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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 June 2007, 01:18 GMT 02:18 UK
Dame Emma's authentic success
Dame Emma Kirkby (copyright Hanya Chlala)
Dame Emma was discovered in her 20s (photo: Hanya Chlala)
Emma Kirkby's crystal-clear voice has won her the respect and admiration of classical music fans from around the globe, and now she has been made a Dame in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

She was recently counted among the top 20 sopranos in the world by BBC Music Magazine.

Yet she was well into her 20s before her talent was discovered - and her repertoire is frequently around 500 years old.

The 58-year-old is one of Britain's foremost singers of early music - a term which usually refers to music from before the 18th Century.

"The 16th Century was a very cultured age," she told the Daily Telegraph last month.

It never occurred to me I could make a living out of this - it was just hugely fun
Dame Emma Kirkby
"You had composers who were as good as Beethoven and Mozart and Haydn. They didn't have symphony orchestras or string quartets to write for, so they wrote for voices."

The daughter of renowned naval officer Geoffrey Kirkby, who won three Distinguished Service Crosses for his heroics in World War II, she sang for pleasure in choirs and small groups at school and as a classics student at Oxford, where she joined Schola Cantorum, the university's chamber choir.

'Raw materials'

After graduating she took a job as a teacher in a comprehensive school near Reading, where the headmaster helped to arrange her work around singing commitments.

But she doubted she would be accepted into the classical music world.

"There wasn't really a space for me to inhabit as a singer, it never occured to me I would fit into the world of singers as they then were," she told BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour last year.

"You went to college to come away with a voice that was big enough for opera, or you had a very big voice before you went. I had neither the ambition nor the raw materials for that, but I did love singing in choirs.

"It was the centre of my social life. It never occurred to me I could make a living out of this. It was just hugely fun."

When conductor Andrew Parrott founded the Taverner Choir in 1973, he turned to Dame Emma, beginning her association with the Consort of Musicke - a group of performers dedicated to early music.

'Live performer'

With the help of coach Jessica Cash - who helped her refine her voice so it suited the recreated instruments used in early music - her career was under way.

Dame Emma has made well over 100 recordings, including works by Mozart, Haydn and Bach and an album of songs by 20th Century composer Amy Beach. An anthology, Classical Kirkby, devised and performed with Anthony Rooley, was released in 2002.

She is also a tireless live performer, and was named artist of the year by Classic FM listeners in 1999, before being honoured with an OBE in 2000. She also enjoys coaching new singers.

While operating in a specialised field, she recently praised one new entrant into early music - Sting - whose album of lute music Songs from the Labyrinth, inspired by the work of 16th Century composer John Dowland, was released last year.

"He's a very honest and good musician, and his response to Dowland is absolutely sincere," she said.


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