Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Reeves, John Sims

REEVES, JOHN SIMS (1818–1900), tenor vocalist, son of John Reeves, a bandsman in the royal artillery, was born at Woolwich on 26 Sept. 1818, and baptised John only. (The professional name ' Sims ' was adopted many years later at the suggestion of Madame Puzzi, a vocalist, as a euphonious prefix to Reeves.) He received his earliest instruction in music from his father, and afterwards studied the pianoforte under Johann Baptist Cramer [q. v.], and with W. H. Calcott for harmony. At the age of fourteen he became organist of North Cray church, Kent, and gained a knowledge of the oboe, bassoon, violin, and violoncello, 'all of which instruments he played pretty well.' Reeves forsook music for a year and studied for the medical profession at one of the London hospitals, but a gruesome practical joke played upon him by one of his fellow-students turned him from further anatomical pursuits. He took a.strong fancy to the stage, and after taking lessons in singing from Tom Cooke and J. W. Hobbs, he made (according to his own account) his first public appearance as a vocalist in 1839 at the Newcastle theatre as the Gipsy Boy in 'Guy Mannering.' He subsequently played in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Norwich, and elsewhere.

He returned to London in 1842, where, as a tenor, he appeared first at the Grecian Theatre, City Road, under the name of 'Mr. Johnson,' and afterwards as one of Macready's company at Drury Lane Theatre, where he sang in Handel's 'Acis and Galatea' (produced with Stanfield's scenery), the 'Two Gentlemen of Verona,' Purcell's 'King Arthur,' and in other minor parts. He then went to Paris, where he studied under Bordogni, and subsequently to Milan, where he enjoyed the invaluable tuition of Alberto Mazzucato. At La Scala he made his debut as Edgardo in Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor 'with marked success.

Reeves reappeared in London at a grand naonstre concert given for the benefit of William Vincent Wallace [q. v.] at Drury Lane Theatre, 16 May 1847, when he was announced as 'Mr. J. S. Reeves,' and at the 'Ancient Concert' of 23 June in the same year as ' Mr. Reeves.' But it was not till the following 6 Dec. that he made his mark, when he appeared as Edgardo at Drury Lane Theatre, then under the management of Jullien, with Hector Berlioz as chef d'orchestre. On this and subsequent occasions during the season he not only displayed a voice of exquisite charm, but showed that he possessed histrionic gifts of no mean order. He created the part of Lyonnel in Balfe's 'Maid of Honour.' The Drury Lane playbills of that time (1847) furnish evidence of the gradual change in his name first 'Mr. S. Reeves,' and then 'Mr. Sims Reeves,' by which designation he became widely known throughout his long and remarkable career.

But it was in the field of oratorio and on the concert platform that Reeves attained the highest pinnacle of his well-merited fame. The Worcester and Norwich musical festivals of 1848 were his first appearances in oratorio. From that time onward he took rank as the premier English tenor, singing at the Handel and provincial musical festivals, the Sacred Harmonic Society's concerts, and elsewhere, with extraordinary marks of public appreciation.

In 1888 he published his 'Life and Recollections,' which was followed in 1889 by a similar anecdotal book entitled 'My Jubilee.' Towards the close of his life he was a professor of singing at the Guildhall School of Music. A public subscription was started to relieve the necessitous circumstances of his old age, and in the year of his death a civil-list pension of 100/. was granted to him in consideration of his eminence as a singer. Sims Reeves died at Worthing on 25 Oct. 1900, and his remains were cremated at Woking.

Reeves married, on 3 Nov. 1850, Miss Emma Lucombe, an excellent singer, who died on 10 June 1895.

The voice of Sims Reeves was one of peculiar beauty. There was not a faulty note in its wide range. Rich in the mellowness of its smooth quality, he always had a reserve of power in his voice which, while being remarkable in its volume of tone, never overstepped the border line of the incomparable sweetness and pathos of his wonderful organ. Moreover, his finished phrasing what may be termed the ebb and flow of his voice was a feature in his performances that appealed to the highest instincts of his hearers. Dramatic in the singing of a simple song or a devotional oratorio air, Reeves never sang for mere effect.

[Dramatic and Musical Review, 18 Dec. 1847; Reeves's Life and Recollections, 1888, and My Jubilee, 1889; Drury Lane Playbills, in Brit. Museum; James D. Brown and S. S. Stratton's British Musical Biography; Musical Times, December 1900; private information.]

F. G. E.