‘The darling of tip-top society’
One of Walter’s fellow passengers on board Ville de la Ciotat was another young Melbourne tenor, George Castles, keen to study in Paris, and to reunite with two of his singing sisters, Dolly and Amy. In Paris Amy was under the tuition of the eminent Belgian baritone Jacques Bouhy. Walter sang for him, and he was said to have praised the quality of young man’s voice. In London it was similarly endorsed by the celebrated Alberto Randegger, composer, conductor and teacher of many of Britain’s great singers.
London was host to dozens of aspiring young Australians. Hopefully following in the footsteps of established stars like Melba, Ada Crossley and Frances Saville, were antipodean up-and-comers such as violinist Keith Kennedy, pianist Percy Grainger, artists John Longstaff and E. Phillips Fox, and the sculptor, Bertram Mackennal. Walter initially shared a house with several other Australians, including the Ballarat-born baritone Hal Cohen, pianist George Boyle, and tenor Thorold Waters, later to become a respected music critic. In July Walter started studying voice production with Lorenzo Valentini. A former operatic conductor said to be ‘of the Paris Opera’, he was married to an Australian mezzo soprano, Nora Dane, who many years later taught singing in Melbourne. Walter also visited the picturesque village of Kilteely in Ireland to meet a relative, William Lundon MP, variously described as an uncle or a cousin. Lundon’s brother James had married Catherine Mulcahy, the sister of Walter’s mother, Ellen. Lundon was the popular member for East Limerick in the Westminster parliament. During his stay in Kilteely, Walter sang in several local Catholic churches, and at Dublin Castle. The visit of this noteworthy ‘antipodean Irishman’ was widely covered in the local press.
On 22 January 1904 the Melbourne Argus published a surprising letter from Lady Madden, the State Governor’s wife and a great lover of music, bringing readers up to date with Walter’s progress. She wrote: ‘He has made and is making the most of the funds so kindly placed at his disposal, and has lost no opportunity of doing justice to his Victorian friends. My own relations who have recently seen and heard him inform me that in style and presence he is greatly improved, and that his voice is indeed splendid; that it has gained surprisingly in richness and volume, without having lost any of its sweetness.’ Lady Madden’s letter was reprinted in the Catholic weekly The Advocate. Walter and the Madden family had become close friends.
In February Melbourne Punch reported that Walter had been auditioned by conductor Hans Richter and the 93-year-old vocal master Manuel Garcia, and was being taught by Garcia’s son, Gustave (1837-1925). He was also studying oratorio with ‘the severe’ Randegger and had refused an offer of the tenor part in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, thinking it better to finish his studies first. He had also sung ‘for the poor of the East End’. A few months later Punch noted that Walter was now being taught by Guy d’Hardelot, a member of what was then that rarest of species, a flourishing female composer; her greatest success, the throbbing ballad ‘Because’, had been published in 1902. She was a great friend of Melba’s, and it was Melba who arranged the tuition. She set up four meetings for Walter to sing for the legendary tenor Jean de Reszke who, said The Age, was so impressed that he promised to give him lessons. Melba also introduced him to Enrico Caruso at the Hotel Cecil. Walter later confided that the world’s greatest tenor had given him ‘vocal hints’ and had taught him how to sing ‘On With the Motley’ from Pagliacci. As well there were memorable encounters with notables such as Sir Edward Elgar, Lord Baden Powell and Mark Twain.
Early in 1905 the Adelaide’s The Mail reported that Walter was the tenor soloist in the Handel Choral Society’s presentation of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast. The same item mentions that he had recently sung at a private concert with fellow Australian Ada Crossley and at two concerts ‘given in aid of some clubs for young men’ by the Honorable Everard Feilding, an odd figure who today is remembered mainly for his energetic efforts to expose fake spiritualism.
