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MALCOLM MILLER pays tribute
to contralto Sybil Michelow


Great singers are those who combine vocal beauty with interpretative depth, whose concern for the text penetrates deeply into both diction and meaning, who enliven the score with innate musicality. Such were the qualities of the outstanding contralto Sybil Michelow, who died in London on 5 January 2013, and who enriched the world of vocal and choral music for many decades with her beautiful interpretations, and also expressed her musicianship in activities as a composer, pianist, teacher and adjudicator. Born on 12 August 1925, the second of three artistically-talented sisters, Sybil Michelow's prodigious musical talents were evident from the age of four, when she was the youngest in Johannesburg to pass the Trinity College piano exams, adjudicated by the eminent composer Sir Granville Bantock. Sybil Michelow repaid the compliment four decades later, singing at the Bantock Centenary with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra.

Michelow's parents emigrated to Johannesburg in the first decades of the twentieth century, her father Charles arriving alone from Lithuania, and her mother Rachel, born in Manchester to Lithuanian emigres, brought as a young child. While Sybil's sisters Grace and Renée both became visual artists, emigrating in the 1970s to the USA and Israel respectively, Sybil developed her music as concert pianist and composer, winning many awards, broadcasting and gaining her diploma at the University of Witwatersrand (1944-5). She composed music for children's theatre and her score for the children's play Pop Goes the Queen (1944), choreographed and danced by John Cranko, was broadcast by SABC.

Sybil Michelow (1925-2013)
Sybil Michelow (1925-2013). Click on the image for higher resolution

In 1949 Sybil Michelow came to London to study piano (1950-3) with the émigré Franz Reizenstein (1911-1968). In 1950 she married Derek Goldfoot, a London GP she had known in South Africa. She soon decided to pursue a singing career, studying from 1954-1961 with the contralto Mary Jarred (1899-1993). On 2 June 1953 Sybil Michelow performed at the Queen's Coronation, representing 'The Dominions' in the four-hundred-strong Coronation Choir in Westminster Abbey. After a period teaching at RADA, during which she composed scores for two Brecht plays (Caucasian Chalk Circle and Mother Courage) Sybil Michelow made her debut in a 1958 performance of J S Bach's St John Passion. It launched an illustrious career which saw a prolific flow of concerts, broadcasts and recordings over three decades, attracting high critical acclaim and enthusiastic audiences. Her tonal qualities and attention to diction and meaning were often praised, and she often shared platforms with leading singers of her generation, such as Ilse Wolf and Heather Harper, Ian Partridge and John Shirley-Quirk, and conductors such as Ansermet, Kertész, Horenstein, Sargent, Barbirolli, Boult and Sir Charles Groves, as well as choral experts like Sir David Willcocks, James Gaddarn and Denys Darlow.

Known for her performances of Handel's Messiah, she gave one in the presence of HM The Queen at Windsor, whilst one of numerous performances of Verdi's Requiem was a highlight of the Edinburgh Festival under Giulini. A particular highpoint was her appearance in the famous Last Night of the Proms in 1968, when, in addition to the traditional televised Rule Britannia, she sang Wagner's Träume under the baton of Sir Colin Davis. In a further six proms, between 1961 and 1971, she sang historic premieres of then unfamiliar music by Mahler and Hindemith as well as classic choral masterworks.

Though best-known in the UK, Sybil Michelow toured internationally to Europe, Israel and South Africa, in 1963 for a PACT production of Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, returning there in 1969 and 71. In 1969 she formed Musica Intima, partnered by the violist Christopher Wellington and pianists Ronald Lumsden and Benjamin Kaplan, exploring unusual vocal repertoire including modern British music.

Sybil Michelow's versatile musicianship was displayed in a BBC programme entitled Double Exposure which explored the artist in dual roles, and in which Sybil accompanied herself at the piano, a feat she repeated several times in live recital.

Amongst Sybil Michelow's wide repertoire, spanning the wealth of mainstream oratorios and songs plus much contemporary music, were several pieces composed especially for her, including Wilfred Josephs' large-scale Nightmusic of 1970, and songs by Ronald Senator and by Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen's Music.

