Sad news: An English lion has died

john shirley quirk 4We have been notified of the death last night, in Bath, of the glorious bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk. John was 83 and still teaching at Peabody in Baltimore and at Bath Spa University in England. A colleague there writes: ‘He was very generous to students and they appreciated his wry sense of humour, to say nothing of his vast and remarkable performing experience.’

After a 1961 Glyndebourne debut, John joined Britten’s English Opera Group until the composer’s death in 1976. He recorded many Britten roles and appeared in Michael Tippet’s operas, besides. He was convivial, collegial and intense where it mattered – a fine singer who played a notable role in a generation when British singers strode tall on the world stage.

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UPDATE: Official notice:

John Stanton Shirley-Quirk CBE

Born 28 August, 1931   Died 7 April, 2014

John passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family.

Beloved of wife Teresa, children Kate, Peter, Benjamin & Julia, grandchildren Edward, Alice, Hannah & Joe, and step-daughter Sara.

With thanks to all the wonderful people at Dorothy House Hospice in Winsley.

Funeral private, Memorial concert to be announced.

English baritone John Shirley-Quirk enjoyed singing and playing the violin as a child, but his true vocal talent did not become apparent until he was already studying chemistry and physics at the University of Liverpool. After several years of teaching those subjects at a British Air Force station, he began to study with the baritone Roy Henderson (1957). In 1961-1962, he sang with the Cathedral Choir at St. John’s in London; during the same time he made his debut at Glydebourne in 1961 as Gregor Mittenhofer in Henze‘s Elegy for Young Lovers.

In 1963, Benjamin Britten recruited him to join his English Opera Group; with that group he sang the premiere performances of Britten‘s Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, The Prodigal Son, Owen Wingrave, and Death in Venice (between 1964 and 1973). During that time, he also sang Guglielmo in Così fan tutte and, later, Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande at the Scottish National Opera. He created the role of Lev in Tippett‘s The Ice Break at Covent Garden in 1977.

Though his career centered around British venues and the music of English composers, Shirley-Quirk‘s career was by no means provincial. He sang his first performances of Wozzeck in St. Louis, and debuted in Berlin with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle in 1969. Milan’s Teatro alla Scala engaged him as Rangoni in Boris Godunov, and in 1974 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Britten‘s Death in Venice. Other important roles in his career were the Speaker in Die Zauberflöte and the Music Master in Ariadne auf Naxos.

Shirley-Quirk had equal success as a recital and concert singer. He was highly regarded for his interpretation of the major choral works of Bach and Elgar and sang Mahler‘s Des Knaben Wunderhorn on many concerts in Europe, North America, and Australia. His recitals usually included songs by his mentor Benjamin Britten as well as those of Vaughan Williams and Butterworth.

John Shirley-Quirk‘s lyric baritone voice commanded a wide dynamic and expressive range; he had a wonderful sense of phrasing. It was as an interpreter that he was best known; his intellectual curiousity allowed him to explore the inner world of the works he sang. His recordings, particularly of the works of Benjamin Britten, document his fine artistry. In 1975 he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.       (Artist biography by Richard LeSueur)

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  • I remember him fondly from my days with the LSO chorus in the 70s. He was in the performance/recording of Belshazzar’s Feast with André Previn to celebrate Walton’s 70th birthday. I suspect that’s when the above photo with Walton was taken. On a trip to Italy, again in Belshazzar’s Feast, RAI listed him in the programme as “John Shirley” – new line – “Quirk Baritone”. He was mightily amused.

  • This is very sad. On Saturday, Reading Bach Choir were performing Brahms’ German Requiem. John’s son sings in the choir, it must have been very poignant for him.

    A very fine exponent of English music especially, and his voice will live on in some great recordings.

  • I had the great honor of playing L’Histoire du Soldat with Mr. Shirley-Quirk as narrator, during my grad studies at Peabody Conservatory. A quite lovely man, he performed the narration of the Devil in that piece so well, it made my playing so much better for that concert. We are poorer for having lost him.

  • A magnificent artist who seemed to plumb the depths of understanding and give us vivid three-dimensional realizations of anything he sang from Handel to Vaughan Williams and Britten. I first heard him in the first Colin Davis recording of ‘Messiah’ . still a desert island choice for all but the most rigid and doctrinaire authenticists, and Shirley-Quirk, the best of Davis’s quartet, sounded as if he were collaborating with the composer in the first fresh moment of inspiration (and Davis deserves his share of the credit). When the set was new Bernard Jacobson wrote of “John Shirley-Quirk, whose sheer musical inventiveness affords a delight and astonishment that do not diminish on repeated playings.” That was written forty-eight years ago and still remains true to this day. And he replicated that inventiveness and perception and delight at least in every subsequent recording of his that I heard.

  • I had the distinct pleasure of playing for a small handful of his students in the mid 1990s while studying at Peabody. He was a tremendous musician and coach who recognized the importance of the collaborator in making a successful performance happen. I always relished those moments when he would demonstrate something in a lesson and I’d get to play along. A few years later he sang the baritone solo for “Das Lied von der Erde” with the conservatory orchestra, and just about the entire audience was unable to maintain any sense of dignified composure as he sang the closing “Ewig…ewig…”. I will always treasure these memories. Condolences to his family and friends.

  • One of the great masters of the craft, and a truly genuine person…I had the privilege of knowing him while studying in Baltimore, meeting him incidentally at first, as my work-study supervisor was his wife. Though I was in another department, and had no direct pedagogical interaction with him, whenever we passed in the labyrinthine hallways, he never failed to initiate greeting me, by name, with an encouraging smile. Always the highlight of a day, uplifting during difficult performance preparation, and rather surreal, especially when I’d just been listening to one of his many recordings earlier.

  • We should not forget John’s substantial contribution to opera in Britain – notably with the English Opera Group and Scottish Opera – and occasionally overseas. A recording of excerpts from his mid-70s Scottish Opera “Don Giovanni” remains in the catalogue.

    Some years earlier when he was rehearsing Don Alfonso with the same company, he had the misfortune to cross one of the caretakers, an Amazon-like figure whose kitchen was her empire. Coming down for refreshments during a break in the morning rehearsal, he noticed that only coffee was being served. “Might I have a cup of tea?” he enquired. The reply in a strong and grating Glaswegian accent was to the point. “It’s coffee in the mornin’, tea in the afternoon.” “You mean I have no choice?” asked John. “Aye, ye’ve a choice. Tak’ it or leave it!”

  • I miss you, John! Not a note issues from my throat that is not informed by your artistry, and no thought of mine is not influenced by our friendship. I am so happy I got to say goodbye, and say how much I loved you!

  • Thanks for compiling such a fine tribute. Whenever I’m seeking solace, his famous recorded performance of Five Mystical Songs on Angel with David Wilcocks is the greatest comfort I know, to me the ideal of Anglican/Episcopal church music as art.

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