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Photograph from the studio of Leopold Frederick Manley, London. [c.1861]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Willoughby Hunter WEISS (1820-1867)

February 2021

WEISS, Willoughby Hunter (b.Liverpool, 2 April 1820; d.London, 24 October 1867)

“Mr. Weiss is a young singer, as well as a young man.  He has a fine baritone voice, which has been well trained in a good school; and he will make, doubtless, a capital vocalist in a very short time; but at present his voice wants pitch, perhaps from his being unused to theatrical singing, and his action is rather gauche than graceful, it may be from the embarrassment of a first appearance on the metropolitan boards.  These trivial details, however, remedied, Mr. Weiss will be an acquisition of great value to the management, as well as to the musical world of London.”

This is from the next day’s The Morning Post after Weiss’s London operatic debut as Count Rodolfo in La Sonnambula on 26 December 1842 at the Princess’s Theatre, Oxford Street.  He was to become “an acquisition of great value” to the musical world of Britain.

Born in Liverpool on 2 April 1820, he was the son of Willoughby Gaspard and Ann (née Hunter) Weiss, a music dealer and musician, the nephew of Charles Nicholas Weiss, a flute player and composer. His grandfather, also a flute player and composer, was Jean Gaspard Weiss, known in England as Carl Weiss. It was this last forebear who introduced the name of Willoughby into the family.  Willoughby Bertie, 3rd Earl of Abingdon (1740-1799), was a keen amateur flute player and was both Carl’s patron and his pupil.  They travelled in Europe together (taking in Florence in 1765) and when Lord Abingdon organised a series of concerts in the 1780s, Carl was principal flute.  Carl also dedicated a set of six flute trios to the Earl of Abingdon.  Incidentally, his Lordship’s other most significant professional flute connection, Tebaldo Monzani (1762-1839), named his son Willoughby.

Pupil of Michael Balfe and Sir George Smart, Weiss appears to have first come on the scene in August 1840 at the opening of a Roman Catholic chapel in Rainhill, Liverpool at which the congregation were “greatly delighted with Mr Weiss’s rich and truly splendid bass voice”.  For the very same chapel Weiss was arranging a mass of Weber’s to be performed a month later – perhaps this was the Mass in G he later arranged with organ or piano accompaniment, published by Novello [c.1855].

His career really started taking off in March 1841 with an introduction, presumably by Smart, to the Melodists’ Club to which many professional musicians belonged. Here he sang two songs by Mozart and Balfe and was deemed “a young and very promising singer, possessing a fine bass voice”.  Twelve months later after many concert performances in London, he was giving his Paris debut in Erard’s Salon at a concert put on by Balfe:  “There was a novelty in the concert by the appearance of Mr. Weiss, an Englishman, and a pupil of Balfe.  He sang the fine air from Rossini’s ‘Stabat Mater,’ which Tamburini has made so well known and he joined Balfe in the duet from Falstaff, rendered so popular by Lablache.  Mr. Weiss has a magnificent voice; it has great compass, and in the lower notes it is very fine.  It seemed to be the general opinion that he was destined to take a most prominent place in the musical world, under the tuition of his able master.”  This was proudly mentioned in the Liverpool press, though “his voice is one of the finest we ever heard” might have been an exaggeration!

In April 1842 Balfe and Weiss sang a duet, both at a concert in aid of the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund and at a meeting of the Melodists’ Club at which William Sterndale Bennett and Parish Alvars performed too.

On 5 May 1842, Gaspar Weiss (by this time he appears to have dropped the d at the end of his Christian name) gave a concert to “introduce his son, just arrived from Paris, to a Liverpool audience.  Mr. Willoughby Weiss will be assisted by Madame Balfe, and his Preceptor, Mr Balfe, Mr Dodd, and Mrs. St. Albin.”  The concert included the duet from Falstaff sung in Paris and ‘Pro peccatis’ from Rossini’s Stabat Mater: both were encored.

At the end of the following week, Weiss, Balfe, Miss Elizabeth Rainforth and John Liptrot Hatton, as pianist, accompanist and singer, went to Dublin to perform with Miss Adelaide Kemble, daughter of Charles Kemble.  On 13 June Weiss made his first appearance there and it was acknowledged that he “… has a fine, deep, clear bass; his tones are full and round; his time perfect.”  By June, he was back in London singing in a number of benefit concerts.  Then at the beginning of July, Weiss with Balfe and Miss Rainforth joined Miss Kemble again, this time for her farewell tour of the provinces.  The tour began in Dublin where at the Theatre Royal on 2 July Weiss made his operatic debut as Oroveso in Norma with Miss Kemble as Norma and Miss Rainforth as Adalgisa, and ended in Brighton.  In a letter to a friend, Weiss’s father lists all the towns on the tour : “Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Carlisle, New Castle, York, Harrogate, Liverpool, Manchester, Wellington, Shrewsbury, New Castle under Lime, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, Leeds, Hull, Leamington, Cheltenham, Clifton, Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth & on the 31st Brighton.” and adds “This is singing with a Vengeance.”

