Dame Janet Baker was born in Hatfield in Yorkshire eighty years ago today, 21 August 1933. Known as a great singing actress, she brought a deep emotional commitment to everything she sang, from Purcell to Britten on the opera stage, as well as a vast range of oratorio and song.
Baker felt a great responsibility toward her gift, respected her voice and was always exhaustively prepared. When Michael White asked her if, in retirement, she sang in the bath, she replied, “I don’t, because I can’t trivialise what I have inside me. I’ve only ever been able to sing when it engaged my whole being.”
Janet Baker’s voice had a warm, rich mezzo colour, but also a glamorous sparkle, and the notes it produced had an inner momentum, like a spinning top, that may stay roughly in the same place but is never still. Her wonderful phrasing came from a thorough knowledge of what she was singing, in any language, and her diction was always crisp and clear; “Think Frank Sinatra,” Michael Kennedy reports her as saying to students.
A collaborator towards the end of her career was the esteemed pianist and accompanist Graham Johnson. He has written about Dame Janet on the occasion of her 80th birthday.
Meeting Janet Baker was a turning point of my life. How very lucky young accompanists are that great singers should decide, from time and time, to turn to a member of the younger generation of pianists and “give them a try”. She had worked with Gerald Moore, and Geoffrey Parsons was her regular collaborator; both were my teachers, and she agreed to invite me to accompany her for the first time – I believe it was at the Birmingham Town Hall. I shall never forget her words to me just before we went on to the platform: “I may make some mistakes tonight, and I daresay you may too: but remember, it doesn’t matter.”
I have often repeated those words to those who are much younger than me and who seem in danger of being overcome by a sense of occasion. And when I tell them who it was who once said them to me, and how it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes, three generations (Dame Janet standing, as if at the top of the stairs, an iconic example for us younger ones) are conjoined in the passing of comfort and wisdom between less and more experienced colleagues. At the heart of this is the awareness of the transitory nature of worldly success, that ‘career’ is a construct far less important than the quiet cultivation of one’s garden as a human being, and that musical success and failure are not measured in the manner of a sporting contest or high-wire trapeze.
In 1987, it was with Janet Baker that Johnson launched his mammoth project to record the complete lieder of Franz Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition. The Times wrote, “A generous and revelatory recital of Goethe and Schiller settings. Janet Baker breaks the champagne bottle over one of the most important recording projects of the half century.” Johnson was grateful,
What an immense gift that was to Schubert, to Ted Perry and the series, and of course to me – the young man who was trying to make this mad idea of recording all the Schubert songs somehow work.
I remember playing the first edit of Dame Janet’s disc, all Goethe and Schiller settings, to the late Tony Rolfe Johnson. He sat there wreathed in smiles: “With singing like that, mate, your series will get off the ground… but how on earth are we all going to follow it?” Great singing, the sound of a unique voice and a unique mastery that incorporates feeling disciplined by technique are unanswerable things in music. I have heartfelt and lifelong gratitude that she agreed to take part in this uncharted project, especially with a pianist who was comparatively untested for a task of that magnitude.
…It took thirteen years to complete the Schubert, but thanks to Janet Baker and the imprimatur of her participation, the success of the launch led to us eventually bringing the whole thing home and complete after 37 CDs. I am now seeing through the press the three-volume work on Schubert’s songs that came from that series. It was she who wrote the foreword in 1985 to the Schubert Song Companion by John Reed, the first book in English to cover this repertory. Janet Baker and Schubert have always been inextricably linked in my mind, indeed she and so many pieces of glorious music that she made her own, giving us performances that are still unsurpassed, and likely to remain so.
Graham Johnson’s words are taken from an open letter he has written which will be published in an anthology for Dame Janet Baker’s 80th Birthday by Neil Gillespie.