They fell in love, although at the time he was married to his second wife, Paddy Prior and had a son, Keith, by his first marriage. Four years later, after his divorce from Paddy in times when divorce was not as common or acceptable as it is today, Anne and Webster were married on Bonfire Night in 1938.
Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth first met during the filming of TheFaust Fantasy in 1934/35
Anne Ziegler, the widow and singing partner of Webster Booth, died in Llandudno, North Wales, on 13 October 2003, at the age of 93. Her death brought an end to an era in British entertainment before and after the Second World War. Her death brings an end to an era for me also.
I was seventeen when I first met them at the end of 1960. They were already middle-aged, in the same age group as my parents, their top-flight stage career in Britain behind them. I was too young to have seen them at the height of their fame, but even then I thought them a shining couple, as I still do over fifty-nine years later.
Although I was too young to have seen them on stage in the days of their great success in the forties and early fifties, I believe their success was due to the wonderful blend of the voices, creating a special, instantly recognisable sound, and their contrasting good looks, she beautifully gowned, he in full evening dress. Above all, they were instantly likeable with charming personalities, and possessed an elusive ability to make people adore them.
In their day, in the thirties, forties and fifties, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth were stars of stage, screen, radio, concert halls and variety theatres, and made over a thousand 78 rpms, either as duets or solos. Webster was also in demand as tenor soloist in oratorio: Handel’s Messiah, Jephtha, Samson, Acis and Galatea, Judas Maccabbeus, and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, to mention but a few. Before the Second World War, he had sung Coleridge Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in full Native American costume, and in 1955 on the occasion of Sir Malcolm Sargent’s birthday concert, Sir Malcolm requested particularly that he should be the tenor soloist in the same work.
Webster became a Mason, and was a proud member of the Savage Club, where he often sang at their legendary Saturday night entertainments. These entertainments were arranged by Joe Batten, the eminent sound recordist and producer at Columbia Records. When Webster had something important to do he always wore his distinctive striped Savage Club tie to bring him luck. While still in his early thirties, Webster was made a Life Governor of the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
Webster was also in demand as tenor soloist in oratorio: Handel’s Messiah, Jephtha, Samson, Acis and Galatea, Judas Maccabbeus, and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, to mention but a few. Before the Second World War, he had sung Coleridge Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in full Native American costume, and in 1955 on the occasion of Sir Malcolm Sargent’s birthday concert, Sir Malcolm requested particularly that he should be the tenor soloist in the same work.
By the time he met Anne Ziegler during the filming of the colour film Faust in 1934, he was married to his second wife, Paddy Prior. He had divorced his first wife, Winifred Keey in 1931 after she had deserted him and their small son, and married Paddy Prior, a talented dancer, comedienne and soubrette in October 1932. The couple’s marriage was happy in the beginning and they appeared together in several concert parties, the Piccadilly Revels, Scarboroough in 1933 and Sunshine at Shanklin in 1934.
Shortly after he met Anne Ziegler he took the lead in an ill-fated production of Kurt Weill’s A Kingdom for a Cow at the Savoy Theatre. His leading lady was the well-known French singer Jacqueline Francel. In Anne and Webster’s joint autobiography, Duet, he said that the play was probably ahead of its time in its handling of complex social issues, which made it too heavy for audiences of the day, who expected lighter fare in musicals. Apart from the unusual subject matter, rehearsals were stormy and the direction contradictory, so despite Weill’s pleasing music and a strong cast, the play closed after just three weeks. The London Dramatic Critic from The Scotsman gave the piece a good review, and mentioned that “Mr Webster Booth as the hero also deserves praise for his fine singing”.
Webster and Paddy Prior, his second wife.
Sadly, his marriage did not last after he met Anne. Paddy divorced him, naming Anne as co-respondent. He and Anne were married on Bonfire Night in 1938. Webster Booth soon formed a duet partnership with his wife in addition to his extensive recording, film, oratorio and concert work.
Webster was contracted to HMV for over twenty years and recorded more than a thousand solos, duets, trios and quartets. His lighter recordings include selections from Ivor Novello musicals with Helen Hill, Olive Gilbert and Stuart Robertson; Theatreland at Coronation Time with South African soprano Garda Hall, and Sam Costa; excerpts from Snow White with Nora Savage, conducted by George Scott-Wood, the composer of Shy Serenade. He made many anonymous recordings as a member of the HMV Light Opera Company. He was the “with vocal refrain” on a series of records made with Carlos Santana and his Accordion Band on the Brunswick label, and on a record of Chappell Balladswith Jack Hylton’s band. Carlos Santana was one of the many aliases used by Harry Bidgood. His better known alias was Primo Scala, the leader of another accordion band, but he did many other things like conducting film music and arranging music and while he was still at school he had written the music for his school song.
His recordings of the late nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties encompassed oratorio, opera and ballads, as well as duets with Anne. Webster’s more serious recordings were often under the baton of Malcolm Sargent, Lawrance Collingwood, Basil Cameron or rwick Braithwaite with the Hallé, the Liverpool Philharmonic or the Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. His recordings with piano accompaniment were nearly always with the eminent accompanist Gerald Moore.
