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A Musical Helmet

1st August 2020 @ 6:06am – by Sarah Hill
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Audlem and District History Society History Shorts 18 by Sarah Hill A musical helmet

If, like me, you grew up in the BT era (before television), you may have had a dressing-up box. Ours held a jumble of costume including a green Robin Hood outfit, a blue Alice dress and various dilapidated Victorian garments handy for kings, queens and princesses. There was also this helmet:
The helmet originally had wings attached. Below is a photo of my Great Aunt Cicely wearing it. She was an opera singer and is dressed for the role of Brunnhilde in Wagner's 'The Valkyrie'.

Cicely (born in 1877) grew up in an unusual late Victorian household. Her father, Joseph Gleeson White, was an art and literary critic. He edited 'The Studio' magazine which came out in the 1890s, promoting new young talents such as Aubrey Beardsley. When Joseph died, still in his forties, after contracting typhus on a visit to Italy, his death was a sad blow not just for his family, but also for the literary world.
Cicely's singing talent gained her a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and then to regular engagements to sing at music festivals around the country with composers such as Vaughan Williams, Holst and Elgar.
By her thirties she had progressed to operatic roles, performing at Covent Garden where her powerful soprano voice proved ideally suited to Wagner's soaring melodies. Then, in 1915, after winter months on tour, she developed pneumonia which left her profoundly deaf. Her singing career was ended. By then she had sung at least 40 roles in English, German, Italian and French.

I'm comforted to remember that Cicely at least had the companionship of a cheerful and devoted husband; George Miller was a fellow musician and bandmaster of the Grenadier Guards. We used to see him conducting the band when it appeared on Pathé News. After his death, 'The Aunt', as we knew her, came to live with us.

Here she is at our wedding in 1965 pictured in a splendidly feathery hat. She still has a wonderful presence, hasn't she? I just wish I could have heard her sing.

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