John Shirley-Quirk has died. The news thudded into my chest, for some reason. It was a shock that I was shocked. I had almost forgotten about him. But he was the singer of my childhood, a name of legend to me, the person whose life and career I aspired to.
Growing up I was rather a solitary child. Being sent to my room was no punishment for me – indeed often a relief, as my family were all extroverts and being in a house where not one sentence was finished before another began was tough on my little brain.
Added to that, I was rather over-sensitive. I was very easily hurt by the things people said, and built up all the defences which children (and indeed adults) do to protect oneself: rubbishing the opinions of those who are unkind; using wit and humour, musical talent and acts of kindness, to get people to like me. That was often very tiring, and I needed time alone to let my imagination run free, to recharge my batteries.
In my room I had an old record player, which I had bought at a church sale. I wish I’d held onto it, because the sound was fabulous – the speakers were about two feet tall, and I used to disappear into my room with a collection of my Mum’s old 60s albums and classical music LPs. I listened obsessively to the innocent sounds of the Motown singles, to Bob Dylan’s unworldly voice, to the rich magic of Leonard Cohen. Mum even had an LP of Martin Luther-King’s speeches, and I heard every one again and again, listening to how he built up the pace and the phrasing just like a musical form. Once Mum tried to sit me and my brother down and make us listen to them, because it was “good for us”, and of course we refused, but up until the point that we were told we ought to like them, I really did.
But we also had one LP, just one, of English songs, sung by Shirley-Quirk. I can’t remember quite what was on it, but it had Purcell’s Music for a while, and at least one of the Butterworth songs.
I remember those big speakers and that big voice, often made small for the song, the feeling of power and kindness and richness in the music. I remember thinking about how he would look when he sung them, the tiny photo on the back of the LP giving me no indication as to how he sang, or how he sounded when he spoke.
I tried imitating that voice, and found, all of a sudden, in one moment, a voice coming out of me that I’d never heard before. It was deep and rich, and although nothing like Shirley-Quirk, sounded of that genre. It didn’t belong to me, and when I sung it felt as though someone else was singing through me.
My voice became my secret friend for a few months, until I dared take him out in public, and even then only a bit at a time. And I listened and listened to Shirley-Quirk, trying to hear how he got that special sound, experimenting with moving my mouth and my tongue to try and control the noise that came out.
Sometimes recordings were not too kind to JS-Q, especially in the orchestrated music, where it comes across as thin and forced, straining with a fast vibrato – and in an era when authentic performances were limited to having a harpsichord which sounded like lump-hammers hitting a piano, some of it can feel very soupy – but listen to the depth of this sound in this rendition of RVWs Silent Noon.
Eventually the voice I carried in me began to be mine, not an echo of Shirley-Quirk’s, and I discovered the Anglican choral tradition. JS-Q accompanied me there too, with Mystical Songs and Requiems.
For a while when I was 15, John Shirley-Quirk was my mentor, my companion, my teacher. We sung duets together in the safety of my bedroom, each time my voice growing a little more free, a little more like his. I still put the fact I don’t pronounce my ‘s’s properly down to his influence.
I only got to hear him once – I wonder if it was his last performance? It was at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, when he had a cameo spot as one of the masters in Die Meistersinger. He must have been in his early seventies then, but when I heard the voice, and recognised it, heard it free of the limitations of recordings and speakers, the rest of the performance was a desperate hope for me that he’d have just a few more bars to sing
No more notes to sing now. But if there is a choir invisible, I hope they’re brushing up on the five mystical songs.