Webster enjoyed telling the story of a particular recording session with Gerald Moore. They had one more song to record before the session ended. The song was Phil, the Fluter’s Ball, and Gerald Moore suggested that they should see how fast he could play it and how fast Webster could sing it with clear diction. This was no problem for the finest accompanist in the world and for a singer who had spent four years performing Gilbert and Sullivan with the D’Oyly Carte Company. His oratorio recordings are particularly fine. The solos in Samson from the moving recitative O loss of sight and the following aria,Total Eclipse, to the fiery Why does the God of Israel sleep?, with its unrelenting Handelian runs, demonstrate how easily he moved from one mood to another, always singing with flawless technique and clear diction.
He made recordings with other distinguished singers of the day in operatic ensembles, such as the quartet from Rigoletto, with Noel Edie, Arnold Matters and Edith Coates, to the trio from Faustwith Joan Cross and Norman Walker. He sang duets with soprano Joan Cross and baritone Dennis Noble from La Bohème and the Miserere from Il Trovatore with Joan Cross. He recorded duets with the baritone Dennis Noble from the Victorian and Edwardian Excelsior and Watchman, what of the night? to the brilliant extended scene in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. He recorded the duet in Madame Butterfly with Australian soprano Joan Hammond.
When Joan Hammond first arrived in England from Australia, she had a sweet lyrical soprano voice. She sang her first Messiahin England with Webster as tenor soloist under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. But by the time they recorded the Madame Butterfly duet, several years later, Joan Hammond had become a dramatic soprano and her voice was very much bigger than it had been when she first arrived in England. Joan had to stand much further away from the microphone than Webster in order for the sound engineer to get the balance for the duet right. Webster also sang excerpts from Carmen with the Sadler’s Wells chorus and orchestra, with Dennis Noble, and with Nancy Evans, Anne’s old friend from Liverpool, as Carmen.
At the beginning of the Second World War, he recorded The Lost Chordat the Kingsway Hall in London, accompanied by the organist Herbert Dawson. As they were reaching the end of the song, the All Clear siren sounded, which meant they had to redo the recording to cut out the sound of the siren. There had been no air raids at that early stage of the war so presumably the sirens were being given a trial run. The blitz was yet to come and would destroy Webster’s beloved Queen’s Hall.
ANNE ZIEGLER (1910 – 2003)
Anne was born Irené Frances Eastwood in Liverpool on 22 June 1910. From over two hundred other hopefuls she was chosen for the part of Marguerite for the film, the Faust Fantasy: no doubt her blonde good looks and charming personality counted for nearly as much as her attractive lyric soprano voice. It was in the making of this film, which commenced shooting in December 1934, that she met Webster Booth, playing opposite her as Faust.
During the making of the film they fell in love , although at the time he was married to his second wife, Paddy Prior, and had a son, Keith, by his first marriage to Winifred Keey. Four years later, after his divorce from Paddy in times when divorce was not as common or acceptable as it is today, Anne and Webster were married on Bonfire Night in 1938.
During those intervening four years, Anne was an overnight success on radio in The Chocolate Soldier, sang in a concert party in 1935 called Summer Smiles during the summer season at Ryde, an engagement she did not really enjoy much. There she acquired her first devoted fan, a girl aged 15, who kept in close touch with her for the rest of her life.
She played principal boy in her first pantomime, Mother Goose, at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool, which starred George Formby. In this pantomime she met Babs Wilson-Hill, the principal dancer in the show, who was to remain her closest friend for most of her life. During the 1936 pantomime season she and Babs appeared in another highly successful pantomime, Cinderella, in Edinburgh, this time with the Scottish comedian Will Fyffe as the star attraction.
Anne and Webster were both extremely popular and prolific broadcasters on the BBC, as well as the various European commercial broadcasting stations geared to the British market, such as Radio Lyons, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy and Radio Eireann. Glancing through copies of The Radio Pictorial, commercial radio’s equivalent of The Radio Times, one sees frequent articles about them. Radio stars in the thirties obviously held the equivalent status of pop stars today.
Despite Anne’s success on stage and radio, recording companies had not shown any interest in putting her voice on record. She made a test recording of the Waltz Songfrom Merrie England in 1935, a recording which Webster managed to obtain from HMV. Eventually she did make a few solo recordings and sang in a Noel Coward medley with Joyce Grenfell and Graham Payn, but the bulk of her recordings were duets with Webster. My favourite solo recording of Anne’s is Raymond Loughborough’s ASong in the Night, which she sang on a Pathé film short in 1936.
Webster went to New York with her, hoping to find some stage work of his own, but, despite his great voice, he did not make any impact on the cut-throat American musical world. He attended various auditions in New York as an unknown, while in England he was already an established performer in oratorio, recording, films, and the West End stage. He returned to England, crestfallen at his lack of success, and resumed his numerous engagements. Anne, in the meantime, was hailed as a Broadway star and offered a film contract in Hollywood, with the idea that she would be the successor to Jeanette McDonald. The offer was tempting, but she turned it down to return to England and marry Webster Booth when his divorce from Paddy Prior was made final.
For most of her life Anne maintained that marriage to Webster meant more to her than any Hollywood contract, although in later years she sometimes reflected on what her life would have been like had she accepted the contract and become a Hollywood star.
