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Dame Clara Ellen Butt, DBE (1 February 1872 – 23 January 1936) was an English contralto. Her main career was as a recitalist and concert singer. Her voice, both powerful and deep, impressed contemporary composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns and Edward Elgar; the latter composed a song-cycle with her in mind as soloist. Her piano accompanist was transgender Agnes Elisabeth Overbeck. Willa Cather was an enthusiast of Butt's performances.
Butt appeared in only two operatic productions, both of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Later in her career she frequently appeared in recitals together with her husband, the baritone Kennerley Rumford. She made numerous recordings for the gramophone.
Clara Butt was born in Southwick, Sussex, the eldest daughter of Henry Albert Butt, a sea captain, and his wife Clara Hook. In 1880, the family moved to the port city of Bristol in England's West Country. Clara was educated at South Bristol High School, where her singing ability was recognised and her talent as a performer encouraged. At the request of her headmistress, she was trained by the bass Daniel Rootham (father of the composer Cyril Rootham) and joined the Bristol Festival Chorus, of which Daniel Rootham was musical director.
BButt won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music (RCM) in January 1890. Her voice teachers were John Henry Blower and Albert Visetti, while her piano teacher was Marmaduke Barton. During her fourth year of vocal lessons at the college she spent three months studying in Paris, sponsored by Queen Victoria. She also studied in Berlin and Italy.
SShe made her professional debut on 7 December 1892 at the Royal Albert Hall in London in Sullivan's cantata The Golden Legend. Three days later she appeared as Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at the Lyceum Theatre. This was an RCM production, conducted by Charles Villiers Stanford. Bernard Shaw, who was then the music critic for The World, wrote that she "far surpassed the utmost expectations that could reasonably be entertained", and forecast a considerable career for her.
Butt travelled to Paris and undertook further studies with Jacques Bouhy (the teacher of two other notable contraltos with international reputations, Louise Homer and Louise Kirkby Lunn). Later she polished her skills in Berlin with the famous retired soprano Etelka Gersterr. The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns heard her, and wanted her to study his opera Dalila, but at the time the representation of biblical subjects on the British stage was forbidden, and nothing came of it. When the law changed and the work was given at Covent Garden in 1909 the part of Delila was sung by Lunn, to Butt's disappointment.
Butt acquired a reputation in Britain for her vocal attributes and her physical presence on the concert platform: she was 6 feet 2 inches tall. She made many gramophone recordings, often accompanied by the (uncredited) pianist Lilian Bryant. Among her recordings are several of Sullivan's song "The Lost Chord"; her friend Fanny Ronalds bequeathed the original manuscript of the song to her.[n 1] She was primarily a concert singer; her only operatic performances were in two productions of Orfeo ed Euridice. Britain's leading composer of the era, Edward Elgar, composed his song-cycle Sea Pictures for contralto and orchestra with her in mind as soloist; she sang at the first performance of the work at the Norwich Festival on 5 October 1899, with the composer conducting. Her only recording from the cycle was "Where Corals Lie".
On 26 June 1900 Butt married the baritone Kennerley Rumford and thereafter would often appear with him in concerts. They had two sons and a daughter. Besides singing in many important festivals and concerts, Butt appeared by royal command before Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, and King George V. She made tours of Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and to many European cities.
During the First World War, Butt organised and sang in many concerts for service charities, and for this was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 1920 civilian war honours. That year she sang four performances of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at Covent Garden, with Miriam Licette, under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. According to The Times she was ill at ease on stage, and in the most famous number, "Che farò", her "attempt to sing it dramatically made her play fast and loose with the time and spoil the phrasing". It was her only appearance on the professional operatic stage.
Clara Butt performed 110 times at the Royal Albert Hall in her career, organising many important fund-raising concerts for charities during the First World War.
Butt's three sisters were also singers. One, Ethel Hook, became a famous contralto in her own right, made some solo recordings, and in 1926 appeared in an early sound film made in the Lee de Forest Phonofilm sound-on-film process.
In later life, Clara Butt was dogged by tragedies. Her elder son, Roy, died of meningitis while still at schoolin 1923, and the younger one, Victor, committed suicide in 1934. During the 1920s, she became seriously ill with cancer of the spine. She made many of her later records seated in a wheelchair. She died in 1936, aged 63, at her home in North Stoke, Oxfordshire, as a result of an accident she had suffered in 1931. She was buried there in the graveyard of St Mary's Church.
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