By mid-1905 Walter had established himself as a regular contributor to the musical entertainment provided by the nobility and the rich and famous at their lavish ‘At Homes’. ‘Our golden-voiced tenor is evidently succeeding as well socially in the great English centre as he did when here.’ Said Melbourne Punch on 17 August. ‘He is at present the guest of the well-known multi-millionaire Sir George Newnes, Bart, with whom and a small select party he is enjoying a summer cruise on the French coast in that gentleman's magnificent yacht, Albion.’ The Melbourne Herald revealed that in a private letter Sir George had expressed “mad delight in the voice of his guest”.
On 1 October 1905 Sydney’s The Sun couldn’t resist this comment: ‘The somewhat effeminate Melbourne tenor, Walter Kirby, continues in demand at aristocratic functions in London. Taken all round, Mr Kirby seems to be living the social life for what it is worth—and to the Melbourne tenor it is probably worth a great deal.’ Years later his former housemate Thorold Waters described Walter as ‘a drawing-room darling of duchesses’.
Despite his frequent lucrative social engagements, Walter had not yet sung at a formal public concert, or ‘on the platform’ as it was known. One of his supporters, the philanthropic Duchess of Somerset, contrived to have him engaged by entrepreneur Ernest Newman and conductor Henry J. Wood to sing at the popular Promenade Concerts that they had inaugurated at the Queen’s Hall in 1895.
Walter made his ‘Prom’ debut on 3 October 1905 singing two of his favorites, the tender berceuse ‘Angels Guard Thee’ from Godard’s opera Jocelyn and Jacques Blumenthal’s ‘An Evening Song’. London’s Morning Post critic was impressed: ‘A great success was achieved by Mr Walter Kirby, who possesses a beautiful tenor voice, soft and penetrating in quality. He sang with great taste, and was several times called onto the platform at the close.’ Walter’s triumph was widely reported in Australia.
On 18 December 1905 Walter and British soprano Margaret Cooper sang at an afternoon concert at the town house of the influential publisher Sir George Newnes, given in aid of the Pulteney Hospital. Punch gave it good coverage: ‘Mr Walter Kirby must be congratulated on the enormous success of this concert. Almost every person in smart society was present. Mr Kirby sang in German, French, Italian and English, and met with a splendid reception. Mr Kirby’s voice has developed wonderfully since his arrival in England; the upper notes, which were always easy, have become broader. He sings with perfect ease and flexibility, and his singing was admired by all, and his friends in Australia and New Zealand have every reason to be gratified at his success.
‘His patrons and patronesses, many of whom were present, include Her Royal Highness the Princess Louise (who is a great admirer of Mr Kirby’s voice), the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, the Duke and Duchess of Somerset, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, the Dowager Duchess of Newcastle, the Duke of Pleneuf, Sir George Clarke [the former Governor of Victoria] and Lady Clarke, and a very large number of noblemen.’ Miss Violet Clarke, daughter of Sir George Sydenham Clarke, who was to have made her professional debut at this concert, was indisposed, so her place was taken by Miss Nora Long, a soprano from New Zealand, who was well received.’ Miss Long was later known as Nora D’Argel.
Also in the audience was the elegant Lady Methuen. So impressed was she with Walter’s voice that she invited him to dine at her London home in Cavendish Square. It was there that he met Lady Wantage.
Lady Wantage was the extremely wealthy 69-year-old widow of the first Baron Wantage, a notable military man. Their munificence was legendary, and they had been instrumental in founding the British Red Cross. Lady Wantage was a lover of art, and her impressive collection of paintings adorned the walls of their Oxfordshire mansion, Lockinge. She contributed to countless charitable causes and delighted in supporting aspiring youngsters. Walter would be one of them.
In February 1906 Walter sang the tenor part, including the fervent solo ‘Onaway! Awake, Beloved!’, in the Dulwich Choral Society’s presentation of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s landmark three-part cantata Hiawatha at the mighty Crystal Palace. Soon after this he made a second visit to Ireland, where, reported Table Talk, ‘He was chosen to sing at one of the principal social entertainments of the Dublin season given by the Lord Lieutenant and Lady Aberdeen at their castle.’ He sang one of his most beloved airs, the nostalgic ‘Bells of Shandon’, with harp accompaniment.
