THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Madame Lilian Stiles-Allen (1890-1982)
Concert Soprano and Teacher
When Lilian Stiles-Allen came to live in Leeds in 1941, escaping the London Blitz, she had a long and distinguished career behind her. She had worked with some of the great conductors and composers of the day, performed on the concert stage, at the Proms, on radio and in recordings. Leeds had been the scene of her first real success and always welcomed her, so she chose it as her new home ‘remembering the city’s music and culture and the kindly hospitality of Yorkshire folk’. While here she coached the young Julie Andrews, who has left us an affectionate memoir of her beloved ‘Madame’.
She was born Lilian Elizabeth Allen (later adding her mother’s maiden name of Stiles) in 1890 in Marylebone, London, the daughter of a master butcher – ‘an ordinary family’ she said. As a child she dreamt of being a ballerina, but instead was encouraged to sing. She trained at the Guildhall School of Music, and afterwards in Germany, winning prizes for her rich soprano voice. She had the vocal power and range for opera but not the physique – too short and plump – so she focussed on the concert stage. At first she struggled to find work, even singing in music halls, once on the bill with performing elephants as the star turn (she enjoyed telling this story!)
Her first real break came in Leeds in 1915, when she was just 25. In November she sang with the Leeds Choral Union in an Elgar concert conducted by Sir Edward himself, praised for the golden quality of her voice. She returned in December as a soloist in ‘Messiah’ alongside the formidable Dame Clara Butt, and was picked out by the Yorkshire Post’s influential critic, Herbert Thompson, for her outstanding performance. She never looked back. In December 1917 she was chosen as one of the soloists at a great commemorative concert at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the heroes of Mons and Ypres, before the King and Queen and Queen Alexandra. At this deeply emotional event (only English music was played) it was she who sang the closing National Anthem, leading the huge chorus.
Her voice was much admired for its sweetness, range, and dramatic power. During the 1920s/30s she was in demand as a soloist, performing round the country (often back in Leeds), and appearing in Scotland, Ireland, later the USA. She specialised in oratorio and operatic arias, and regularly performed in Sir Malcolm Sargent’s spectacular staged productions of Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Hiawatha’ at the Albert Hall. From 1923 she featured in early radio broadcasts from 2LO (the original London station), often with Sir Henry Wood at the Promenade concerts. Later she made gramophone recordings with Edison Bell Electron Records, including in 1938 the first recording of Vaughan-Williams’ ‘Serenade to Music’.
Small and stout as she was, she had a dramatic style – long skirts, a fabulous velvet cloak and beret, a cane, plenty of jewellery. Her personal life was kept very private. She was married three times – her first husband almost certainly killed in WW1 leaving her a young widow, like so many others. When she came to live in Leeds it was with her third husband Sidney Jeffries-Harris and a son, Michael. She bought a historic old farmhouse at 19 Shire Oak Road, Headingley, as their new home (now converted into cottages and called Corson Court). She still performed occasionally – for instance at the re-opening of the Leeds Museum after it had been bombed – but she focussed now on teaching. Her most famous pupil was the young Julie Andrews who would come up to Headingley to stay with ‘Madame’. She was a rigorous teacher, whose coaching had a great impact on the budding star. In her memoirs ‘Madame’ comes alive – imposing, but also gentle and kind. She remained Julie Andrews’ mentor throughout her early career.
Around 1956 Lilian Stiles-Allen moved from Leeds to an earlier home of hers, a country cottage near Sevenoaks in Kent. She generously donated her Headingley house to the privately-run Yorkshire College of Music and Drama which had lost its premises in town; the College remained there until 2011, familiar to many Leeds music students. Lilian Stiles-Allen died in 1982 in Tunbridge Wells, aged 92. But through the magic of the internet, you can still hear her golden voice, singing in the ‘Serenade to Music’ and speaking in an extract from her 1971 BBC interview for ‘Desert Island Discs’.