Even before Webster’s divorce was made final they formed a duet partnership on stage, in addition to their solo work. From April 1938 they were singing together for Clarkson Rose. This is an advert from September of 1938, the month before Webster’s divorce was finalised.
Their first duet recording was made in the year after their marriage in 1939 – If You were the Only Girl in the World, with A Paradise for Two on the flip side. Before this official recording she had sung with him as an anonymous soprano voice in a radio series in 1937 called The Voice of Romance. In this series he too was anonymous, but by this time, most people would have recognised his distinctive voice.
In 1940 they accepted an offer from agent Julius Darewski to join the variety circuit. The money was good and they were well received on the variety halls, always doing their act without the aid of a microphone. If Webster Booth’s voice filled the Albert Hall when he sang the tenor part in Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha in Native American dress under the baton of Malcolm Sargent, the same voice, in harmony with his wife’s, filled the variety theatres from the London Palladium to all points of the United Kingdom.
They were the epitomé of glamour and romance. He was tall, dark and handsome. He was always in immaculate evening attire, she in a range of crinoline gowns, some designed by Norman Hartnell. Their act was interspersed with what seemed like off-the-cuff banter, but every word and move was meticulously planned, and the lighting plot carefully worked out for the most telling impact.
Apart from the usual operatic arias and musical comedy duets, Anne and Webster sang and recorded a number of ballads, arranged as duets, and an interesting and difficult arrangement of Chopin’s famous Nocturne in C sharp minor, arranged by Maurice Besley. As often as not Webster would arrange the duet part himself if none had been written.
1 April – Go to Rhodes Park library today. Jennifer Humphreys serves me. Get out autobiographies of Humphrey Lyttleton and Donald Peers – both mention Webster and Anne. Go to town and have lunch with Mum and Dad, then we see Once More with Feeling, starring Yul Brunner and wonderful, whimsical Kay Kendall who died two years ago. See a snippet in the newsreel of Lennie and Glenda doing a routine at the rink – they get a huge ovation from the movie audience and I clap jolly hard too and feel proud of them.
2 April – Sunday school. Not many kids there owing to holiday. I have Neill, Mark, Desmond and a little boy called David in my class. I tell them a story and let them colour in. Eugenie Braun makes me lead singing and I practically sing a solo – can hardly hear the kids! Peter gives me hymns for the guild afterwards – practically all unknown! Go into church with the usual crowd – Leona Rowe is away at camp, and Mr Russell gives a rather dreary sermon.
In the afternoon the Diamonds come and we have pleasant time. I perk up when conversation leads to a discussion about the Booths – they still maintain that Anne’s singing voice is painful but she has a lovely personality and speaking voice. Am persuaded by everyone to sing which I do reasonably.
3 April – Easter Monday In afternoon Dad and I go to eisteddfod and I buy a season ticket. We go to Duncan Hall to hear singing and instrumental items. A little Welshman presides and the adjudicator is from England – very good. After the interval the Welshman tells us to take our seats. I turn round to see what’s what and, out of the corner of my eye, catch sight of Webster. I get a real shock. Whisper to my father who is not at all perturbed, so we sit through the whole competition without further ado.
We get up to go and the first person I come across is Anne looking too gorgeous for words in a flowery dress. Her face lights up as only her face can, and she says, “Why, hello, Jean, how are you?” Webster, who is sitting in front of her, turns round to say hello. I introduce them to Dad and they are really charmed when he says, “I’m privileged to meet you.”
Webster asks in his usual vague fashion, “Have you done your piece yet, Jean?” She says, “Of course not!’ and I say, “It’s not till Thursday, Webster
.” He looks very knowing as though he knew that all the time.
She says, “It’s a pity you can’t stay for the next item, Jean,” and I say that Mum is expecting us home so I’m afraid we can’t stay. She tells me how sorry she is and we say goodbye to them. We stand at the back of the hall and listen to the last adjudication then depart to the sight of Anne going up to the front, preparing herself to accompany their singer in an art song.
Dad tells me on the way home that he doesn’t think Webster looks very well and that everybody around us was staring at us in admiration for knowing them – I didn’t even notice this as I was too wrapped up in speaking to them! All I know is that I adore them, and other peoples’ opinion don’t count two hoots!
5 April – Listen to Webster’s programme at night, and he was right as usual – it is good tonight! He starts off talking about the difference between opera and oratorio and gives an example from Handel’s Samson – his own recording. He goes on with his story, how he had an interest in Gilbert and Sullivan, how he came to join the D’Oyly Carte Company by barn-storming an audition when the company was in Birmingham and not turning up for an audit when he was asked to go to London to sing for Rupert D’Oyly Carte so that he was sacked. His teacher Dr Wassall was angry that he joined the company and never acknowledged him in future. He toured the UK with the company which included Henry Lytton, Bertha Lewis, Darrell Fancourt, Sydney Granville and Derek Oldham as principals, and Malcolm Sargent as the conductor in 1926. Webster asked Sir Malcolm whether he should sing in Grand Opera, and sang to him from La Bohème. “If you’ve no money, don’t sing in grand opera,” was his advice. He toured Canada with the company where his companion was Martyn Green and he had a wonderful time over there.
