John Bonner was born in Manchester on May 31st 1912. His great-grandfather had been a bass at the cathedral and John became a chorister there at the age of ten. Even as a small boy at the Municipal school he possessed an outstanding voice and the teachers used to stand him on a chair and let him sing to the class.
As a result of Ernest Lough's success there was a search for good voices by the big gramophone companies, and Bonner was first recorded at the same session as the younger Robert Peel. It is likely that Bonner's recording was made before Peel's as it has an earlier matrix number. Bonner was fifteen and Peel thirteen. Bonner was encouraged at every stage by Norman Cocker, the Sub Organist, and by his mentor Dr. Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Manchester, to whom John remained devoted to the end of his life. The reviews of Bonner's first record were outstanding.
John Bonner did not record again until 1929, when he was nearly seventeen and recorded four more records (eight sides) for Columbia in London.
-- bio and pic from Betterland.boychoirs.org
"tone of remarkable depth and power . . .the boy is greatly gifted." (Herman Klein, "The Gramophone", January 1928)
"All the choir [of Manchester Cathedral] were good, but one boy, Bonner, was outstanding. When he rose to sing his solo in the Children's Service, the shuffling of hundreds of feet ceased, and in the dead silence Bonner sang. Just before his voice was breaking, we were approached by the B.B.C. and they came to hear him and said: 'That is the best treble voice in England.' They offered him £2,000 for the remainder of the time before his voice broke. His parents were working people, living in a small house in a back street, and could well have done with the money. They refused, feeling that £2,000 . . . would not compensate for the harm done by publicity and studio life. Several beautiful gramophone records were, however, made." Dr Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966; Dean of Manchester 1924-31) in his autobiography Searching for Light (London, 1968, pp.68f.) Around the time Bonner's records were made, the annual salary for a family doctor (GP) was about £750, council school teachers £350 & bank clerks £280.
In 1935 John was appointed bass lay vicar at Salisbury Cathedral and later moved to Lincoln Cathedral. He was Musical Director of the Sheffield Teachers' Operatic Society 1954-78 and, following his death in February 1979, the Society's Chairman Norman Coombs wrote in tribute to him: "Infectious exuberance, ebullience and enthusiasm were three of the outward facets of John's character. Beneath these facets and combined with them, lay a deep and wide understanding and practical appreciation of music and drama, which he applied to the furtherance of the Amateur Operatic and Dramatic world. His training as a boy and adult chorister in Manchester and Lincoln together with his wartime direction of an orchestra in India could well have fitted John for a successful [sc. professional] career but he concentrated on the 'Amateurs' of this world for whom he had the greatest devotion."
John Bonner Rec. 1929 (q.v.) & 5 Oct. 1938 (matrices CA17130-1 & 17129-1) and catalogued as "John Bonner, Boy Soprano, sings Duets with himself as a Bass-Baritone." See elsewhere on this page DB.136.
John Bonner A: Angels Guard Thee (verse 1 only) (Engl. wds S.J. Reilly, 1892 - music Benjamin Louis Paul Godard (1849-95): Berceuse from opera "Jocelyn", op. 109, 1888) (matrix WA 8316-1) with W.G. Webber, organ, & orch. B: Somewhere a Voice is Calling (wds Eileen Newton - music Arthur Frank Tate (1880-1950), 1911) (matrix WA 8305-1) with piano accomp. W.T. Best Rec. (confirmed) 9 & 8 Jan. 1929 resp. Scheduled for release Feb. 1930 as cat. no. 5687 but finally issued in July as DB 136; deleted Feb. 1943. Both items now on Amphion CDs "The Better Land" vols. 4 & 1 respectively.
Text of first item: "Beneath the quiv'ring leaves, where shelter comes at last, all sadness sinks to rest, or glides into the past; her sweet eyes prison'd now in their soft silken bars. Oh! my love, calm she sleeps beneath the trembling stars. Ah! wake not yet from thy repose, a fair dream spirit hovers near thee, weaving a web of gold and rose through dreamland's happy isles to bear thee! Sleep, love, it is not yet the dawn. Angels guard thee, sweet love, 'till morn!"
John Bonner A: There is a Green Hill Far Away (hymn: wds Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95) - on the text please see note on Robin Fairhurst's page - music Charles Francois Gounod (1818-93), 1871)(matrix WAX 4530-2) B: Angel's Serenade (orig. wds M.M. Marcello ("Non e mortal la musica . . ."); Engl. version anon. c.1875 [see below]- music Gaetano Braga (1829-1907): "La Serenata" or "Legende Valaque", 1867)(matrix WAX 4529-1; this item is believed to have been conducted by Bonner). Both rec. 9 Jan. 1929 at Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Road, London, with W.G. Webber, organ, & orch. & now on Amphion CD "The Better Land" vol. 5.
