Antoinette Sterling

Antoinette Sterling (1841-1904) was a British/American singer famed for her rich contralto.   Her repertoire consisted mainly of oratorios, ballads and lieders, with Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord” her best-known song.  She toured extensively in Europe, America and Australia, including an appearance before Queen Victoria. 

Sterling was raised a Quaker in upstate New York.  She noted that, as a child, she was “taught to believe anything but that God is in the poet and singer”, but nevertheless she felt compelled to sing.  Early in her career, instead of Quaker gray, she wore nothing but red.  (She said that it was symbolic of her “fighting mood”).  Claiming a Quaker modesty, she declined to sing before Queen Victoria in a low-cut dress as was the custom of the day.  (The Queen graciously allowed her to wear whatever she wanted).  Sterling sang as she was inspired to by God, trying to move her audience spiritually.  With that in mind, for free, she often sang to the poor and to prisoners.  She also supported the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Salvation Army.   Sterling was a close friend of Quaker Hannah Pearsall Smith and was involved in Pearsall Smith’s Holiness Movement.  A spiritual pilgrim, she explored various churches before ending up as a Christian Scientist.

At St. Martin Lane’s Meeting in London, about 1890, Sterling was moved to sing during Meeting for Worship. (She had long felt that music belonged in Quaker worship, though singing was traditionally not allowed). Sterling sang, acapella, “O Rest in the Lord”, the aria from Felix Mendelsohn’s “Elijah”. Afterward, most Friends wept at the beauty and power of her voice. The Clerk approached her and said, “Thee knowest, sister, it’s against the rules but if the Lord telleth thee to sing, thee must!” It was one of the first times that music was heard in a modern Friends Meeting for Worship.

I was unable to find any recordings of Antoinette Sterling.  But here is a link to Marian Anderson, another contralto, singing “O Rest in the Lord”:  The lyrics about waiting for and listening to God were very apropos of Friends.  I was terribly moved, imagining Sterling rising out of the silence of a Friends Meeting to offer this music as ministry.

Gary Sandman

December 2020

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