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Death of an early Mahler singer

May 12, 2017 by norman lebrecht

14 comments.


We are saddened to learn of the passing of Norma Procter, in her home town Grimsby, at the age of 89.

After a 1948 debut in Messiah at Southwark Cathedral, Norma entered Kathleen Ferrier’s territory as an oratorio star. In 1958 Benjamin Britten picked her for the role Ferrier created in The Rape of Lucretia. In 1961, she sang her first opera at Covent Garden, Gluck’s Orfeo.

Through the 1950s she worked with great Mahler conductors – Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, Rafael Kubelik and Leonard Bernstein – steadily recording almost all the alto roles that Mahler wrote.

She made the first complete recording of Das Klagende Lied (with Heather Harper and the Concertgebouw, cond. Haitink) and sang lustrously in Kubelik’s Munich recording of the second symphony, as well as appearing in Bernstein’s LSO Mahler 8th, and in Kubelik’s. But her most celebrated recording – and justly so – was in the Nietzschean recitation in Mahler’s third symphony, in Horenstein’s indelible LSO performance.

A lady with no airs and graces and a wicked sense of humour, she returned to Grimsby on retirement and was said to be always elegantly dressed. She died in hospital on May 2 of the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. The funeral will be in Grimsby on May 19.


Comments (14)

  1. Peter Smith says:

    Sad news. She was a wonderful Angel in Gerontius – I heard her sing it with Boult in, I think, 1971.

  2. Andrew Bennett says:

    I watched Norma Procter give a Lieder masterclass at the RNCM many years ago . She was indeed magnificently well dressed ( highly polished red nail varnish and high heels) and I can remember the Head of Vocal Studies fretting because she had left him in charge of her rather splendid coat. Clearly a lovely lady who exuded ‘presence’ even when not singing.
    She had such a fine contralto voice and was a truly sensitive singer. On you tube you will find a complete live performance of Gerontius in which she sings the Angel conducted by Sir David Willcocks, quite a lot of Bach arias and her sublime singing of Urlicht in Kubelik’s recording of the Maher 2 which for me is the best of all.
    I am so sorry to hear that Parkinsons came on in latter years because she had a razor sharp mind and I know that she was a very helpful singing teacher to many for a number of years.

  3. Peter Phillips says:

    Norma Procter was one of the first professional singers whom I heard live, in Messiah in Reading town hall with a very young Heather Harper. I was entranced by her gorgeous contralto voice and, I have to admit, her regally stunning good looks. Perhaps it was her misfortune to be performing at the end of Kathleen Ferrier’s career and the rise of Janet Baker’s. Nevertheless, her extant recordings speak for themselves. There was also a LP of Mahler and Brahms lieder on a small label but I suppose that’s lost for good now.

  4. Kath H says:

    As you say she first performed Messiah in Southwark cathedral in 1948 and her friend Kathleen Ferrier was in the audience to hear her, and give her a thumbs up.
    When Ferrier was away from her Frogmal home, she invited Norma to stay overnight after her lessons with Roy Henderson rather than rush for the last train back to Grimsby. Norma adored Ferrier and was grateful to her for her encouragement and support.
    But Norma became a true star in her own right with a glorious contralto voice sadly rarely heard today. Rest in peace dear Norm.

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      That is such a lovely story.

  5. Jean Collen says:

    I am very sorry to hear of the death of Norma Procter. She sang in one of the last Messiah performances in the UK in which Webster Booth sang the tenor part. He always spoke very highly of her.
    22 December 1955 21.00 The Christmas Music from Handel’s Messiah
    Conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Norma Procter (contralto), Webster Booth (tenor), Hervey Alan (bass), Huddersfield Choral Society (Chorus-Master, Herbert Bardgett), BBC Northern Orchestra, (Leader. Reginald Stead), Ernest Cooper (organ), from the Town Hall, Huddersfield.

    1. Peter Phillips says:

      Thank you for that. It takes us back to an earlier and great age of British singing. I heard three of the names you mention in Reading and Jennifer Vyvyan in Hull. I only ever heard Webster Booth “live” with Ann Ziegler but for the real deal he can be heard on YouTube singing Comfort he and Every Valley. He had a lovely true, accurate voice, great control and wonderful diction, such as we rarely hear these days – Ian Bosttridge perhaps. No matter that the style is pre authentic; the voice and the singing are great. And thanks to Kath H for her memoir of NP.

      1. Jean Collen says:

        Thank you for your kind remarks about the singing of Webster Booth. He and Anne Ziegler were my singing teachers and life long friends. At the age of 19 I acted as his studio accompanist for several years. Although he is primarily remembered as a “romantic duettist” he told me that singing oratorio gave him the greatest satisfaction in his career.

        1. Peter Phillips says:

          It would have been interesting to hear him sing Gerontius. In a different vein, his singing of The Lost Chord, also on YouTube, is magnificent.

  6. Ken coulbeck jnr says:

    Another great sadly missed I do hope her home town of Grimsby do some kind of lasting tribute to a very special person who will live forever with her beautiful recordings rest in peace norma …….ken coulbeck jnr grimsby

  7. Nigel Harrison says:

    I had the privilege of driving Miss Proctor to and from a performance of the Dream of Gerontius in Tewkesbury Abbey in the early 1980s. Her singing was so warmly beautiful that evening, it remains one of my most cherished musical experiences. May she rest in peace.

  8. Ken coulbeck jnr says:

    I hope the town of Grimsby apply to English heritage for the placing of a blue plaque on her home which was in cleethorpes I do believe the person or persons have to have been deceased 20 yr s before a blue plaque can be concidered this length of time appears way to excessive I do hope norma proctor gets such a memory and someone takes up the mantle to apply for a blue plaque for the late norma proctor who touched the heart of thousands of people with her singing regards ken coulbeck jnr grimsby

  9. Lucy says:

    Such lovely comments here. I’m currently researching material to write Norma Procter’s biography. If anyone would like to contribute memories or stories, or even just make a comment about what her work meant, please get in touch at [email protected]
    Thank you.


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