Following London’s Blue Plaques Through Musical History



7 Harley Road, Swiss Cottage

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Clara Butt was an English concert singer who was known for her thunderous contralto voice — a voice so loud that the conductor Thomas Beecham once said you could hear it across the English Channel on a clear day. It captivated such composers as Camille Saint-Saëns and Edward Elgar, who wrote a song cycle intended for her called “Sea Pictures.” She was educated at the Royal College of Music, made her debut at the Royal Albert Hall at the age of 20, and became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire after organizing a series of concerts during World War I. She had tremendous stage presence, thanks in part to her height: she was over 6 feet tall. Her later years were profoundly difficult. She lost two sons, one of them to suicide, and was struck down by cancer of the spine; many late recordings were made in a wheelchair.

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4 Elsworthy Road, Belsize Park

Henry Wood was a prominent British conductor who guest-conducted the Berlin and New York Philharmonic Orchestras and led world premieres of orchestral pieces by Britten, Delius and Elgar. Yet he made his most lasting mark on British musical life as the founder of the Proms (now the BBC Proms, starting this year on July 13), an annual season of promenade concerts that rank today as one of the world’s biggest classical-music festivals. It all started in 1894, when Wood organized a set of concerts at the Queen’s Hall. Eager to open up classical music to a broader audience, he then started a season of nightly promenade concerts there in 1895 and met with immediate success. He initially offered an accessible repertoire of favorites and gradually modernized the slate to include such composers as Debussy and Schönberg. The Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall in 1941 and are still performed there.

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Michael Costa (1808-84)

Wilton Court, 59 Eccleston Square, Belgravia

Michael Costa was born in Naples, Italy, and carried out his musical studies there. A prolific composer, he wrote his first cantata at the age of 15 and penned many other works, including the opera “Don Carlos” (it predated Verdi’s, the premiere of which Costa conducted) and the ballet “Sir Huon” (written for the ballet dancer Marie Taglioni). His compositions were not to everyone’s liking: When Costa sent Rossini his oratorio “Eli” in 1855, Rossini wrote: “The good Costa has sent me an oratorio score and a Stilton cheese. The cheese was very good.”

Costa might have spent his life in Italy had it not been for a conducting engagement in Birmingham, England, in 1829; he decided to settle in Britain, and arrived in London the next year. He was the opera conductor at Her Majesty’s Theatre until 1846, when he moved to the Covent Garden Theatre. Today, he is best known for his orchestral arrangement of “God Save the Queen.”