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It beggars belief that this should be the first biography of Clara Butt since before she died, in 1936. ‘Colossal Clara’ was a phenomenon, her extraordinary, massive contralto matched by a worldwide reputation (especially in English-speaking territories) that saw her fêted as an ersatz monarch – she was after all a friend of premier league royals throughout her career, including the last Kaiser.

So this highly readable account of Dame Clara’s life is hugely welcome. Its tone is relatively light, as was the last Butt biography – Winifred Ponder’s fawningly authorised 1928 job, which provides a fair amount of the detail here, including many of the photographs. But there is much that will be new to Butt’s clutch of modern-day fans, not least plenty of personal glimpses; although frustratingly there is no reference in the list of sources to documentary/interview material.

Given the biography’s title and the fact that Butt was so closely identified with ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, I’m bound to point out that there’s another explanation than Leonard’s for how the famous words came to be added to the Pomp & Circumstance March No 1. Yes, Dame Clara claimed she put the idea in Elgar’s mind, but equally the composer wrote to her many years later saying Edward VII made the suggestion.

Whatever, this is an excellent tenner’s worth which I hope will open many eyes to the worth of a singer who for too long has been one-dimensionally regarded as a mere ballad-monger: gross simplification, if understandable.

Without in any way denigrating Leonard’s work, I hope someone somewhere will eventually attempt a weightier, more extensive study. For example, a really detailed look at Butt’s career in Europe (OK, relatively slight) would be a fascinating counterbalance to the stereotypical view of her as the Voice of Empire. And there’s interesting research to be done on her career as a case study in ‘early’ marketing and PR.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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