On 27 September, Punch music critic ‘Orfeo’ printed a letter he had received from Walter. ‘At present I am the guest of the Dowager Countess of Crawford, at her country seat; plenty of boating, bathing and cycling, and if I were her ladyship’s own son I could not be better treated. Before leaving here today she presented me with a magnificent new bike. I am very happy, and in splendid vocal form. I have seen a lot of the Maddens. They are mad over my voice. I also recently sang at a private concert before Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Albany. The Princess spoke to me and said, “I have never forgotten the quality of your voice since hearing you twelve months ago.” I have been engaged by Lady Wantage to sing before Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and their daughter Princess Patricia next Friday at her country seat, Lockinge, which is famous for its collection of pictures.’ I teach in my spare time. Lord Aberdeen, the present Viceroy of Ireland, has had two courses of singing lessons from me.’
Walter started 1907 grandly: in January, he met the King. Later he recalled the occasion for the Sydney Daily Telegraph:
‘It was at Chatsworth, the famous seat of the Duke of Devonshire, in Derbyshire, that I had the honor of being presented to their Majesties King Edward and Queen Alexandra. They had gone to Chatsworth in accordance with their long-established custom to spend a week with the Duke and Duchess. The Duchess had asked me to stay at Chatsworth for the week that their Majesties were there and help in the impromptu concerts. I was the only professional singer there. My most vivid recollection of King Edward recalls him as he sat in the front row of the stalls at the private theatre at Chatsworth, with his legs stretched out at full length in front of him, laughing heartily at the ten minutes’ comic picture show with which the evening's entertainment commenced. The audience in the private theatre included not only the large house party invited to meet their Majesties, but also the surrounding gentry and county magnates, who were charged an admission fee, the money being devoted to assisting the poor of the neighborhood. King Edward wore ordinary evening dress, with several orders, including the sash of the Order of the Garter. He was in great good humor, laughing and joking incessantly with those who sat near him. After the picture show a little comedietta called The Ninth Waltz [by Richard C. Carton] was played by Miss Muriel Wilson, the famous beauty of Tranby Croft, and Viscount Dungannon. The honorary stage manager was the Austrian Ambassador, Count Mensdorff [Count Albert von Mensdorff-Pouilly-Dietrichtstein]. After the comedietta Lady Maud Warrender, sister of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who came to Australia as aide-de-camp to Lord Brassey, sang several songs, and then I sang a bracket of German lieder and some English ballads. The supper in the great banquet hall was a wonderful sight. There must have been fully 300 people present. They were seated in small parties at separate little tables, and I was placed at the same table with the King. The others at that table were Daisy, Princess Henry of Pless, Miss Muriel Wilson, the Russian Ambassador, and the Austrian Ambassador. It was a very merry supper table—everybody laughing and joking and telling good stories. King Edward talked to me a great deal, asking me many questions about Australia, and commenting upon the number of singers that Australia has produced. It was a wonderful week at Chatsworth, and King Edward seemed to enjoy every minute of it.’
Walter’s triumph at Chatsworth inspired Marion Miller Knowles, a prolific writer for the Melbourne Catholic paper The Advocate, to pen a long celebratory poem. It was published on 19 January 1907. Here is an extract:
So you’ve sung before the King, Walter Kirby,
More power to you, boy, for that same!
But I knew ’twas yourself would win the glory.
Luck galore followed ever on your name.
’Twas the wonderful voice you had, always—
Sure the angels had lent you their own—
It can touch any heart that has feeling.
Let alone them who sit on a throne.
Though your voice rings among ‘the high and mighty’,
And by castle and manor you stray,
None can say you forget the dear old mother,
In the cottage in Hawthorn, far away!
’Tis the blessing will follow, Walter Kirby,
For the loving words she gets every mail;
For the comfort that your heart’s still untainted,
That your soul still pursues the Holy Grail.
Soon after the excitement of Chatsworth, Walter sang at another regally patronized ‘At Home’. Among the distinguished guests were the Prince and Princess of Wales, who would become King George V and Queen Mary on King Edward’s death in 1910.
