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Classical 101

Jessye Norman: An Appreciation

Bebeto Mathews

The death of soprano Jessye Norman last week at the age of 74 was as widely reported in the international press as the passing of Luciano Pavarotti in 2007. Whereas journalists had a lot to say about the great tenor’s voice, weight, women, divorce, and personality, remembrances of Miss Norman have centered on her incredible sound.

Jessye Norman had not appeared as a singer for several years. In the last period of her life, she was confined to a wheelchair when she appeared publicly for an award here, a lecture there. But there she was, still glamorous, with not a word about her physical condition. It’s been reported that she died of sepsis as a result of a spinal cord injury suffered in 2015. No further details have been shared. That must be a comfort to those close to this woman who so effectively balanced the public and the private.

That sound. Hers was the voice of the earth, the mother, the ocean--beautiful and unending--the comforter and the courtesan. She could be a contralto with an easy top or a soprano in amber.

My last Jessye Norman concert was at Denison University about ten years ago. This was part of the Vail Series, and was the last concert produced by my beloved Lorraine Wales. Gone were the days singing Wagner and Brahms, Strauss, Poulenc and Schonberg. Jessye Norman--trim, stunning, looking forty-five (maybe) not sixty-five--sang spirituals. Her voice had contracted some with age. However, the ‘juice’ was all there. She was still Jessye Norman, and no one else.

I first heard Jessye Norman at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center around 1980. She was well known, but not yet capital "F" famous. Tully is a chamber music hall. Within a few years only Carnegie Hall would do. At Tully Hall, she sang Ravel’s Chansons madecasses. “Nahandove, o belle Nahandove!" she sang. There it was, all of the sensuality and mystery of Ravel’s Songs of Madagascar.


In 1983, Jessye Norman made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, on opening night of the company’s 100th anniversary season. She was the doomed seeress Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les troyens. The chorus left the stage. Cassandra enters and whispers in terror, “Les Grecs sont disparu!”--and Jessye Norman sent her frightened piano straight up to standing room. She triumphed.

All of the news reports and obituary notices agreed that of all of Jessye Norman’s recordings there is one "desert island" choice. Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, with Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

I was a sales clerk at Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue when this record--not yet CD--came out. Playing vocal music in the store was verboten. All of us had heard this new record. I’d say to customers “Is your life ending? Is life impossible? Buy this record." They did. We sold hundreds. Here’s why:

Take her hand and walk into the sunset.

Jessye Norman sang operas by Wagner, Strauss, Berlioz, Poulenc, Janacek, Stravinsky, Rameau and Purcell. No Verdi or Puccini (Aida briefly in 1973).  I suspect she felt Italian opera was expected of her voice and she wanted to defy expectations.

She was glorious in opera, singing with terror and ecstasy as Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walkure

I’m trying to think what Jessye Norman did NOT sing in the concert hall. She sang Handel, Haydn, Mahler, Brahms, Strauss, Poulenc, Ravel, Duparc, Tchaikovsky, Chausson, Faure, Duke Ellington, John Cage...I know I've missed several composers.

The spiritual brought her back to her roots in Augusta, Georgia, and celebrated her admiration for the great Marian Anderson. Spirituals were important to her. She made them important for her audience. At Swasey Chapel in Granville, Ohio or at the Metropolitan Opera, that voice was all there was between you and God.

P.S. What are your favorite Jessye Norman performances? Share them below. My buddy Arved Ashby, Professor of Music at Ohio State, loves Chausson's Poeme de l'amour et de la mer (me too),  Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Mahler's Third Symphony, Brahms's Alto Rhapsody and Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. Arved and I are planning a listening session. Do you want to come? 

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Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.