The Founding of the AESS Prize

1980 October 1st at Margaret Bissett’s home. AESS AGM:-

I became President. The speaker on this occasion was Dudley Jones, the actor, who had been working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He spoke of his distress at the decline of spoken English. His words haunted me. My fifteen years as Professor of Speech and Diction in Singing at the Royal College of Music had shown me that the RCM singing students in the Opera School worked hard at their German, Italian and French, but unless I prodded them, they took English for granted and were often unintelligible. I began to wonder whether the Association could inspire them by offering a Prize. When I had been a student at the Central School of Speech and Drama, my skills in speaking had been stimulated by a Competition devoted to the production of and acting in scenes from Shakespeare. Perhaps we too could offer an imaginative and rewarding Competition for singers to improve their diction in English.

1980 November 23rd at Catherine Lambert’s home. AESS Committee Meeting:-

Present:- Catherine Lambert – President, Olive Steer (Keeler) – Hon. Secretary, Michael Pilkington – Hon. Treasurer, Ellis Keeler, Rex Stephens, Sheila Moriarty, Dorothy Dayus.

I put forward my idea for a prize. It was unanimously accepted. I asked everyone to write down what the prize should stand for.We discussed the results and ageed on the following:-

‘For outstanding ability in the communication of original English words with clarity, understanding and imagination.’

Committee members between them represented the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. We decided to begin modestly by offering a £25 extra Prize in each College’s annual English Song Competition, priming each College’s adjudicator as to the particular qualities of our prize. We would establish this for three years, and then develop the Prize further. I undertook to write to the Directors of the three Colleges, Sir David Willcocks (RCM), Sir Anthony Lewis (RAM) and Mr John Hosier (GSMD), to se if they approved of our proposal. They all replied enthusiastically.

1981 January 31st at Gordon Honey’s home. AESS Meeting:-

Speaker: Gerard Hüsch

Because of this speaker the meeting was well attended. I had to keep him waiting while I broached the idea of the Prize to the members. This was received enthusiastically except by Sir Keith Faulkner who thought that there were already too many competitions! He was over-ruled by a show of hands. Our project had begun in earnest.

1981 June 13th at Thelma Godfrey’s home. AESS Summer Meeting:-

This was given over to fixing dates and rules of the Prize. it was decided that I should send a letter to every member of the AESS with details of the progress of the Prize and ask for financial support. I also asked for, and received thankfully, sponsorships from The Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, The Britten-Pears Foundation, The J.W.Lambert Memorial Trust and Boosey and Hawkes Music Publishers Limited.

1982 The English Singers and Speakers Prize

£25 and Volumes I and II of the ‘Heritage of 20th Century British Song’ collected by the Asociation and published by Boosey and Hawkes.

This was presented in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. My comments on the three Competitions were as follows:-

GSMD – English Song Competition – Adjudicator: Fabian Smith

There were thirteen singers who each sang one of three songs. I put a * against the name of Helen Charnock. Ellis and Olive Keeler, Michael Pilkington and Lyndon van der Pump kept me company. There was no announcement of the winner and no adjudication and I had to wait three weeks until Michael told me the glad news that Helen Charnock had won our prize. There was no official letter to the Association, but a charming letter from Helen herself.

The RAM – The Major Van Someren-Godfrey English Song Competition- Adjudicator: Wendy Eathorne

There were twenty seven singers who each gave a fifteen minute programme which took all day Thursday and Friday morning with six finalists singing again in the afternnoon. Olive, Michael, Lyndon and Dudley Jones joined me in the big audience in the theatre. Michael and I both wanted Susan Bullock to get one Prize so we were delighted to hear Wendy Eathorne announce that she had awarded the English Singers and Speakers Prize to Susan. She is a pupil of Majorie Thomas.

The RCM – The Major Van Someren-Godfrey English Song Competition – Adjudicator: Heather Harper

Although the competition is the same as that of the RAM, the Major’s widow changed the rules for the RCM and restricted the entry to those who have never received a money prize at the College and were going to spend at least another year there.

Thirteen singers presented a twenty minute programme each. There were no printed programmes and names had to be copied from the notice board. Luckily Heather Harper was most friendly, made me sit by her and passed me the details. The very first singer was John Graham-Hall, a tenor who was absolutely outstanding in every way, and no-one came up to the standard he set. I agreed with Heather Harper’s decision that he should be placed first and also win our Prize. He is a pupil of Edward Brooks.

1983 Trinity College of Music joined the Competition for the Prize.

1985 The development of the Prize resulted in the Association presenting its own Competition for a twenty minute recital of English Song on a theme chosen by the competitor, and not more than a five minute spoken introduction. This was presented annually in each College in turn, with help from the Colleges’ administrators but with adjudicators and stewards drawn from members of the Association. Each College provided two students. The adjudicators marked singers and accompanists out of five marks, which were then added up to find the winners. There were now three Singing Prizes ( £100, £75 and £50) and an Accompanists Prize (£35). Boosey and Hawkes ‘Heritage’ Volumes continued to be presented to the 1st Prizewinner and at some point Michael Pilkington persuaded Thames Publishing Limited to present his edition of Lute Songs to the 2nd Prizewinner.

1988 Students from the London College of Music also competed.

1990 The AESS Committee decided to relieve the pressure on the busy Colleges and to find its own venue. Fellow AESS member Lyndon van der Pump and I attend St Mary’s Church, Primrose Hill, NW3. It has always been associated with music, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in particular. Lyndon had started his ‘ Music at St. Mary’s Society’ from which developed the ‘Peter Pears Song Prize’. Lyndon lent us his grand piano, which is there, and kept it tuned. The Vicar, the Reverend John Ovenden, generously allowed us to hire the church on Saturday from 9.45am to 6.00pm for £25. We were also able to hold a post-Competition party in the Parish room when competitors and adjudicators were able to meet each other. Another parishioner kindly lent her house as a warm-up room.

Up to the year 1990 I had been enormously helped and supported in the organisation of the Competition by Thelma Godfrey. This year she became President and Garry Humphreys became the Hon. Secretary. He brought his professional expertise and unstinting help to the Competition and I can never thank him enough. He became disheartened by what appeared to be a lack of interest from members, although it has always been difficult to find times and venues to suit a geographically disparate group of working professionals.. Dorothy Richardson also did much to rally support and other supportive friends included Elizabeth Hawes, Michael Pilkington and Lyndon van der Pump.

I look back on the enterprise with joy and pride because I think it has really helped and inspired many young singers to follow the main aim of the AESS which is ‘to encourage communication of English words in speech and song’

by Catherine Lambert (1991).