In August 1907 Walter and Amy Castles provided the entertainment at an ‘At Home’ at 46 Hanover House, Regent’s Park, the London residence of Australia’s greatest theatrical entrepreneur, J.C. Williamson, and his second wife, former dancer Mary Weir. The occasion was a welcome to Eugenia Stone, a ‘handsome, sprightly, 6ft 2in’ Sydney writer who, a few days later, was to marry a prominent British parliamentarian, Sir George Doughty.
In 1908 Walter finally got to Italy. His trip was financed by a generous ‘loan’ from the benevolent Lady Wantage. While we do not have a detailed record of his activities on the Continent, his reminiscences, published in The Advocate on 1 October 1910, provide us with a somewhat coloured personal account: ‘My journey round the old world was a big revelation! My rambles through historic old palaces and ruins made me catch the spirit of the long-gone centuries. When standing in the Colosseum in Rome, or outside Notre Dame in Paris, I felt, in every particle of my being, the truth of the saying, “What an education it is to travel and see for oneself all that is worth seeing in this wide world of ours!”—and I was much interested in making comparisons with relics of antiquity and our own small beginnings in Australia, concluding, however, with a feeling of amazement at our fast progress. I was received in Rome by the beautiful Queen of Italy with the utmost kindness, and I sang at the “soiree” given at the Palace—afterwards receiving from Her Majesty a scarf pin set with her royal initials and her gracious thanks for what she was pleased to consider “the pleasure” of hearing “a beautiful voice”. At the English embassy my songs were accompanied by Her Excellency, Lady Egerton. In Rome I was engaged to sing by Count Luigi Primoli, the grand-nephew of Napoleon I, in the Villa Primoli. In every nook and corner of the villa I met treasures which belonged to the great Napoleon and his ill-fated Empress, Josephine, and could have spent days in gloating over them, so full of interest were they to the soul of an artist. I sang in offertory at Rome in the Church of Sant’Andrea Della Valle. It gave me the most peculiar of feelings—and pleasurable as well—to sing there, because I was studying the part of Cavaradossi in Tosca, and it is in this Church that the opening scene of Tosca is set. One of the most cherished memories of my life will always be my privileged visit to the Papal Palace in the Vatican, the home of his Holiness the Pope [Pope Pius X]. Filled with a compelling awe, inexpressible as it was wonderful, and trembling from head to foot, I entered the studio alone, and knelt, with the desire to display the usual courtesy to the revered Head of the Church on earth. His Holiness, with a benign countenance, at once gave utterance to a kindly request that I would arise and take a seat. I spoke in Italian, of course, and answered as fully as possible his anxious and interested questions about Australia and the marvelous progress of the Catholic Church out here.’
In May Walter was reported to have taken the leading role of Cavaradossi in Tosca in Milan. He sang, too, he claimed, in Rigoletto, and was ‘the favorite lyric tenor’ at the Teatro Quirino in Rome. Though there are photographs of him in costume for Il trovatore and Rigoletto, there is no reliable record of what would have been his only appearances in fully staged professional grand opera. Nevertheless, he seems to have made the most of his time in Rome, where he studied under Lorenzo Perosi, the revered composer, conductor, teacher, and Master of the Sistine Choir. Thanks to Perosi, Walter sang with the Choir on several occasions.
In addition, Walter claimed to have studied with Signora Zaira Cortini Falchi, headmistress of St Cecilia’s College of Music, and in Berlin with soprano Lilli Lehmann, the Wagnerian expert Franz Emmerich, and the illustrious teacher Giovanni Battista Lamperti.
In September 1909 Melbourne Punch told its readers that Walter had ‘returned to London from Italy ‘with a voice more beautiful than ever. Under the influence of the great Perosi and the Italian atmosphere, he has become as one of themselves, and in their mood the last trace of the gum and wattle has vanished from his constitution. The Italian Queen Margherita presented him with a valuable gold trinket as a token of royal love and esteem.’
