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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 2 October 2010

Maureen Forrester In Memoriam (1930-2010)

by Paul E. Robinson / October 1, 2010

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Lois Marshall passed away some years ago, and now, just a few months ago, Maureen Forrester, too, at the age of 79. Maureen was a good friend of CJRT-FM where I was music director, and she readily donated her services, as did Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony, for a benefit concert for the station. Later, she joined the CJRT Orchestra for a performance of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. At another concert in 1979—entitled The Romantic Spirit—she performed Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben with pianist Derek Bampton. Then with the CJRT Orchestra she gave the Toronto premiere of R. Murray Schafer’s remarkable Adieu Robert Schumann.

In a 1979 interview for CJRT-FM I asked her if she was nervous about her Carnegie Hall debut in 1956. Her answer was illuminating about both her personality and her appreciation of Canadian musical institutions:

I wasn’t particularly nervous. I was a bold, brash, cheeky, self-confident person. That was me, of course, but it was also the years of experience I had had with Jeunesses Musicales. I had sung dozens of concerts with them across Canada and throughout Europe too. That experience meant that if ‘the big break’ came along I would be ready for it.

The ‘big break’ began to take shape when Bruno Walter asked her to audition. He was about to give his last concerts in New York and needed a contralto for Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” His favourite contralto was Kathleen Ferrier but she had died in 1953 and he had been looking for someone like her ever since. Why did he pick Maureen?

He picked me not because of my reputation or technique but because of the colour of my voice. He thought it was just right for Mahler. But at the audition he also told me I should be singing the Verdi Requiem. I didn’t know the piece at the time and couldn’t appreciate what he was saying. But he was absolutely right. Years later it became one of my bread and butter pieces. (Maureen later recorded it with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.)

Maureen was a great artist but never let her reputation go to her head. She went about her work with a smile and with a ready and hearty laugh. She was famous and beloved and happy in her life and work. At least this was the public persona. What few admirers knew—at least until the appearance of her autobiography in 1986—was that there was pain and suffering too. Her first child was born out of wedlock and it was a struggle to persuade the father of her child to do the honourable thing. She raised five fine children with husband Eugene Kash and they shared many happy times together. But the marriage ended in divorce, Maureen struggled with alcoholism, and then came dementia in her later years. Maureen was a successful but complex woman. The public admired the talent, the confidence, the energy and the jolly personality, but she had her demons. And her last years were sad and disheartening for those of us who admired her so much and wished her a kinder and gentler old age.

She was justly famous for her Mahler but she had a wide repertoire that encompassed a lot of music by Canadian composers. She did opera too and did it well. Highlights for the author include her powerful Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the National Arts Centre, Madame de la Haltičre in Massenet’s Cendrillon—again, at the National Arts Centre—Erda in Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Met, or her crazy and jolly Witch in Hansel and Gretel for the CBC in 1969.

The music written for her vocal range was more often gloom and doom than comic turns, but that wasn’t Maureen’s personality. She laughed often, talked a mile a minute and really wanted to present herself to the public in a less formal way. As she put it in her autobiography:

Little did that world know about my outrageous, raunchy side. But ever since that role—the Witch in Hansel and Gretel—they’ve realized that it’s my serious side which is the put-on part; the other part which lets it all hang out is the real me.

Her career took a totally new direction when she agreed to put together a nightclub act for the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. You can get some idea of what kind of repertoire she did and how she did it on a 1985 CD titled “From Kern to Sondheim” with pianist John Arpin (Fanfare/Pro Arte CDD 374).

While she could have lived anywhere in the world after she became famous, she chose to live in Toronto most of her life, and travelled frequently to some of the smallest communities in the country. And we shouldn’t forget the good work she did to encourage Canadian artists as president of Jeunesses Musicales and as chairman of the Canada Council.

For more about Maureen from her own perspective, read her autobiography Out of Character (McClelland and Stewart). Apart from the ups and downs of her personal and professional life, Maureen talks about what she learned from the great German actor Anton Walbrook (The Red Shoes), and the many coaching sessions she had with Bruno Walter. Then seek out her many fine recordings of music by Mahler, Schumann, Bach, Handel and much more besides. Her recorded legacy includes Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Bruno Walter), Symphony No. 3 (Bernard Haitink and Zubin Mehta) and Das Lied von der Erde (Fritz Reiner); Delius, Songs of Sunset (Sir Thomas Beecham) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (Ferenc Fricsay). Subscribers to La Scena Musicale received a Maureen Forrester CD attached to the June 2010 issue. It includes some of her earliest commercial recordings, including a Brahms-Schumann recital with John Newmark from 1958. 

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