The Guardian website has posted my article on Alfred Deller today, on his hundredth birthday, which you should (obviously) read. Here are some more thoughts.
Alfred Deller (1912-1979)
Not every musician can be in the position of reviving an artform that had fallen into decline 200 years ago. Still less to do it in spite of a fair amount of snippy criticism.
Shamefully, some of Alfred Deller’s critics were themselves musicians, be they contraltos resentful of him treading on what they considered their territory, or orchestral musicians flummoxed by this 6’2″ bloke with the girly voice.
Goodness knows how Deller’s career would have turned out these days with Simon Cowell as his mentor and not Michael Tippett. Probably we would have gasped in delight at the freak, quickly letting him slip into obscurity so we could point stupidly at whatever deluded mewling berk they tossed in front of us next.
Instead, thanks to Tippett – who provided Deller with opportunities – and some enlightened record companies – Decca, Vanguard and Harmonia Mundi (whose founder Bernard Coutaz is said to have admitted that without Deller, there would have been no HM) – we have over 30 years of the most extraordinary singing as balm for our bitter and broken souls.
Because Deller’s importance is not that he was the first modern-day countertenor, nor that he was some spectacular vocal gymnast, nor as a revolutionary artist who triumphed against the critical odds, nor even that he was my grandfather.
Rather, it was as a musician (Gustav Leonhardt called him a musician, rather than a singer); and not just a musician, but his own musician, dedicated uncompromisingly to his art as he saw it; and not just that dedicated artist, but one who produced the most beautiful sound. An indescribably beautiful sound.
I could end there, and if you like your tributes to end mezzo-wistfully you can stop reading. But I’m going to add: Deller’s music is a defiance against all that is tawdry, cheap, wilfully ugly, dishonest and cynical. It is a reminder that we – whether musician, listener or just about anyone really – can choose beauty, we have it in ourselves. And that whenever we don’t, it is we who fall short.