May 2024
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Scotland’s Voice of the Century is Stilled …

We’ve just received from our Scottish friends, Iain and Margaret, a very moving tribute to one of the most lovely voices of Scotland, Kenneth McKellar, who passed away a couple of days ago and we are eager to share it with you…

Kenneth McKellar - Scottish SingerHello again, Janice, Marie-Agnes and Jean-Claude!

I’d like to write a word or two today about the world-famous Scottish tenor, Mr Kenneth McKellar, who sadly died last week in the USA at the age of 82. Following a short but serious illness, Mr McKellar passed away at the home of his daughter, Jane, in Lake Tahoe, California, on 9th April. Scotland has lost a most worthy and distinguished ambassador.

But a singer of quite outstanding talent and ability had passed from the scene when Kenneth McKellar retired in 1997. Soon afterwards, the Decca Record Company issued a set of two CD’s, “Kenneth McKellar – The Decca Years, 1955 – 1975” recalling highlights of the three dozen or so splendid vinyl LP’s that the Scottish tenor had made during this period. I must have most of his records – I did once confess to being an enthusiastic collector! – but they were acquired the hard way, bought from second-hand shops in the 1980’s after much searching.

I’m not aware that any biography (or autobiography) of Kenneth McKellar has ever appeared, and had the idea of referring to the notes on the record sleeves, which are often very informative. In no time at all, I’d gathered an armful of over 18, all with particularly interesting snippets. I shall have to be quite selective!

Kenneth McKellar The song of Ireland The Songs of Ireland” (Decca LK4338) is perhaps my most prized Kenneth McKellar disc – partly, no doubt, because copies of this record are as rare as hens’ teeth! The Gentle Maiden, The Lark in the Clear Air and The Snowy-breasted Pearl – a delightful song in any of its versions – are all here. This LP came out in 1960 – yes, 50 years ago – by which time Kenneth McKellar had just returned from his second successful transatlantic tour. To quote the sleeve notes: “In two months he did a round trip from Montreal, taking in many towns in Canada, (then) Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York …

A Detroit critic said of him : ‘ McKellar sang with the ease and sweetness that distinguished the late John McCormack. With astounding control he seemed to bring out a long melodic line on a single breath … and there was none to resist his appeal. ‘ ”

The name of Kenneth McKellar has very often been linked with that of the great John McCormack ( 1884 – 1945 ) arguably the finest singer ever to have come out of the British Isles. ( Athlone in 1884 was, of course, under British rule.) But such comparisons are difficult ; each singer is very much of his own age.

The year 1961 saw the issue of Kenneth McKellar’s most celebrated record, “Famous Handel Songs and Arias” (Decca LK4380) – in North America, “Handel – Great Tenor Arias” (London 5603) – which sold steadily for many years. Accompaniment on this disc is by the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Working with the Scottish tenor on this recording led Sir Adrian to describe him as ‘the leading Handel singer of the 20th century’ – quite a compliment! The song, Silent Worship (from ‘Ptolemy’) is of surpassing beauty, displaying to perfection Kenneth McKellar’s brilliant and ringing tenor voice.

What do the notes say, this time? “Throughout his recording and concert career, McKellar has ranged freely about the vocal repertoire, singing principal roles for the Carl Rosa Opera Company, recording the songs of Robert Burns …. singing a huge range of material in three separate BBC -TV series of his own, captivating North American audiences on three recent coast-to-coast tours of Canada and the US …” A most versatile artist.

Songs of the Hebrides” (LK4399) – with spoken introductions to each song by McKellar – also came out in 1961. The exquisitely beautiful air Land of Heart’s Desire, collected by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, finds a place here.

For the lovely old Italian song Caro Mio Ben (Giordani) we turn to “Kenneth McKellar – Concert Classics” of 1965 (LK4663)… His glorious tenor voice triumphs in this song, excelling all others that I’ve heard.

Each disc for me has its particular treasures. We’re blessed to have been left such a rich legacy of wonderful recordings.

Margaret and I sent a greetings card and a short note to Mr McKellar in June 2007, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, and were thrilled to receive a reply a few days later.

“Thank you for your kind comments about my singing,” he wrote, ” I don’t do it any more, not even in the shower!”

I find it tremendously sad when a great singer leaves the stage; it’s as though a bright light has gone out.

I’m reminded of the words of John McCormack, quoted by his wife Lily in her memoir, ‘I Hear You Calling Me’ : “I live again the days and evenings of my long career. I dream at night of operas and concerts in which I have had my share of success. Now, like the old Irish Minstrels, I have hung up my harp because my songs are all sung.”

A Bientot, Marie-Agnes, Jean-Claude et Janice!

10 comments to Scotland’s Voice of the Century is Stilled …

  • Tony Andrews

    Thank you for the wonderful tribute to one of the finest tenor voices ever – Kenneth McKellar. I first heard him singing back in the 1950’s, and despite his excellent classical singing, I think he will always be remembered for his superb rendition of Scottish, Irish and English folk songs. I still can’t listen to his rendition of ‘Wee Hughie’ without a tear in my eye.

    Farewell Kenneth McKellar – there is a new star in the heavenly choir.

  • Colin E. Lumby

    Thank you for drawing the world’s attention to the passing of a great tenor. His breath control and tone were every bit as captivating as Luciano Pavarotti’s. I have collected and admired both artists for many years. In fact the Kenneth McKellar and Luciano Pavarotti vinyl records in my collestion are worn out – but I keep them anyway.

