Early life and career
Clara Butt was born in Southwick, Sussex, the eldest daughter of Henry Albert Butt, a sea captain, and his wife Clara née Hook. In 1880, the family moved to the port city of Bristol in England's West Country. Clara was educated at South Bristol High School, where her singing ability was recognised and her talent as a performer encouraged. At the request of her headmistress, she was trained by the bass Daniel Rootham (father of the composer Cyril Rootham) and joined the Bristol Festival Chorus, of which Daniel Rootham was musical director].
Butt won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music (RCM) in January 1890. Her voice teachers were John Henry Blower and Albert Visetti, while her piano teacher was Marmaduke Barton. During her fourth year of vocal lessons at the college she spent three months studying in Paris, sponsored by Queen Victoria. She also studied in Berlin and Italy.
She made her professional debut on 7 December 1892 at the Royal Albert Hall in London in Sullivan's cantata The Golden Legend. Three days later she appeared as Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at the Lyceum Theatre. This was an RCM production, conducted by Charles Villiers Stanford. Bernard Shaw, who was then the music critic for The World, wrote that she "far surpassed the utmost expectations that could reasonably be entertained", and forecast a considerable career for her.
Butt travelled to Paris and undertook further studies with Jacques Bouhy (the teacher of two other notable contraltos with international reputations, Louise Homer and Louise Kirkby Lunn). Later she polished her skills in Berlin with the famous retired soprano Etelka Gerster. The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns heard her, and wanted her to study his opera Dalila, but at the time the representation of biblical subjects on the British stage was forbidden, and nothing came of it. When the law changed and the work was given at Covent Garden in 1909 the part of Delila was sung by Lunn, to Butt's disappointment.
Butt acquired a reputation in Britain for her vocal attributes and her physical presence on the concert platform: she was 6 feet 2 inches tall. She made many gramophone recordings, often accompanied by the (uncredited) pianist Lilian Bryant. Among her recordings are several of Sullivan's song "The Lost Chord"; her friend Fanny Ronalds bequeathed the original manuscript of the song to her.[n 1] She was primarily a concert singer; her only operatic performances were in two productions of Orfeo ed Euridice. Britain's leading composer of the era, Edward Elgar, composed his song-cycle Sea Pictures for contralto and orchestra with her in mind as soloist; she sang at the first performance of the work at the Norwich Festival on 5 October 1899, with the composer conducting. Her only recording from the cycle was "Where Corals Lie".
Clara Butt's common used vocal range was remarkably wide, from C below middle C to high A(C3 – A5).