Back in the 1970s, when celebrated English bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk was engaged to perform in Haydn’s The Creation with the Cincinnati Symphony, James Conlon conducting, the first rehearsal began with Shirley-Quirk singing in English. Conlon stopped the proceedings, noting, apologetically, that the work would be performed in German. Unperturbed, Shirley-Quirk quickly resumed, this time in flawless German.
That anecdote, recounted by long-time Peabody vocal coach Robert Muckenfuss, who served as pianist for the rehearsal, typifies Shirley-Quirk’s professionalism, musicality, and scholarly knowledge of repertoire.
Shirley-Quirk, who taught as a member of Peabody’s Voice faculty from 1992 to 2012, died at 82 this past April in Bath, England, where he lived.
“As an educator, he was simply top-notch,” says Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Voice Department chair and Shirley-Quirk’s colleague during his Peabody tenure. “He was a stickler for good and clear diction. His favorite saying was [affecting a British accent] ‘I cahn’t hear you!’ He would ‘bark’ at a student that he couldn’t understand, which became a favorite thing for all of us to imitate, and we still do.”
Known fondly among students as “The Great Hyphen,” Shirley-Quirk was born in Liverpool, where he sang in a school choir and studied violin, before earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, which he later taught at a college in London. Throughout, he took voice lessons and sang professionally, and ultimately devoted his full energies to performance, notably with composer Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group.
“His friendship with Britten meant so much to us when we did the great operas of Britten, some of which John was a part of at their premiere,” adds Bryn-Julson. “And, most importantly, Britten had the part written for him.”
Tall, dark-haired, and projecting a thoughtful stage presence, Shirley-Quirk specialized in oratorio and art song. He performed in Britten’s Curlew River, Owen Wingrave, Billy Budd, and Death in Venice, while his extensive recorded output also includes works by Bach, Purcell, Handel, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and many others.
For two decades, he imparted that vast experience to successive waves of Peabody students. “John was totally devoted to getting into the ‘bones’ of a piece,” explains the voice faculty’s Steven Rainbolt (AD ’94), who studied with Shirley-Quirk at the Conservatory. “And he strongly encouraged his students to look deeply into the musical and expressive elements of the work.
“One of the most important things I learned from him was to be very faithful to the composer’s intent, but not too rigid. He was always focused on making the best music, and, in that, there has to be accuracy but, at the same time, an interesting approach. He wanted us to bring the music alive.”
— Michael Yockel