Norma Procter – Her Life in Music
For several decades, Norma Procter was renowned internationally as one of the finest concert singers, working with leading orchestras and many famous conductors. Publicity shy throughout her life, her reputation has subsequently been overlooked. But her extraordinary personality and career are now the subject of a new biography.
Louth based writer Lucy Wood was given access to Norma Procter’s vast personal archive in 2019 and spent two years researching and writing her biography of the singer. Well aware of Norma’s fame in her hometown of Cleethorpes, but knowing little of her achievements on the concert stage, Lucy has collected reminiscences, newspaper reports, photographs and personal letters to tell her story.
Norma Procter – Her Life in Music follows on from Lucy’s biography of another remarkable figure in the county’s history, the Channel swimmer Brenda Fisher. Lucy was contacted by Dawn Stewart, a pupil and close friend of Norma’s, who had been given access to the singer’s letters, diaries and concert programmes by her family following her death in 2017.
“Dawn Stewart spent some time herself categorising by decades,” Lucy explains.
“I didn’t realise until afterwards how much work she’d done. She had read the Brenda book and sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in looking at the material. I was really excited about it. I really enjoy doing books about strong, powerful women.
“Norma is a huge icon but her level of celebrity locally is very different to how respected she was in the music industry. She was well known, but if you ask people in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, there’s only a certain generation who know who she is. I saw a potential opportunity to bring her name to more people.”
Norma was wary of publicity. In 1948, when her father John received local and national notoriety as the owner of that year’s Grand National winning horse, Sheila’s Cottage, she felt only embarrassment at the attention – and soon after was heartbroken when her father left the family. But as Lucy’s research makes clear, Norma made a huge contribution to music over the course of several decades and provides an insightful and critical picture of many of the personalities of the classical music scene and the demands placed on performers during those years.
Renowned internationally for her contralto voice, Norma Procter was widely seen as the natural successor of the singer who inspired her at a young age, Kathleen Ferrier – whom she first met after a performance in Grimsby. Norma’s interpretations of Handel’s Messiah and Mahler’s 3rd Symphony are among the most critically acclaimed in the repertoire and she frequently took on the role of the Angel in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, which perfectly reflected her spiritual interests. Sir Malcolm Sargent, Rafael Kubelík and Benjamin Britten, with whom she became close friends for a number of years, were all struck by her unique talents and worked alongside her. Though Norma decided that opera wasn’t for her – in spite of acclaimed performances of Orpheus and The Rape of Lucretia – she performed both live and on recordings in a range of styles.
“I love all the folk songs,” says Lucy. “Norma would probably think they were a bit of frippery. She loved Mahler, and the very serious stuff. But I love the folk songs, because I think she shows a side of her personality that she kept quite hidden from the public. You can hear the fun she has in her voice in some of the songs.”
Norma’s life in singing began at a young age at the local church hall in Cleethorpes. She never moved away from her hometown despite the rigorous concert schedule which took her all over the world, from Italy to Israel. Her long-standing relationship with another Grimsby area musician, Alec Redshaw, and her enthusiasm for supporting younger singers meant she was respected locally, though she showed no interest in the sort of fame and attention experienced by her hero Kathleen Ferrier, or her contemporary, Joan Sutherland.
“Norma sacrificed a lot. In her last years, she used to say that she thought people had forgotten her,” says Lucy. “She always blamed that on the fact that she stayed living locally and refused to move to London. But home was where her heart was.”
Norma nevertheless helped to put her home county on the map of classical music performance. In April 1958, the first concert dedicated to the work of Benjamin Britten was held in Grimsby, with the composer’s appearance at the event spurring initially poor ticket sales. The concert was a great success. Lucy draws upon a wealth of contemporary sources, including reviews and articles published in the Grimsby Telegraph and other regional newspapers. Norma rarely gave interviews but her personal letters convey her warmth, humour and loyalty – and confirm her as a woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly.
Lucy says: “I have had discussions with Dawn about whether she would want this book published. We came to the conclusion that she would. Her family said if someone approached her in Tesco, she absolutely loved it. But she was so humble that she would never admit liking that side of it.
“And she did write her own memoirs. She sent the manuscript to two publishers, both of whom rejected it. Contemporaries of Norma’s had published their own memoirs and because they were bigger names, the publishers weren’t interested in Norma’s. It hurt her. She did have the same level of career and success but they were more in the media.
“One of her friends had read it but we don’t know where the manuscript is. I’m certain it does exist, perhaps in the back of a cupboard in the home of a family connected to Norma, or in an attic. It’s the gossip about the artists that conservators would be very interested in. That she kept absolutely everything else is a big clue that it’s still around. But where?”
In early adulthood, Norma developed a number of health problems which caused her great pain and upset. However, she remained determined to sing in public and share what she felt to be her God-given gift until this was no longer possible. Many diary entries emphasise the endless round of consultations, bouts of flu and other illnesses. Norma devoted her life to music and she would often describe her feelings using musical metaphors – apologising for the ‘minor key’ of a particular letter, or blaming her forgetfulness on her ‘Adagio mind’. Her final public performance was given in 1986 in Leatherhead.
This carefully researched and evocative history of Norma’s life on stage, and her friendships with numerous figures in twentieth-century music history, culminates in a collection of striking photographs that tell her story in images.
The book shifts from the concert stage to domestic life as Lucy shares many of the warm-hearted and inquisitive letters that Norma wrote to her ‘specials’ during her years of retirement from public performance – notably, the younger musician Alexander Anderson-Hall, to whom she lamented that she hadn’t had anyone to share her life with romantically in the long-term, having given her life so completely to music.
“Those letters really show a side that she didn’t often show people,” says Lucy. “She obviously trusted him a lot and he was kind enough to trust me with the letters. I’m so grateful to those friends who knew Norma who have supported the book. Her nephew Nick and his partner Ingrid have also been a tremendous help.”
In her later years, Norma continued to teach, judge in singing competitions and would avidly watch the Proms on television. She was always gauging the changing trends in the recital of the classical pieces so close to her heart, which often inspired a critical response, as well as keeping an eye on up-and-coming talent. The BBC’s coverage of the annual Proms also helped to jog her own memories.
As well as the detailed letters, Lucy also traces Norma’s life with reference to the many diaries she kept – a selection of which are also reproduced in the book.
“They’re not ‘dear diary’ style, where she explains her feelings. She mostly confided to her ‘specials’. They were often short, appointment diaries. But then every so often you’d come across a little thing where she’d say, I had an argument with this chap, or I didn’t get on with this piece of music, or I really adore this. Then I started to get a feel for who she was, and her voice.
“I love that there was a little comment where she’d written ‘YouTube’ and about five exclamation marks. Because someone will have shown her her younger self on YouTube. I really hope that wherever she is, if she’s looking down, that she approves of this. I’ll love her for life.”
Norma Procter died in 2017, five years after a Parkinson’s diagnosis. During an intimate funeral service at Grimsby Crematorium, her own rendition of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was played.
The Norma Procter archive is now stored in perpetuity at Britten Pears Arts at the Red House in Aldeburgh, where she visited many times during her life. This archive, along with Lucy’s illuminating biography, will give researchers and passionate music fans in the future a clearer sense of Norma’s importance in twentieth-century music and the county’s history.