His reputation already established as a concert performer, Weiss went on to forge a reputation as an opera singer as well as in oratorio – his forte.  Along with Henry Phillips (1801-1876), Josef Staudigl (1807-1861), Carl Formes (1815-1889) and Charles Santley (1834-1892) he became one the leading basses of the Victorian era.  In his Reminiscences of My Life, 1909, Santley, a fellow Liverpudlian, describes him as “a fine handsome fellow, about six foot two in height, slim in his youth”. Henry Chorley, the music critic, mentioning him in an English performance of Norma at the Princess’s Theatre wrote “The Oreveso was a young bass named Weiss, from Liverpool; he sang well and looked like a giraffe.”  Santley, being some fifteen years younger, felt when they first met that “he took me for some cheeky young upstart, bent on usurping his well-merited position as the leading basso of his time, but the little ruffle his suspicions aroused was soon smoothed down when we were engaged together in the Pyne and Harrison Company, and each had a part in the same opera.”  This must have been in 1858 or later.

While Weiss had been on Miss Kemble’s farewell tour in July and August, 1842, Miss Barrett, a soprano and his future wife, had been studying music at the Royal Academy and performing in their concerts.  Georgina Ansell Barrett was the daughter of Henry Barrett of Gloucester, an organist and music teacher.  When they met at the Gloucester Musical Festival in 1844, Miss Barrett was in her 19th year.  They both featured on the bill as Principal Vocal Performers.

Just under a year later, on 15 September 1845, they married.  As The Musical World charmingly put it “Mr. W. H. Weiss and Miss Barrett, the vocalists, have entered into a compact to sing duets together, for life; the agreement was signed and sealed last week.”  They had one daughter who also became a singer.

There was little time for nuptial celebration as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane announced its forthcoming season commencing on 27 September with Weiss and Phillips among the basses and baritones and with new operas by Wallace and Benedict. In the event the Wallace opera which was said to be a flop was delayed until the following season.

In September 1847 the Weisses were back at the Gloucester Musical Festival along with Staudigl.  On 20 December Mrs Weiss made her operatic debut as Queen Elizabeth in the premiere of Balfe’s opera Maid of Honour.  “Mrs Weiss looked the royal Bess exceedingly well, and sang a cavatina, ‘Far from gilded state away,’ in a manner which showed that she will be a valuable member of the company. Her voice is a clear soprano, which she manages with musician-like skill and perfect intonation. “ The Globe, 21 December 1847

We have not mentioned Sims Reeves (1818-1900) perhaps the finest English tenor of the Victorian period who often sang with Weiss. In May 1853 the Weisses, Sims Reeves with his wife Emma, a soprano, mezzo-soprano Miss Kathleen Fitzwilliam, the Belgian flute player Mathieu Reichert and the multi-talented Hatton spent a month in Ireland performing in concerts and operas in Dublin, Waterford, Clonmel, Belfast, Cork and Limerick.

Over the next years until his untimely death in 1867, Weiss and his wife performed widely over the UK, both together and separately.  Weiss also composed songs and ballads and in 1854 wrote ‘The Village Blacksmith’ by which he is now best known.

On New Year’s Day, 1856, Queen Victoria noted in her diary a performance of Méhul’s opera Joseph in St George’s Hall, Windsor “arranged as a Sacred Drama, or Oratorio, for which Mr Cusins composed Recitatives.  It is beautiful, pleasing & melodious music, – not too heavy, or severe, & had never been given here before. … the singers: Mme Clara Novello, Mr Sims Reeves, Mr Weiss, … The Performance was conducted by Mr Anderson, Director of my Private Band.  Weiss & Clara Novello sang really beautifully.  All the members of the Household were present….”.  Both Mr & Mrs Weiss had sung before at Windsor Castle the previous New Year’s Day.

Weiss was to participate in all the Handel Festivals that took place at Crystal Palace in his lifetime – 1857, 1859, 1862 and 1865.  The first one, intended as a precursor to the still more magnificent one two years later, began on Monday 15 June 1857 with the Messiah followed on the Wednesday by Judas Maccabaeus and on the Friday by Israel in Egypt.  His fellow bass singer at this was Herr Formes.  For 1859 the pattern was the same except for Wednesday’s performance being the Te Deum and a selection from other oratorios.

1858 saw the Leeds Musical Festival with the premiere of William Sterndale-Bennett’s The May Queen in which Weiss distinguished himself.

On 12 October 1863, Weiss sang Casgan (An Indian Chief, disguised as a Trapper) at the premiere of Vincent Wallace’s opera The Desert Flower at Royal English Opera, Covent Garden. “His stalwart form was perfectly in character, and his deep and powerful voice gave full effect to the fine music of the part.”  The following year on 2 July, he was Don Caesar in O’Keefe’s opera The Castle of Andalusia at the Haymarket Theatre and later in the year was Pietro in Auber’s Masaniello at the Royal English Opera.

One of his final appearances was in September, 1867 at the Birmingham Musical Festival where he sang the Prophet in Elijah.  Many regarded him as second only to Staudigl in this role.

He died at his home near Regent’s Park on 24 October 1867 and was buried at Highgate Cemetery.  His widow married again in 1872 and died in Brighton on 6 November 1880.

© Museum of Music History 2021