"Of the several records we have heard by Master Bonner, none have shown his beautiful voice to better advantage than this." (From a review in The Sound Wave [London], Dec. 1929, p. 947.)
Wds of Serenade as sung: "What happy tones awaken me, swelling upon the breeze, as it sweeps thro' the open balcony, onto the distant trees? Hear'st thou them not? So beautiful! They seem to bid me follow them afar. (Mother:) I hear no tone of melody; calm is the summer air. Only the gentle zephyr steals thro' the moonlight fair. What are these tones? O dearest daughter, what is this song so sweet? (Daughter:) Hush! Hush! That music hymns [?] angels to their angels' festal lays, calling to love of beauty, to cloudless summer days. Oh! mother dear, I cannot stay. I must away!"
John Bonner A: Nymphs & Shepherds (wds Thomas Shadwell (1642?-92): "The Libertine" (1676) Act IV, sc. iii (one 7-line verse) - incidental music Henry Purcell (1659-95), prob. 1695 (Z.600.1b.) with varied text; 2nd verse, as sung here, by ?)(matrix WAX 4526-1) B: Should he upbraid (wds Frederic Reynolds (1764-1841) adapted from Petruchio's speech in Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" Act II, sc. i - music Henry Rowley Bishop (1786-1855): song for Julia interpolated into his production of "Two Gentleman of Verona" at Covent Garden, November 1821. N.B. Question mark on record label is an error.) (matrix WAX 4527-2) Both rec. London, 8 Jan. 1929, with W.T. Best, piano and now on Amphion CDs "The Better Land" vols. 1 & 5 respectively.
Text from 1821 score: "Should he upbraid, I'll own that he prevail, And sing sweetly as the nightingale. Say that he frown, I'll say his looks I view As morning roses newly tip'd with dew. Say he be mute, I'll answer with a smile, And dance, and play, and wrinkled care beguile."
John Bonner A: Slumber, dear maid (wds Paul England (1864-1932), publ. 1903 - music George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Largo from opera "Serse", 1738) (matrix WAX 4528-1) B: Abide with me (wds Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847), written 1847? after Luke 24:29 - music Samuel Liddle (1867-1951), 1896) (matrix WAX 4531-1) Both. rec. 9 Jan. 1929 at Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Road, London, with W.G. Webber, organ, & orch. & now on Amphion CD "The Better Land" vol. 4.
"Master John Bonner bids fair to take the place of Master Lough. He has a voice of beautiful quality, and almost as much sophistication as his earlier rival. He sings both these numbers exceedingly well, but he is a little over-weighted by the very 'fat' orchestral part to Abide with Me. The recording is excellent." (Review in The Sound Wave [London], July 1929, p. 411.)
". . . He has a singularly even production which appears to have no 'break' between upper and lower register, and his sense of pitch is capital. Abide with me . . . provides him with a good field for the exploitation of his vocal abilities, and he comes up to the scratch in masterful fashion. Naturally he has no deep-seated emotion at his command - one does not look for it at his tender age; but the notes are crystalline and the recording admirable. It is in the utter aloofness from all sentiment expressed in the Largo that the real purity of such a voice is most apparent, and here [he] gives an exhibition of vocal loveliness which is likely to make this disc a best seller. At any rate it deserves it." (From a review by Hubert S. Ryan in Gramophone and Radio News, London, July 1929, p. 258.) Retail price of this disc was 4/6.
John Bonner Retail price 4/6. A & B: With verdure clad (wds Gottfried van Swieten (1734-1803) after Genesis 1:11 - music Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): from oratorio "The Creation", 1798: Part I, No. 8, aria "Nun beut die Flur", Engl. version [Thomas Linley?]) (2 sides: matrices WAX 3074-2, 3075-2) Rec. 21 Sept. 1927 in Manchester Cathedral, with Archibald Wayet Wilson (1869-1950), the Cathedral organist 1919-43.
"A typical treble voice, well trained. Clean execution, but do not like breaks in phrasing. Sung in true choir-boy fashion. Organ weak in places." (Review in The Sound Wave, London, Jan. 1928, p. 52.)
". . . Master John Bonner, solo boy at Manchester Cathedral, does both his church and his trainer great credit. The difficult runs are accomplished readily and without strain, while the articulation of his words is commendably clear." (Review in Music Trade Journal, London, Jan. 1928, p. 25.)
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Master Derek Barsham Recorded 30 Apl. 1947 (AR11093 & 11094), with Gladys Palmer, contralto, Norman Lumsden, bass & London Symphony Orchestra cond. Stanford Robinson. Issued June 1947 on Decca K.1601. ["Better Land" the two parts separately in vols. 3 & 4]
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