He plays a record by Harold Williams whom he obviously feels is the bees’ knees and ends with the overture to Mikado, an anecdote about Gilbert and Sullivan and the promise to play one of the G and S operettas after copyright is surrendered by Bridget D’Oyly Carte at the end of the year. Lovely programme by a wonderful man.
6 April – Eisteddfod at night. Sonnets are all done fairly well mainly by varsity students reciting poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I don’t disgrace myself but I don’t win a gold medal either. The girl who wins is about 25. The adjudicator, Miss Levitas, says on my report that I’m sincere!
7 April – Go to the Booths today feeling rather apprehensive. Webster answers door holding a large bell which, he tells me, is supposed to ring every half an hour to let him know when to put another sixpence into the parking meter. He says he’s forgotten how to wind it up. “I can’t depend on my watch because I forget what time I put the money in, in the first place.” Lemon is there so I play with him until Anne comes in, looking beautiful in a charcoal-grey pleated skirt and sweater and black court shoes, all in the best of style.
She asks me about the Eisteddfod and I tell her that I didn’t get any medal but I didn’t dry up either. She reads the report and says, “Who the hell is C. Levitas? I thought the adjudicator was Mary Webster!”
Webster goes out to put money in the meter and to go to a jeweller to find a real copper bracelet for Anne’s rheumatism. Says, “Goodbye, see you in a little while.” Before Anne starts on the play, she tells me that their bass came second, their girl got a gold medal in Lieder and there were several more seconds. I make fitting remarks about their success. She tells me that the girl who got the gold medal didn’t really deserve it, “God forgive me. She got it on musical knowledge.” This girl had great trouble with her voice – her husband didn’t like it but she persevered so that was a kick in the teeth for him when she did well!
We start on And So to Bed and really give it stick. She asks me whether my parents had any theatrical experience because I have such good control of words and cues. Webster comes back and says that the jeweller had no real copper but a someone in a shop in Eloff street would make one for her.
We go on with the play and Anne praises Leslie Henson (who played Pepys) to the heights – did I ever see him? I say no, but my father said he was wonderful. She goes into ecstasies about him and says, “If only they would put this play on here.”
Webster says I am good but must be careful not to tear my throat otherwise, if I was doing a show, I would soon not have any voice left. “Get French through the nose!” I must say that Anne becomes rather flustered herself when she does my part to show me what to do. She says I must learn the scene.
Tells me that Mr Salmon, the music adjudicator took far too long over adjudications. “He’s from Lancashire, but still he took too long!” We have tea and Anne naturally says once again that it is like TCP and some discussion ensues. Asks me to come at the same time next Friday and all is lovely. They’re nice.
8 April – Go skating today. Sue, Neill and Menina are there and I spend most of morning talking to Sue. She tells me about building the float for varsity rag. Says that Jennifer Nicks now lives in Canada. Jennifer Nicks wrote to Gwyn and told him she has called her baby Methuselah-Star – I ask you! Sue skates like a honey as usual and I skate as normal and enjoy myself. She says she thinks Christians don’t have much enjoyment in life.
Scotts come at night. Linda cute, Mr S armed with violin – I accompany him at piano to hitherto unseen pieces which, strangely enough, I succeed in playing. We also gallop (he misses beats) through Only a Rose. All convivial.
10 April Have lunch with Mum and she promises to phone Anne about doing singing instead of speech from a week on Friday. This point has been mooted in the family circle so I’m going to do that instead of speech – if they’ll have me. Buy an SABC bulletin and there is an interview with Webster in it in which he talks about his career, stage fright and rewarding moments. He says that he wouldn’t change his life if he could live it over again. “I was given a voice, a figure and my marriage with Anne Ziegler – something that has been successful and happy, and I have adopted what I think to be about the finest country in the world.” He was lucky, but his luck certainly hasn’t spoilt him in any way.
Mum phones Anne in the afternoon and tells her that I’d like to do singing. She is quite happy about this and says that it’ll be a pleasure to teach me. She tells mum that I’m a sweet thing and they’re very fond of me. Mother says, “Jean enjoys going to you and she’d like to do singing as it goes with the piano.” Anne says that it is half the battle learning to sing if one knows music.
Mummy says, “Jean was a bit nervous to ask about singing,” and Anne says, “Oh, why?” Mummy says, “Well, she’s not too sure of her own voice.” Anne is evidently as big a honey as always, and when Mummy says that I love to listen to Webster’s programmes, she says, “Oh, no! Not really!” Well that is that and I hope that I can do well at singing because I love to sing so I must do well. This is really their true sphere.
11 April – Start college again today – new typing teacher – all affable.
12 April – College. Typing teacher says my accuracy is best in the class – whew! Must keep up this good standard.
At night I listen to Webster’s programme. After he left D’Oyly Carte he joined Tom Howell’s concert party, the Opieros, singing operatic excerpts in parks and at the seaside. He eventually sang oratorio tenor solos with the Huddersfield Choral Society and Royal Choral society under the direction of Sir Malcolm and started recording for BBC studio opera programmes.