In October Walter was the guest of Lady Wantage on a private cruise around Scandinavia. In Stockholm, ‘by royal command’, he sang at the Palace before King Gustaf, Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf, the Crown Princess, Margaret Victoria, daughter of the Duke of Connaught and, recounted Punch, ‘a select party of notable guests. Mr Kirby sang eight numbers and, at the request of the Crown Princess, gave three encores. When Mr Kirby had finished, the Royalties present showered congratulations on him and presented him with signed photos.’
The highlight of Walter’s thirty-sixth year, 1910, was his return to Australia. He was booked by Melbourne-based entrepreneurs J. and N. Tait to tour the country with another returning Australian, 36-year-old soprano Mary Conly, on whom the Taits bestowed ‘top billing’. Born in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, Mary had gone to London in 1902, and had, like Walter, achieved much. Strangely, also like Walter, she has been virtually ignored by modern Australian music researchers and writers.
Walter arrived back in Melbourne in RMS Mooltan early on the morning of 22 August. That afternoon the Lady Mayoress and Lady Madden welcomed him with a reception at the Town Hall, after which he and Mary Conly were treated to a lavish ‘At Home’ attended by 200 members of the Austral Salon in their rooms in the Austral Building at 115 Collins Street. The Salon was a club dedicated to fostering women in the arts, especially singing, and Lady Madden was its president for many years.
Two days later, on 24 August, an enthusiastic audience packed the Melbourne Town Hall for the first of their three concerts. Mary earned great praise from the reviewers, but Walter was a little less well received. The Herald, for instance, said: ‘Mr Kirby’s tenor voice is both strong and pliable. He never forces it, but rather indulges in mezza-voce singing. Yet the result Is not satisfactory. Instead of cultivating a broad and noble tone, he sports a whimsical play with his voice that may be ingenious but is rarely beautiful.’ The Age damned him with faint praise: ‘He has, if anything, broadened the tone and learnt some of the secrets of head notes and mezza-voce. He has likewise dropped to a certain extent that lackadaisical manner which “goes down” in drawing-rooms, but spells ruin in the concert hall and, if not exactly a strenuous young artist, he has most certainly developed into a very capable one.’ And then, for reasons never revealed, the Taits cancelled the rest of the tour. After a giving a few concerts in country centres, Mary Conly returned to London.
Walter soon established himself in Melbourne as a sought-after singing teacher and vocal coach, and he continued singing at fashionable ‘At Homes’ and charity events. Though his voice was warmly praised, the local popular press published frequent references to his appearance and demeanor. His attendance at the 1910 Melbourne Cup drew this notice in Labor Call: ‘Walter Kirby, Australia's lovely tenor, who is back in Melbourne after being tenderly looked after by “markisses” in the Land of Fog and Poor Wages, went to the Melbourne Gup [sic] last week. He wore a silk hat that was not more than 20 years of age, and his general make-up was that of a prosperous undertaker’s assistant. Walter needs a close haircut. How is it that these tenors almost invariably insist on looking so far from “husky”?’ He was described by one paper described him as looking ‘rather plump and very prosperous’ and another commented on his ‘Titian moustache’, but it was Truth, on 13 November, that was really quite nasty, calling him ‘a Cornstalk who went ’Ome, got on, and returned. He is as faultlessly dressed as a tailor’s dummy; and sings pretty love songs charmingly. You’ve heard of a tea-and-toast young curate—well, Walter may be described as a tea-and-toast tenor. He made his debut with the glamor of the royalties he has met turned full on—he is not popular with the crowd, but he is the darling of tip-top society at ’Ome. On the program was a list of the crowned heads that have listened to Walter—British, Spanish, Italian, and Swedish—so no person could be so rude as to hint that Waiter is not a second Orpheus.’ And then the snide clincher: ‘Walter is good on the flute, too.’
