie Matthews. In this recital I narrate the remarkable life-stories of these two women and sing some of the wonderful music most closely associated with them. Accompanying me in songs ranging from Mendelssohn, Strauss and Schubert to Noel Coward and Rodgers & Hart will be pianist Paul Turner, my regular collaborator on Haydn’s London Ladies.

It was a photograph of the grave of Elisabeth Schumann at St Martin’s church in Ruislip that first prompted the idea for a recital, followed by the discovery of Jessie Matthews’ grave in the same churchyard. It seems appropriate that Over My Shoulder should get its premiere at St Martin’s where these two women finally came to rest. I hope that, having heard me weave their stories together, the audience will not only visit the two graves, but seek out the substantial legacy of recordings and film left by Elisabeth and Jessie, many of which can be found on You Tube. I am delighted to be presenting their song repertoire, but the inimitable originals are really worth hearing too, and Jessie’s dance routines (she was the “English Ginger Rogers”) are absolutely extraordinary.

This performance of Over My Shoulder is sponsored by Edmission UK and all ticket receipts will go to the Myosotis Trust, a charity with which St Martin’s church and the local community have a long association.

Concert starts at 7.30pm. Tickets will be available on the door. Interval drinks.

A personal best

Libby Burgess and Clare McCaldin - Entente COrdialePreparing a solo recital is always a lot of work, so the chance to repeat a programme is a welcome opportunity. However, performing the same programme three times in three different counties in just over 24 hours demands a whole new level of stamina and focus, as Libby Burgess and I confirmed on our mini-tour for Concerts in the West. But there is simply no other way to discover how to do it other than by actually doing it. To sing the programme through three times without the presence of an audience wouldn’t achieve the same effect, such is the importance of the audience in the whole undertaking.

Although any programme becomes easier with familiarity, the physical toll of delivering three concerts so close together is not to be underestimated, for both singer and pianist. Clever programming and knowing how to pace oneself are essential, as is the art of cat-napping.

Being on tour is not only about the performing and, as in this case, journeys on winding country roads between venues can also take their toll. We were fortunate that with each passing concert the distance back ‘home’ became shorter, and we were glad to be driven than to be doing the driving as well.

As its name suggests, Concerts in the West is based in the South-West and covers venues in Devon, Somerset and Dorset. It’s always a pleasure to discover new places to perform and we were particularly delighted by Bridport Arts Centre, a lovely little space with a super acoustic, and Ilminster Arts Centre, run by volunteers and, I’m pleased to say, thriving.

Thank you to Catherine and her team at Concerts in the West for a very enjoyable flying visit.


Entente Cordiale

In March this year I will be on a mini recital tour in the South-West with one of my regular collaborators, pianist Libby Burgess, courtesy of Concerts in the West. This excellent organisation manages a large series of classical music concerts spread across small venues in Devon and Somerset, and gives emerging artists the chance to perform a recital several times in quick succession. Repeating a programme has such benefits for the performers and it is often difficult to engineer a series of performances close together from scratch. Concerts in the West has an established relationship with many venues and a loyal audience, and we are delighted to join the 2017 series. We will also give a London performance of the programme on Thursday 23 March at 7.30pm at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, 32a Wilton Pl, London SW1X 8SH.

Camille Pisarro’s Lordship Lane Station (1871)

Our programme explores the cultural love-affair between England and France, in particular the romantic tropes and shared reference points: these include Fauré’s and Vaughan Williams’ settings of Verlaine’s poem Prison, Britten’s folk-song settings in English and French, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s jazz-infused A History of the Thé Dansant. Contemporary songs by Dominic Muldowney and David Owen Norris complement songs from the early C20th by Cole Porter and Poulenc. See below for full programme.

Finzi – To a Poet
Vaughan Williams – The Sky Above The Roof
Fauré – Prison
Fauré – Trois Mélodies de Venise
Head – Three Songs of Venice
Britten – French and English Folk Songs
Il est quelqu’un sur terre, Eho! Eho!, Salley Gardens, Oliver Cromwell
John Ireland – In A May Morning from Sarnia (piano solo)
Dominic Muldowney – In Paris with You
David Owen Norris – Big Ben Blues
Poulenc – Les Chemins de l’amour
Cole Porter – C’est Magnifique
Richard Rodney Bennett – The History of the Thé Dansant

Elizabeth and Jessie

Every so often someone casually suggests an idea to me that just grabs me, and one of my current projects in development comes from just such a moment. A friend noticed a connection between two very different singers: Elizabeth Schumann (above right), international classical diva, and Jessie Matthews (below right), darling of 1930s musicals, on stage and screen.

Each of these women reached the very peak of her profession, working with the creative giants of her day and experiencing the ups and downs, rivalries and challenges that the performing life unavoidably entails. It is fascinating to weave together the strands of their narratives as an introduction to their music and artistry, built around the curious facts of how their stories finally intersect here in England.

After the success of my first narrated recital Haydn’s London Ladies, this format seemed ideal for combining similarly varied musical items and historical anecdotes. The new programme ranges from Schubert to Rogers and Hart, from Covent Garden and Hollywood.

Elizabeth and Jessie is currently in development, for presentation in late 2017. Dates to be announced.

Summer English Song on 5 June

21 apr fb eventMy next recital at St Paul’s Knightsbridge is with baritone Paul Sheehan and two composers, Stephen Dickinson and Rob Keeley. We will be performing familiar songs by Peter Warlock (three Shakespeare settings) and Gerald Finzi (the song-cycle, To a Poet), which we have paired with works by our composer-pianists. Stephen Dickinson’s What Have You In Your Heart? sets seven poems from AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, and Rob Keeley’s Five Stevie Smith Songs offer a strongly contrasted style, both poetically and musically.

Sunday 5 June, 2.30pm, St Paul’s Knightsbridge.
Tickets are £10 (£5 concessions) on the door.

The full programme is as follows:

It was a lover and his lass (duet) – Vaughan Williams

Three Shakespeare Songs – Warlock
Sigh No More Ladies
Take, O Take Those Lips Away
Pretty Ring Time

Five Stevie Smith Songs – Keeley
La Gretchen de nos jours
Le singe qui swing
Tender only to one
Will ever?

What Have You In Your Heart? – Dickinson
When I Was One And Twenty
Loveliest Of Trees
Is My Team Ploughing
Oh, When I Was In Love With You
White In The Moon
From Far, From Eve And Morning
If Truth In Hearts That Perish

To a Poet – Finzi
To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence
On parent knees
The Birthnight
June on Castle Hill
Ode on the Rejection of St Cecilia

Our Revels Now Are Ended (duet) – Dickinson

Haydn’s London Ladies: Mark II

Haydn’s London Ladies started life as an hour-long narrated recital in which I told stories of Haydn’s visits to London and his Lady friends. It has had fantastic reactions from audiences, which have really enjoyed the storytelling format as well as the musical content, so I have decided to expand it into a full-length evening, with an interval.

Doing this allows me to add the story of another wonderful Lady; she was not strictly-speaking IN London when she met Haydn, but was very definitely a London Lady. Emma Hamilton was not only the mistress of Lord Nelson but also pioneered her own brand of performance art which precipitated a fashion craze for draped Grecian-style gowns. Most of all, she was an extraordinary survivor. She loved Haydn’s music and sang some of his vocal works, including Arianna a Naxos when she, her husband Lord Hamilton and Lord Nelson visited Haydn at Esterházy.

A performance of the new full-length Haydn’s London Ladies is in the diary for February 2016 and if you can’t wait until then, here is a trailer: