Skip to main content


Possibly as Valentine in Faust at Her Majesty’s Theatre, June 1863. Photograph by Henry Hering, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Featured Links

Sir Charles SANTLEY (1834-1922)

September 2022

As the leading English baritone of the latter half of the nineteenth century, many were the plaudits written on the death of Sir Charles Santley 100 years ago this month and also on the occasion of the jubilee concert given to celebrate his fifty years of singing in England.  We choose one of the latter as our main text which is from The Daily Telegraph, 30 April 1907:


Charles Santley is British to the core.  Yet may we not say of him what Adelbert von Chamisso’s heroine sang of her here in “Frauenliebe und Leben” – “Er, der herrlichste von Allen” [“He, the noblest of all”]?  Surely, by common consent, he is the most glorious of them all to-day, as he has been any day these last fifty years.  To some extent an injustice is being done to this great man, in whom is wrapped a very large share of our native musical history of the past half century.  For the celebration at the Albert Hall tomorrow afternoon is in commemoration of his fifty years of song.  Yet we are, as a matter of historic fact, within an ace of the sixtieth anniversary of his first public appearance as a soloist, for, on Christmas Day, 1848, he sang an anthem at the Unitarian Chapel in Toxteth Park, Liverpool, of the choir of which he and his sister were both members.  Since then opportunities have been abundant of hearing Mr. Santley “in quires and places where they sing,” and as recently as last Easter Sunday he was a soloist in a Catholic church in his native city on the Mersey.

But for the purposes of this particular jubilee the date of Mr. Santley’s first professional appearance in London is taken, when he sang Adam’s part in “The Creation,” at the now, for musical purposes, disused St. Martin’s Hall, on Nov. 16, 1857.  Ere this, however, he had been an embryo provision dealer, violinist in the band of one local choral society, and a member of the choir of another.  Success followed quickly upon his steps, for precisely a month after his first appearance, Mr. Santley sang in the “Messiah” in the same hall, and a year later – 1858 – the once famous Sacred Harmonic Society took him under its wing.  He, also, was with Alboni, Sims Reeves, Miss Dolby, and the Weiss’s, a principal vocalist in the Leeds Festival of that year, and received forty guineas for his services.  In those days the public must have been of much tougher fibre than their descendents of to-day, since the second programme of this festival contained a symphony, a pianoforte concerto, Sterndale Bennett’s “May Queen” (marked “first time, MS.”), and no less than thirteen odd arias, violin solos, part songs, &c.

Long before this, however, the embryo provision dealer, otherwise Mr. Santley, seems to have been adroit in that unemotional trade as he was destined to become in the most emotional of all professions.  For by the time he had arrived at twenty years of age his savings were sufficient to enable him, so to speak, to cut the painter and sail away to sunny Italy, where for a couple of years he studied the singer’s art assiduously.  It is amusing, looking back down the long avenue of time, to recollect that Lamperti, the great teacher of Sophie Löwe, Arto, Albani, Sembrich, and a host of subsequently eminent singers, would have none of our well-beloved Santley, who, therefore, went to his distinguished rival Gaetano Nava.  On returning home, Santley met at first with but a slightly warmer welcome than he had received from Lamperti.  Hullah, then something of a power, apparently thought little of him and even Hatton, whose song, “To Anthea”, Mr. Santley must have sung more frequently than any other in his repertory, could do no more for him than offer a post-prandial engagement in the City.  Once, however, the start was made things went merrily enough.  To-morrow, fifty years later, Mr. Santley, supported by a “company” not one of whom was out of the cradle – most not even in it – half a century ago, is to be welcomed as he deserves to be, as, that is, one of the greatest artists ever begotten in this so-called unmusical land.

But it must not be forgotten that Mr. Santley has by no means confined his artistic efforts to the concert platform.  The delightful if garrulous old Dr. Cox records in his “Musical Recollections” how Tuesday, April 15, 1862, “must by no means be left unnoticed, because of its having introduced to the Italian stage [now the Royal Opera House] the most genuine (baritone) singer that England has produced since the days of Bartleman – Mr. Santley.  The opera was “Il Trovatore,” he assuming the part of Il Conte.”  Of course Mr. Santley had already made a name for himself with the Pyne and Harrison English Opera Company.  Dr. Cox’s criticism stands good to-day, five-and-thirty years after it was written.  He says, writing in 1872, “What Mr. Santley is precludes the necessity of my describing his début at length.  No Englishman since Braham has so thoroughly maintained a hold upon the Italian operatic stage as he has done . . . He has sung in the entire range of opera, and has made but one failure, that of Don Giovanni; but although he has not sufficient histrionic power to act that character according to its demands, he yet sang it as it has rarely been rendered since the days of Ambrogetti.”  In “The Water-carrier” of Cherubini, and in “Ozar und Zimmermann” – operas long vanished from English boards, Mr. Santley scored unequivocal successes, and to him is due the English version of “Gioconda.”  His Valentine in “Faust” is historical, since he was the first to realise the importance of the part, and was personally complimented by Gounod upon his interpretation of it.  He created also in England the title-part in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman.”  A brief career upon the operatic stage was followed by a long series of triumphs upon the concert platform, with which all are familiar.  And though half a century has passed since that eventful “first appearance,” Mr. Santley has no intention of withdrawing from public life.  With this all will be in agreement, as also they will hope that – we can still say it – “the most genuine baritone singer produced in England since Bartleman” will urge for many years to come his career of delighting the myriads of admirers of his inimitable style.  A bumper reception awaits him to-morrow, and none has ever deserved one better.

On 9 November of the same year as his jubilee concert Santley’s name appeared in the Birthday Honours list and on 16 December he rose as Sir Charles. In the museum’s collection is an autograph book, probably once the property of Santley, in which several letters to him are loosely inserted. We show a few below, all but the last relating to the concert and his knighthood. They indicate how warmly he was regarded by his fellow performers.

In 1909 Santley sang for the last time at the Sixteenth Triennial Handel Festival at Crystal Palace having sung in every Festival since 1865. Although it is usually given that he first sang at the Handel Festival in 1862, because it was advertised that he would, he did not appear on that occasion. His last appearance at Crystal Palace was at a concert on 14 April 1911. His very last stage appearance was at a benefit matinee arranged by Sir Herbert Tree at Covent Garden on 23 May 1911. He continued to sing on special occasions such as Madame Albani’s benefit concert. His last publicised concert was in the Egyptian Hall at the Mansion House on 3 February 1915 in aid of the Belgian Refugees’ Fund organised by the Lady Mayoress, Lady Johnson. Santley included one of his favourite songs ‘Simon the Cellarer’. Fortunately for us Santley made a few recordings including one of this song and three others all available on YouTube (see featured links above).

Having enjoyed the best of health for most of his long life, he died aged 88 at his home in St. John’s Wood on the night of 21 September 1922 retaining all his faculties to the last.

The images below show a few of the countless events in which Santley participated.

Two songs composed expressly for Santley

Recordings of Santley on YouTube (see featured links above):

Anon: The Vicar of Bray

J. L. Hatton Simon the Cellarer

J. L. Hatton To Anthea

W. A. Mozart: Non più andrai (from Le nozze di Figaro)

*The date of Santley’s death is now generally given as 22 September 1922 following the date on the death certificate, though several contemporary provincial newspapers give his death as the previous day. For example, The Liverpool Echo of the 22nd wrote “The death of Sir Charles Santley in London, last night, was announced this morning.” and more precisely, The Leeds Mercury of the 23rd stated that “the world-famous baritone, died, at 11.45, on Thursday night, at his London residence, 13, Blenheim-road, N.W.”, the 23rd being a Saturday.