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Postcard photograph published by Breitkopf & Härtel, London, [c.1900].

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Louise KIRKBY LUNN (1873-1930)

December 2023

(b.Manchester, 8 November 1873; d.London, 17 February 1930)

Obituary from The Times, 18 February 1930.


The death of Mme. Kirkby Lunn, announced on another page, will be keenly felt by musical people who for a generation have enjoyed her splendid voice, her fine interpretations, and, above all, her constant devotion to the greatest things of her art.  It was in this last that she was pre-eminent, and it probably prevented her fame from being so widespread among the populace as it might have been had she been content to exploit her vocal powers in the singing of slight and sentimental ditties.  She never sang rubbish.  Her reputation was based on the great mezzo-soprano parts of opera, on oratorio, and on the finer types of Lieder, German, French, and English.

From the first her goal was clearly the operatic stage.  She was in her 21st year when in 1894 she won a scholarship at the Royal College of Music.  She had already studied there for a year with Visetti, and had made her first appearance in a student performance of Schumann’s Genoveva under Stanford, and she first made her mark publicly by her performance of the principal mezzo part in Stanford’s charming Irish opera Shamus O’Brien, when it was mounted for a run by Sir Augustus Harris.  This production at the old Opera Comique in the Strand was a foundation on which several high reputations were built, including that of its young conductor, Henry J. Wood.  It brought Kirkby Lunn next to Covent Garden, but the death of Harris soon after ended her contract with him, and it was with the Carl Rosa Opera Company that in the last years of the nineties she developed her style in “grand” opera, and became specially distinguished in Wagnerian parts such as Ortrud in Lohengrin and Brangäne in Tristan.  Carmen was also among her successes, but she was never temperamentally suited to this as she was to the statuesque parts of the German opera.

The year 1904 was an important one for her.  It was then that she first won at Covent Garden what was probably her most famous achievement in her singing of Amneris, in Verdi’s Aïda, in which for many years she had Mme. Emmy Destinn, whose death we recorded last January, in the title-part.  This part of Amneris, with its great sweeps of melody depending for effect on a pure style of singing, was her ideal opportunity.  Her performance of it created a standard for English ears, and those who were frequenters of Covent Garden throughout that rich period which ended in 1914 remember Kirkby Lunn’s Amneris as they remember Melba’s Mimi, Caruso’s Canio, and Scotti’s Scarpia, as something by which the excellence of other presentations of the part may be judged.  In 1904, too, she took part in the Festival of Elgar’s oratorios given at Covent Garden, which gave those works a new status in the estimation of musicians and the occasion meant the extension, though not actually the beginning, of her festival engagements throughout the country.

The same year took her to Ostend, where she sang at the Kursaal, and in the autumn she paid her second visit to America to appear as Kundry in the first English performance of Parsifal given at Boston.  Probably this last engagement more than her English birth and upbringing accounts for the fact that she never had the opportunity of appearing at the Festspielhaus of Bayreuth.  Had the opportunity been given she could have taken her place among the greatest exponents of the Wagnerian drama either in the parts already named or as Fricka, Erda, and Waltraute (Götterdämmerung), all of which she sang supremely well in German under Richter at Covent Garden, in and about the year 1910.

After the War the uncertain conditions of operatic production in England made Mme. Kirkby Lunn’s stage appearances regrettably rare.  She took part, however, in several notable festival performances, and her song recitals in London were always eagerly sought.  Her admirable method enabled her voice to stand the strain of the hard work which had been required of it, so that in her 57th year her active career seemed not necessarily at an end, when death intervened, to the great loss of her many friends and of the music-loving public.