He plays records by Isobel Baillie, Dennis Noble and himself singing in La Bohème, and bass Oscar Natzke, with a most beautiful bass voice who died at the age of 39, and a duet from Carmen by South American Soprano and a man with an unpronounceable name. There are several recordings by Webster himself singing opera. He has a beautifully restrained voice and gives a more polished performance. He presents the programme beautifully – polished to a ‘t’. Songs of sopranos all gorgeous – dread to think what he’ll have to say about me – still, the programme is terribly nice.
13 April – College – long day today. Jill, Lyn, Audrey and I go to the library and I meet David Cross there who is very sweet and looks nice enough to divert attention!
In the afternoon I listen to Leslie Green, with Charles Berman as his guest. Latter has made a new recording.
At night phone rings and I know, almost instinctively, that it is Anne – am right as usual! Gives usual greeting, “Is that Jean? Jean, this is Anne Ziegler here!”
She asks (talking very loudly tonight), “Jean, could you possibly come at 4.30 instead of 4 tomorrow?”
“Yes, that would be all right.”
“You see, tomorrow night is the music prize-winners’ concert and I’ve had to change all the lessons around because of it.” (Can’t see any connection at all, but still!)
“So, will that be all right, Jean?”
“Well, goodbye, we’ll see you tomorrow then.”
14 April. College as usual. My deskmate Lorraine Feinblum, who is a year or two older than the rest of us, is engaged. We are all thrilled for her.
I go to the Booths in the afternoon. Lemon snuffles at the door and Anne answers it. She wears a straight skirt with a jersey and grey shoes with an overdose of eye make-up (probably for tonight’s concert). We have customary greeting and she finishes practising an intricate accompaniment for the concert tonight.
Webster comes in and brings various purchases into the kitchen and says, “Oh, hello, Jean. I didn’t know you were here.” We have customary greetings and Anne finishes practising piece for concert.
Anne calls me in and says, “I hear you want to do singing, Jean. I think that’s splendid.”
I say, “Well, I’d like to, but I’m not sure about my voice.”
Webster says, “Well, judging from what I remember from last hearing you, I don’t think you have to worry much about that.”
He asks me what sort of music I have at home and goes to look out some music while I go through the last scene of And So to Bed with Anne. I have learnt it and do it quite well. She says afterwards, “It’s too wonderful! You really do it beautifully – it’s a miracle how you learnt the part – some people doing singing won’t even learn a song I give them to do – but this – brilliant, and very well done.”
Webster says, “It’s very good. You could know the part in a fortnight!” He asks where I have acted before and I say, “‘School plays etc.”
We go through it again and she tells me I have the makings of a fine actress.
They insist that I should sing. I go through some scales with Anne playing and looking down my throat at the same time, and Webster listening very intently with the ear of a master. Anne says my tongue is in a perfect position – how hard I have practised to get it there! – but I must open my mouth wider on the high notes. Webster says I have a very good voice which will be fine for training and Mrs. B says, “It’s all there – you’ve probably got about four notes to add to it yet.”
She makes me look in the mirror to see how to hold my mouth when singing high – the rule is not to show teeth. I’m afraid I look rather like a horse laughing! Webster takes the music and we debate about what I should sing – a Schubert album with dozens of lieder (all in English including On Wings of Song).
I say that I know Wiegenlied best but it isn’t in that book so what about Hark, Hark the Lark? I say I know Hark, Hark, the Lark but when I’ve tried that at home I couldn’t reach high notes. Anne says it was probably in a higher key, so I agree to try it although this key is actually higher than mine, for the top note is high G but somehow I reach it perfectly. Anne sings with me. She really has a lovely voice. Webster stands at my side listening very intently. Thank heaven he expresses approval. He says I must go through my own Schubert album and bring it next week. I have nothing to worry about with regards to my voice –it’s good. I tell him, “Well, I wasn’t too sure about it because I’d never heard it!”
He says, “Well, we won’t let you hear it just yet. Everybody gets a terrible shock when they hear their own voice.”
Anne comes with me to the door and says, “Well, Jean, I’m glad that at last, you’ve decided to obey the request we made to you so nicely such a long while ago. You can go home and tell your parents you have a lovely voice and we’re both thrilled that you’re going to do singing.”
I say goodbye to Anne and Lemon and come down on the lift floating on air. I’m so thrilled about it because they have such a fine musical understanding and can tell a good voice when they hear one. Also Webster has taken on a more authoritative position because singing is his forte. But he’s quite different from the Webster on the radio – I prefer him as he is in the studio.
For ages – since I heard them sing at the church last year – I’ve wanted to do singing. After I heard them I started to enjoy music and singing far more – I know that what they sang that particular evening was light but their presentation of it was perfect. But it has taken me practically a whole year to start my singing lessons with them. I know I’ll never regret it. Not only are they top-notch singers, but they’re top-notch all round.
On Wednesday evening Webster said of Isobel Baillie, “I understand she’s teaching at the Manchester School of Music – lucky pupils.” Well, that’s the way I feel about them. They’re awe-inspiring and make me feel as though I might do well if I work hard.
15 April – Go into rink today. Menina, Neill Craus, Dawn Vivian are all there – Sue is in the rag – and we have reasonably gay time but have to work. Menina is learning with Mr Perren while Jill is getting married, and says he is a real old tartar!