In October 1910 Walter ventured to Sydney. He and Amy Castles sang at ‘a small musical party’ in the ballroom at Government House, hosted by the flamboyant Governor-General of Australia, the Earl of Dudley and Lady Dudley, who was said to have taken ‘a keen interest in Mr Kirby’s artistic progress’. At the party Amy sang ‘Caro nome’ from Rigoletto and joined Walter in the duet ‘Parigi, o cara’ from La traviata. Lady Dudley was an accomplished pianist and singer and, as the Goulburn Evening Penny Post reported: ‘At Government House many pleasant mornings have been spent in song by the tenor and her Excellency, who is a skilled accompanist.’
On 22 October Walter sang in the smart new YMCA Hall in Pitt Street, under the patronage of the Governor General and the Countess of Dudley. The following month his Victorian patron, Lady Madden, arranged a benefit concert for him in the Melbourne Town Hall. His associate artist was the brilliant 28-year-old Melbourne pianist, Una Bourne. The concert was well attended, and Walter was £200 [$28,000] richer.
Walter had said that he had to be back in London early in 1911 to fulfill an engagement at the Royal Albert Hall. If this were true, he must have cancelled it, as he stayed on Melbourne, providing support and care for his ailing mother.
On 25 January 1911 Walter joined Amy Castles in a concert in Bendigo, Amy’s hometown, in support of the bizarrely named ‘Watson Sustentation Fund for Old and Worn-Out Miners’, which aimed ‘to relieve the suffering more or less inescapable from Bendigo’s great industry, Gold’. The Royal Princess Theatre was so crowded that some patrons had to be seated on the stage. The concert raised about £200 [$28,000].
On 27 March, at the invitation of Sir John and Lady Madden, Walter sang at the reception at fashionable Menzies Hotel that followed the St Paul’s Cathedral wedding of Sir John’s niece, Viola, to Anthony Hordern, a member of the prominent Sydney retailing family. It was the society event of the year, and Walter was very much at home. In April he sang with Amy Castles at a function at Cathedral Hall (now Central Hall) in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, marking the inauguration of the Newman Society, whose principal aim was to establish a Catholic college at Melbourne University.
In September Walter sang at Her Majesty’s Theatre in a marathon concert to raise funds for the redevelopment of G.W.L. Marshall-Hall’s Conservatorium at the University of Melbourne. It began at 2pm and trundled on for over four hours. There were slices of opera and drama, recitations, a ballet, and many vocal items. Walter contributed several favorite songs. He was, said a reviewer, ‘in splendid voice’.
He was back at Her Majesty’s on 28 November, but this time in the audience. The occasion, described by Punch as ‘a triumph unparalleled in the history of the lyric stage of Australia’, was the Melbourne debut of the first great Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company. Though all the principals were imports selected by Melba, many smaller roles went to Australians. Despite his links to the great diva, Walter was not amongst them.
Shortly before this, on 8 November 1911, Walter’s mother Ellen had died, aged 81, after a long illness. She had been in the care of the nuns at the Convent of the Good Shepherd at Oakleigh, where Walter had been a frequent visitor. She was laid to rest in Boroondara Cemetery, Kew, with her daughter, Bridget.
To be continued
Special thanks to:
Christine Buck, Margaret Jarvis, and the extended Kirby Family; Peter Burgis; Brian Castles-Onion AM; Dr Mimi Colligan AM; Jo Gilbert; Miranda Rountree; Loris Synan OAM; Jason Thomson; Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne; Xavier College, Melbourne; National Library of Australia; State Library Victoria; AusStage; Trove
Jeff Brownrigg, A New Melba? The Tragedy of Amy Castles, Crossing Press, Darlinghurst, 2006
Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2002
Peter Game, The Music Sellers, The Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1976
Alison Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes, Currency Press, 1990
John Hetherington, Melba, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967
Roger Neill & Tony Locantro, From Melba to Sutherland, Universal Music, Australia Pty Ltd, 2016
Fred Page, ‘The Auditorium—Birth of a Showcase’, CinemaRecord, Winter 2001
John Ross, The Sound of Melbourne, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999
Thorold Waters, Much Besides Music, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1951