Butt, Clara

English contralto, 1872 - 1936

Biographical notes:

She studied with Mr. Rootham in Bristol, subsequently winning a competition organized by The Royal College of London in 1889. In 1892 she appeared in the title role of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, performing the same role at the Lyceum Theatre in London. She went to Paris and made further studies with Jacques Bouhy (the teacher of Louise Homer and Louise Kirby-Lunn) and later with the celebrated soprano Etelka Gerster in Berlin. Saint-Saëns wanted her to study Dalila, but due to laws then extant forbidding the representation of biblical subjects on the British stage, nothing came of it. From 1895 she started a glorious career, appearing almost entirely on the concert platform. Her repertory was made of Bach, Handel, a little Lieder, but above all, of the popular ballads of the day. She made a speciality out of those songs (“The lost chord”, “There is no death”, “Abide with me”, among many others). Clara Butt created  Elgar’s Sea Pictures, a piece especially written for her. She appeared in a few opera performances in one single role, as Orfeo (she was a tall woman, standing 6’2’’). Clara Butt triumphed in all the famous concert halls, making tours to Australia, Japan, Canada, the United States and to many European cities! Married to baritone Kennerley Rumford (called “Bertie”), who accompanied her on most of her tours, she was one of the most celebrated singers at the time. In 1920 she was created “Dame of the British Empire” for her charitable services during the war. Clara’s three sisters were singers as well. One of them, Ethel Hook, became a famous artist in her own right and made some superb solo recordings. In later life Clara Butt was dogged by tragedies. Her elder son died of meningitis whilst still at school, the younger committed suicide. During the 1920s she became seriously ill of cancer of the spine, but her faith gave her the strength to continue working. She made many of her later records seated in a wheelchair. Clara Butt died in 1936.


Clara Butt-Rumford and Kennerley Rumford


 “The greatest contralto heard since Marietta Alboni”

J.W. Henderson, one of the most renowned American critics



“Une voix obscène”

Reynaldo Hahn, composer and baritone, describing Butt’s “cavernous” low register



Clara Butt - A Critical Survey Vol. 1: The Acoustic Years (Arias, ballads, songs)


Recital (Arias and songs)


Covent Garden on Record Vol. 3


Sullivan - Sacred and Secular Music (Sargent)


Mike Richter’s Opera Page: The Record of Singing Vol. 1 and 3



Family picture


Dame Clara Butt dressed as Britannia (!)


Clara Butt possessed one of the greatest and most powerful contralto voices, ranging from C below middle C to high B flat (Sir Adrian Boult remembers a rehearsal when she sang through four B flats with ease). There was a vast and “baritonal” bottom and a lighter toned pure top. Her ability in the “canto fiorito” was just as remarkable (Donizetti’s Brindisi from Lucrezia Borgia!).

Her repertory consisted of oratorio arias, ballads and songs (although she had some opera arias in her repertory). The ballad had played a dominant role in British musical life right through the 18th century. As the German and French vocal styles were in response to particular developments in the opera, so the English style evolved largely out of the ballad and oratorio. Clara Butt was one of the last exponents of that era.

There was scarcely an English household boasting a gramophone that did not have her record declaiming “Land of Hope and Glory”. On a clear day, Sir Thomas Beecham claimed, you could have heard her across the English Channel! Today, most of her repertoire might not be of much interest, but  we have to realize that Dame Clara had to sing against the background of Victorian taste. Her true contralto voice, however, is one of the most glorious ever recorded.

 Che farò senza Euridice (Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice / Gluck / Columbia 1915/16)



“I wish to emphasise the fact that the true English style is that of the minstrel school, which I take to mean the ability to render a simple song or ballad with directness and sincerety, an ability distinct and very different from that of the average opera singer, to whom the art that conceals is not of much use ... The English style is perhaps more lyrical than dramatic, ...”

Clara Butt


My warmest thanks to Ed Norton