Skating goes very well and is exhilarating. Come into town and buy On Wings of Song in Kelly’s and then have lunch with Mum and Dad in Capinero and then go to see Bottoms Up with Jimmy Edwards. Good but a bit kiddish in places!
16 April Sunday School today. Mark, Neill, Desmond and Gary W are there and all of them tell me strangest things – some of Mark’s stories are decidedly exaggerated. Stay to sermon by Mr R – quite good but a bit disjointed towards the end. All the usual crowd there but can’t say they thrill me with their spirit. Gail won the prize for best beatnik on Friday night.
18 April RDM provides pleasant shock for me in morning. Full page picture of Webster and Anne advertising Skal beer! Doesn’t say it’s them but of course it is! Webster complete with beard (he had it shaved off on Friday!) sitting holding glass of beer and Anne sitting on his lap with telegram in one hand and a look of sheer delight on her face. It’s a really gorgeous advert and large – larger than life – up it goes on my wall – if there’s another I’ll put it in my diary!
College goes well today – Lorraine F is excited about her engagement. Go with Jill Harry to library and meet Mary Theodosiou who says she’s working hard, isn’t living in Kensington, and hears that Atholie is pretty fed up working in the library. I’m not surprised with those awful hours! In the afternoon I vegetate owing to a cold which I must get rid of before Friday at least.
19 April College. We have a party for Lorraine F which is fun. Come home on bus with unknown but very affable girl who is doing a speed-writing course.
I listen to On Wings of Song at night. Webster doesn’t continue with his own life story but plays records. First one is a Thomas Beecham recording which he got for Easter, then a song by Gigli and an aria from Messiah.
He says that in 1938 he had the honour of singing the tenor role in Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden. Richard Tauber was also in the production. He says, “When Richard Tauber was appearing in the same concert as us at the Coliseum Anne asked him what songs he intended to sing. Tauber replied, ‘German songs,’ and his little accompanist (Percy Kahn) added, ‘With English words by me!’”
He talks of another opera by Rossini (I think) and says, “Anne and I sang it at the festival opera season in 1953 and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
He mentions that he sang with Kathleen Ferrier and Gladys Ripley, the two tragic contraltos who both died within a year of one another, Kathleen, a switchboard operator, and Gladys, a hairdresser. Plays record by Gladys and another tenor – how I wished it had been a Kathleen Ferrier recording – very nice though. Ends with overture to HMS Pinafore, conductor – Sir Malcolm, and says, “It’s very light-hearted but I love it!”
Very nice programme and well presented. I do approve of the “Anne and I” part!
21 April – College – thank heaven for the weekend! I kill time in the afternoon by having a long drawn-out snack in the Capinero. I go up to studio at a quarter to four and am greeted by Webster. He says, “Anne isn’t back yet, so do come in and sit down. I’m just trying through the examination pieces – please excuse the mess.” He sits down at the piano and labours away at the exam pieces. I feel a bit corny sitting there so stare at the photographs and see one of Lincoln Cathedral where he was a chorister.
There is a peremptory knock at the door which heralds the entrance of Anne. He answers the door and she walks in without greeting him. She wears a grey princess line coat (she had her picture taken in it autographing their new LP record last October) and says something about gardenias and donating something to some society or other – all a bit vague. She looks very tired today.
She says. “Well, let’s start!” Sits at the piano and he sits on a chair opposite and says that he forgot to note my range. We do all the scales once again and she tells me to drop my jaw more on the higher notes. I reach high A fairly comfortably but B natural is a bit much – I end up looking like a horse on the higher notes. Anne says that she bets that within 2 months I’ll sing high C – I doubt it! He says that I’m a mezzo, but she says, “If she’s a mezzo she’ll be a very high one.” I go fairly low too and reach a bottom E. Amazing – I can hardly reach low G at home. They tell me about vowel sounds, all to be sung with the mouth in the same position. Mrs. B says, “He’s an example of perfect vowel sounds. No matter where in his range he sings, or what the vowel sound is, his mouth is always in the same position.”
Anne makes me sing Hedge Roses in English and they say that my vowels are fairly good except “ee” – I must sing that one in the same way as the others. Anne gives me a demonstration. I sing Hedge Roses in German all by myself with no assistance at all. We go through this twice, and Anne says, “You learnt And So to Bed so nicely for me a little while ago – will you learn this for next week?”
German, I find, is a wee bit more difficult to learn than English but nevertheless, I will for her!
A fire engine passes sounding a siren and Anne says, “Fire engines and sirens remind me of the war and make me feel terrible!” She says I have a well-placed voice and thinks that the few months of speech-training did me good. She feels my breathing and both she and Webster are happy about it. She says to me, “You want to sing good songs, don’t you? Not musical comedy or pop songs?”
Before I have a chance to answer Webster hops in with, “There’s nothing wrong with musical comedy!” So be it.
I depart, saying goodbye, see you next week, with the worry of learning three verses in German. Anne says that next week I must bring some Scottish songs (for English words).
Come home on bus with Rosemary, Jennifer Bawden and Gill Colborne. Meet Miss Ward coming home and take great relish in telling her that I’m completely exhausted after my singing lesson.