Indeed Sybil Michelow enjoyed close artistic collaborations with two Masters of the Queen's Music, recording Sir Arthur Bliss' Pastoral, performed live on many occasions including the composer's eightieth birthday. The recording for Pye, highly praised by the Musical Times, was re-released on CD in 2011. A true musical partnership with Malcolm Williamson flourished in the mid 1980s, the duo giving recitals that featured Williamson's works, including Vocalise in G Major (1985), dedicated to Sybil Michelow, and White Dawns (1985) and The Feast of Eurydice (1986), to poems by Elaine Feinstein, written with her vocal qualities in mind. Williamson dedicated his Seventh Symphony to the memory of Sybil's husband Derek, who died in 1985. The duo's recording (on Bnai Brith Records) features Williamson's Hashkiveinu ('Hebrew Prayer') and extracts from his cantata Red Sea, alongside songs by Israeli composers David Hadda, Marc Lavry and Paul Ben-Haim.

It was from this period that I knew Sybil, and often recall her pride in her Jewish musical heritage, and performances in the early B'nai Brith Festivals of Jewish Music, sharing platforms with colleagues such as pianist Miriam Brickman, championing music by Holocaust survivor Szymon Laks and others. Also at that time she participated in the witty Hoffnung Festival of Music, playing a bottle alongside TV celebrities (including Patrick Moore and Bamber Gascoigne) in Haydn's 'Surprise' Symphony.

Elegant and dignified, Sybil Michelow above all radiated a positive outlook. She was deeply involved with the charitable work of the Royal Society of Musicians, an 'exemplary Governor' during 1983-6 and 1989-93, contributing her hobby as calligrapher for the RSM's certificates and congratulatory letter to the Queen Mother on her centenary. Sybil and Derek Goldfoot's North London home was a life-enhancing hearth with frequent soirees for young musicians to test their art, and even after Derek's death in 1985, Sybil continued to pursue an active musical schedule, teaching, performing chamber music with choirs, writing the occasional review and composing in a refreshing jazz idiom. Indeed, shortly before she died, Sybil Michelow recorded her works for violin and piano, spanning a seventy-year period.

Like her extended family and many friends, I am grateful for a rich storehouse of memories of helpful advice and fascinating discussions. Sybil Michelow's belief in the highest standards of tone production and diction was expressed in the motto 'speak when you sing and sing when you speak', whilst advice for performers was to 'think of something beautiful'. Beauty was a quality Sybil Michelow radiated, in her music as in her life. One is grateful for her recorded legacy, as also for the intensity of the memories, shared by her family and all who knew her. Just as one of her early roles in South Africa was Angele in Lehar's Count of Luxembourg, so it is as one of the celestial angels that I would like to imagine Sybil Michelow, ensuring every consonant and vowel of divine praise is eternally intoned with correct emphasis and harmonious beauty.

Sybil Michelow's recorded legacy is selective yet fine: Sir Arthur Bliss' Pastoral (Pye; CD on EMI); her premiere recording (Argo) of Sicut Umbra by the Italian modernist Dallapiccola with the London Sinfonietta under Gary Bertini, acclaimed as 'one of the finest recordings' displaying 'bel canto and espressione'; Bach Cantatas BWV 76 and 108 with Edith Mathis (EMI); Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Raymond Leppard (Music of Court Homes Vol 4, EMI); Schubert's Mass in E flat with Giulini (BBC) and a recording of Esperanto Songs by Frank Merrick for the Merrick Society. One hopes too that her many BBC broadcasts may reach CD or mp3 formats at some point in the near future, for the benefit of younger audiences.

Copyright © 30 January 2013 Malcolm Miller,
London UK


Sybil Michelow (1925-2013) - a glimpse at the press

'Her voice is vibrant and freely produced and she sings with enjoyment and intelligence' - The Times

'Sybil Michelow has a rich voice and lends distinction to words and music. A fine controlled voice.' - The Telegraph

J S Bach: St John Passion:
'In "It is finished" Miss Michelow was as eloquent as her sensitive cellist.' - TES

Arthur Bliss: Pastoral:
'... the glowing vitality of this work ... disclosed its beauty in the lovely singing of Sybil Michelow as the soloist.' - Musical Times 1958

J S Bach: Christmas Oratorio:
'Sybil Michelow's warm contralto held our interest' - Musical Times, 1969

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius:
'Sybil Michelow was particularly strong and suitably ethereal, and managed to avoid any sense of bathos in her final promise "And I will come and wake thee tomorrow"' - Fortnight, 1971

Luigi Dallapiccola: Sicut Umbra (Argo ZRG 791):
'The Soprano Sybil Michelow (in Sicut Umbra) ... exactly what the composer demands: bel canto and espressione.' - Hans Nathan, The Musical Quarterly, 1978








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