  • Your site is undoubtedly full of remarkable details and info as well as is really extremely enjoyable to learn through.Properly completed:)

  • Iain McEwan

    Hello, Tony –
    Thank you for your kind comments, and for your interest in our website.

    It’s a privilege for me to write even a few words in tribute to Kenneth McKellar, whose singing I’ve always admired tremendously. Here in Scotland, both BBC Alba and BBC Scotland have recently shown excellent TV programmes tracing the tenor’s long career.

    Jane McKellar, Kenneth’s daughter, spoke with affection – and pride – of her father’s achievements, recalling that the high-point of his 50 years as a professional singer had been his recording (in 1961, I think)of ‘Messiah’ with Joan Sutherland – whom we also lost last year. Jane spoke with sadness, too, of course, but also, I thought, with enormous dignity.

    Listening to a passage from McKellar’s singing of Ombra Mai Fu (Handel’s ‘Largo’) the Professor of Music at RSAMD, Glasgow, was moved to tears. I don’t mind confessing that Professor Underwood was by no means the only man to shed a furtive tear in the face of such exquisite beauty! 🙂 Kind regards, and all best wishes for 2011! Iain.

  • Iain McEwan

    Hello, Colin –
    Thank you for your kind comments, and for your interest in our website.
    Happy New Year from the team at Scotiana! 🙂

    Further to my reply (above) to Tony Andrews, may I add that it’s pleasing to see that both the Ombra Mai Fu and the full Messiah recordings are currently available as CD re-issues (the former from the ‘Decca Years’ set, a varied selection of 50 remastered tracks).

    That McKellar was faithful to Scottish music – and sang many songs that were relatively undemanding (although I’d have trouble humming along!) – does not in any way alter the judgment that he was a singer of the first rank, who received perhaps only a fraction of the recognition that was justly his.

    Mr McKellar’s reputation is secure; he has an assured place, alongside John, Count McCormack and Dame Joan Sutherland, among the truly great singers of the 20th century.

    With kind regards,

  • Iain McEwan

    Hello, Viola –
    The Scottish custom of exchanging greetings at New Year gives me a fresh opportunity to get in touch – please may I send you, on behalf of everyone at Scotiana, our kind regards and best wishes for 2011? 🙂

    Thank you for your lovely comments about the website; we’re glad you enjoy it. We try very hard to make Scotiana interesting to read, and to give information accurately and correctly. If we should make a mistake, please let us know!

    Margaret and I live in SW Scotland, Mairiuna and Jean-Claude near Bordeaux (SW France) and Janice (who is Webmaster) near Montreal (Quebec, Canada). I know that Mairiuna and J-C were disappointed to be unable to view the BBC Alba programme on Kenneth McKellar (to which I refer in my reply to Tony Andrews, above). This excellent, hour-long programme, broadcast on 30th December, was made available for seven days on the internet via BBC i-player. But not in France, unfortunately!

    How I wish that the BBC would consider making such culturally important programmes more widely available, and for a longer time!

    BBC Alba broadcasting is primarily in Gaelic, with English subtitles. Their McKellar documentary was produced by the independent company, MacTV, based in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis (one of the larger of the Western Isles, the ‘Outer Hebrides’) where Gaelic is still widely spoken.

    “If he hadn’t been a singer, my father would have wanted to be a comedian,” said Jane. McKellar, a highly intelligent man, was blessed with a lively and original sense of humour. But isn’t the world glad he chose music!

    Who can explain the mystery by which – like a bright star crossing the heavens – a singer is born with a quite exceptional natural endowment (a God-given talent, if you wish) which he is pleased to share, enriching the lives of all of us?

    Rest in peace, Kenneth McKellar.


    • Iain

      This YouTube link is to a group of Handel songs and arias, surely some of Kenneth McKellar’s finest recordings. Here is the Scottish lyric tenor in his mid-30’s and at the peak of his powers, his voice delicate and fresh.

      ‘Ombra Mai Fu’ and Somervell’s splendid ‘Silent Worship’ of 1928 are included. (Sir Arthur Somervell, 1863-1937, adapted his song from Handel’s aria of two centuries earlier. ‘Non lo diro col labbro’ – ‘I will not say it with my lips’. A new and original set of English words, in fact, on the theme of unspoken love.)

      Listeners’ comments at YouTube are generous:
      ‘A full voice, pure and free-flowing’; ‘beautiful tone and outstanding clarity of diction’; ‘incomparable singing’; ‘it is magnificent’.


  • Garry Humphreys

    He was surely one of the very greatest singers of Handel. Simply wonderful golden tone, superb line and diction, and such intelligence.

  • Iain

    Ten years have now passed since we lost Kenneth, but younger people continue to discover the beauty of his voice and the depth of his wonderful talent. There is no-one to take his place.

    Today, 12 April 2020, is Easter Sunday, and I shall find time to listen to this fine recording made at Paisley Abbey, close to Glasgow :

    The melody (1790) is known as Rockingham, while the poetic and affecting words were composed by Isaac Watts (1674-1748).


  • Iain

    I’ve just learnt of the death at Marbella, Spain, of Patricia Cahill, a splendid and versatile singer who recorded a much-admired album of duets with Kenneth McKellar. Patricia (3 March 1942 – 11 May 2022) passed away following a short illness. A devoted wife and mother, her marriage of 44 years to Ciaran ended only with his death in 2013.


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