Go up to guild tonight. Ann is happy to see me and her reaction about singing lessons all that could be desired. We go to the Central Hall to hear panel of men: Dr Roux (a botanist), Mr McEwan (lawyer), Dr Webb – my favourite minister, and Gary Allighan the journalist and author of Verwoerd – the End. Meeting becomes practically political. All denounce government’s apartheid policy and in one particular question, Gary Allighan answers by starting, “First, let’s forget about the government!” Violent clapping. “There is only one race – the human race!” Shot for him – he was a labour MP in Britain and is a Cockney through and through. Shorty gives us a lift back and we all go to the roadhouse and have something to eat – good fun.
22 April Play piano and sing in the morning and then go to town. Go into CNA and mooch around. Look in the SABC bulletin for programmes and am disappointed to see that Webster’s programme seems to be cut out – perhaps it’s been changed to another evening, but if it isn’t, to hang the SABC!
We have lunch at the Capinero and then Mum, Dad and I go to Brooke Theatre to see Roar Like a Dove with Margaret Inglis, Brian Brooke, Norma West, Robert Haver and also Alfred Stretton (the old man who spoke to us after Caesar and Cleopatra – he’s sweet). Play isn’t all it’s cut out to be. Margaret Inglis and Brian Brooke have whisky voices and Margaret I is hard as nails, although she’s probably meant to be in this part.
24 April College – goes reasonably – dozens absent. Go into Music library and buy the SABC bulletin in afternoon and study it carefully. I am glad to see that Webster has had ten minutes added to his programme – forty minutes now! On Thursday evening at 9.20pm.
26 April – My father’s fifty-ninth birthday. Webster’s programme tonight is really about the best I’ve heard so far. He says that the first time he sang with Thomas Beecham, Joan Hammond was one of the other soloists. At that time she had a light, lyrical soprano which later developed into a heavy dramatic soprano. He plays the duet from Madame Butterfly which he made with her, which is quite fantastic. Webster is a tenor of great restraint which is pleasing. His voice contrasts sharply with her loud, almost harsh soprano.
Then Webster makes me laugh. He discusses the Strauss operetta, Night in Venice and says that during the Jo’burg production Anne wore a crinoline that covered practically the whole stage. “I look on this duet I am about to play with certain misgivings because during the Jo’burg production I tripped and broke my foot and was laid up in plaster for three weeks!” Poor Webster! He talks of his old friend, conductor Mark Lubbock and how many happy hours “Anne and I” spent with him. “He was a specialist in the music of Franz Lehar and arranged some of Lehar’s songs for Anne and I to sing as duets with his own London orchestra.”
These songs are about the finest I have heard. They sing so beautifully they make me cry because they’re so glorious. Her voice is out of this world – like water floating gently over tiny pebbles. He sings the Serenade richly, gloriously, temperately. Webster and Anne were terribly lucky to be blessed with such voices and I’m terribly lucky to be training under them! He ends off the programme by playing the overture to Don Pasquale, the comic opera soon to be seen in Johanesburg.
27 April – College. Go to lunch hour concert conducted by Anton Hartman with soloists Rita Roberts and Bob Borowsky. This series of concerts is a prelude to the forthcoming opera and ballet season. Both sing operatic arias (separately and together). Duet from La Traviata. Anton Hartman conducts overture to Les Pateneurs and the Flower Dance from the Nut Cracker Suite. Hetty and Jill sit with me and Hetty is charmed – so am I.
28 April. I arrive at the studio before the Booths today. I sit on the little ledge outside and vegetate. One of Madge Wallace’s pupils comes out of her studio and grumbles about having to wait for the lift, but just as lift arrives she goes back into the studio to say goodbye once more so I hold the lift for her.
Mrs. B comes up on the other lift armed with the evening dress she wore to our church concert and a fur cape. She is also carrying a little vanity case. She asks, “Was the lift stuck at the eighth floor?” I have to admit my guilt in this matter but she is quite cheery about it and takes me into the studio.
She tells me they were at first night of La Traviata last night and didn’t get in till half past three. She says, “I just can’t take late nights any more! Tonight it’ll probably be just as late too because we’ve got Don Pasquale.”
Anne says that the production of La Traviata didn’t nearly match the standard of an overseas production, but Mimi Coertse was wonderful. She covered her top notes well and used her face at every possible moment. Her song at the end of the first act, however, was breathy and she broke the trills, but this might have been due to first night nerves or not being used to the altitude. She says it’ll be good for me to see it as Mimi’s singing is wonderfully controlled.
We start on My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose after doing oodles of scales to work on the English vowels. Apparently my phrasing is all wrong. Webster arrives at this point, dressed in tails and black bow tie, looking too gorgeous for words, ready for the first night of Don Pasquale and is very affable. Anne says, “Jean is doing My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose,” and he says, “Oh! I know that one!”
I do Heidenroslein by memory. Webster watches me closely the whole time I am singing and I feel a bit silly. He says to me afterwards, “Honestly, Jean, you’ve got a wonderful memory – and of German too! If I had a memory like yours I could really do wonders!” I smile at him. He says, “But Jean – I wish you’d smile like that when you sing. You’ve got such a lovely smile.”
I sing it again, trying to look a little happier this time. The phone rings and Webster answers it and comes out of the office, saying, “Do you remember people called Wilkinson?” Anne looks quite blank and then says she believes she remembers them vaguely. “Well, they’ve asked us over on Saturday, the sixth of May. Are we free?”
“Oh, no, darling. We’ve got that Mimi Coertse presentation cocktail party. We can’t miss that.”
“Well, shall I say we’ll go over later?”
“Well, we can’t go for drinks. Say we might go later if we can make it.”
“These damned socialites,” says Anne to me in hollow tones.
We go on with Roslein and they say I look a bit cheerier about it. To finish she makes me sing Hark, hark… Webster asks, “Do you like Hark, Hark the Lark?” I say, “Yes, it’s very nice.” He says, “Well, I hate it – probably because I was made to sing it so often when I was young.”
They sing it together – beautifully – as though they know exactly what the other one is thinking and exactly what to do. No. Mimi Coertse might be excellent but she’ll never ever beat Anne, and although Gigli was a great tenor he never had that lovely restraint which Webster displays so eloquently and beautifully. OK, so I’m prejudiced but I don’t care – they’re wonderful singers and lovely people.
Anne asks whether I could change from Friday to Tuesday next week because Webster has a recital in Krugersdorp on Friday. She asks whether 4 o’clock would be OK. I agree and Webster says, “Will I get you a pencil and paper to write it down?”
“It’s quite OK. I’ll remember it, thank you.”
“Yes, I know you will. If only I had a memory like you.”
Anne says, “But darling, look how young Jean is compared with you…”
“Yes, but still…”
Anne makes me feel her breathing again and says that as we’re the same height we should have the same rib-expansion. She has such wonderful breath control – it’s unsurpassed, really it is! I say goodbye and Webster sees me to the door, his tails following behind him.
29 April. Go into town and book seats for La Traviata. We’re going on 3 May – a Wednesday. I feel rather the worse for wear after the debate last night. I also go to music library and procure dozens of songs. I go to Capinero and have lunch with Mum and Dad. He has a book from the library with oodles in it about Webster. Author says that he could have been the finest British tenor if… But tomorrow I’ll type out the relevant parts and put them in the diary.
We go to see Song Without End, the story of Franz Liszt – Dirk Bogarde as Franz – good up to a point. Dirk is gorgeous though!
At night I listen to Afrikaans programme and announcer says, “Nou gaan die sang-tweeling, Anne Ziegler en Webster Booth Indian Love Call sing.”
30 April Anne in paper advertising Stork margarine.
The Queen’s Hall had seventeen entrances to the building in Langham Place, Riding House Street and Great Portland Street and originally seated 3000 people, although, after alterations in 1919, housed only 2,400. It was considered to have excellent acoustics. There was also the Queen’s Small Hall, seating 500 people. This hall opened in November 1893.
While Webster Booth always considered this hall to be his favourite as a singer, he was associated with it as early as 1935 when the unusual film written and composed by Friedrich Feher in which he appeared as a troubadour, was first shown in the Queen’s Hall. The film was called The Robber Symphony. Not only was Webster required to pull a piano through the snow in the Alps during the making of this film, but he also sang several songs written by Mr Feher, one in creditable Italian.
Webster Booth in The Robber Symphony with Magda Sonja
Webster sang many oratorio performances in the Queen’s Hall, including a Messiah, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham on 17 December 1938. It was at this performance that Australian, Joan Hammond sang the soprano solos in one of her first engagements in England. At that time Joan Hammond had a beautiful lyrical soprano voice, but after further training Webster was surprised to discover that her voice had become very much heavier when he recorded the duet from Madame Butterfly with her in 1943. In order to balance the duet, Miss Hammond had to stand quite a distance behind Webster during the recording, conducted by the (then) Dr Malcolm
By the time this recording was made, the Queen’s Hall had been destroyed by an incendiary bomb. On the afternoon of 10 May 1941 Webster had sung the part of the Soul in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius at the Queen’s Hall. The other soloists were contralto, Muriel Brunskill (the Angel) and baritone, Ronald Stear (The Priest and Angel of Agony). The soloists, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Choral Society were conducted by Malcolm Sargent.
Interior of Queen’s Hall
I have always regretted that no recording was ever made of Webster singing Gerontius, as he was notable in this role. When he immigrated to South Africa he sang in the first South African performance of The Dream of Gerontius in 1957, conducted by a very young Keith Jewell, who became the Cape Town City Organist. Keith Jewell accompanied Anne and Webster in (what was meant to be) their farewell concert in Somerset West, Cape Province in 1975..
The day in 1941 had been pleasant and sunny, but only a few hours after this performance of The Dream of Gerontius, the Queen’s Hall was destroyed by a German incendiary bomb. Webster Booth always considered the hall to be the finest concert hall in the
world for a singer. The Promenade Concerts had been held there, but after the destruction of this beautiful hall they transferred to the Royal Albert Hall. Webster Booth said in his joint autobiography with Anne Ziegler, Duet (1951), that many singers were terrified to sing in the Albert Hall after the warm acoustic of the Queen’s Hall, but although he adored the Albert Hall, the Queen’s Hall would always remain his favourite London Concert Hall.