Mrs. Susan Sunderland (née Sykes) was born at Brighouse, April 30th, 1819. Her parents were both musical. Mr. James Sykes, her father, was head gardener for a great number of years to the late Mr. Ratcliffe, of Lightcliffe. The daughter was first taught the rudiments of music by Mr. Denham, of Brighouse, and then became a pupil of Mr. Luke Settle, a veritable "village blacksmith," choirmaster of Brighouse Church, and a good local musician. But she was greatly indebted for her musical tuition to Mr. Dan Sugden, of Halifax, the well-known performer on the contra-basso, and one of the ablest musicians in the West Riding. Mr. Sugden very soon perceived Miss Sykes's exceptional vocal powers, and at once offered to train her as a professional vocalist, and so delighted was he with her progress that he refused to receive any remuneration for his teaching. The neighbourhood of Deighton, near Huddersfield, has long been identified with choral music, and to Deighton belongs the honour of being the place at which the future eminent Mrs. Sunderland made her debut on a public concert platform. She was then fifteen years of age, and nearly five years later, on the 17th of June, 1838, was married to Mr. Henry Sunderland. And it was under the name conferred upon her by her husband that Mrs. Sunderland became famous. "She visited Leeds early in her career, prior to the railway days, when she walked from Brighouse to that town, leaving home early in the morning, and after some hours spent in viewing the sights of the town, fulfilled an engagement in the evening, and then walked back to Brighouse, arriving home about two o'clock the following morning, after having walked, altogether, a distance of over thirty miles, besides undergoing the fatigue and excitement of a great concert. Mrs. Sunderland, speaking of those days, says, 'As for walking to Huddersfield or Halifax (about equidistant from Brighouse) to attend a practice, or fulfil an engagement, I thought no more of it than stepping across the stage. I held for eight years the post of principal soprano in the choir of St. Paul's Church, Huddersfield, and for several years walked from Brighouse every Sunday morning to service, returning home again on foot in the evening.'" The claims of so able a vocalist speedily became known, and she soon became as great a favourite in the neighbouring county of Lancashire as she was in Yorkshire. Her voice was a rich, powerful soprano, and with power was combined a wonderful flexibility, by which she was enabled to put into her singing the delicate finishing touches, often regarded as peculiar to the "light" soprano voice. This peculiarity gained for her the reputation, in the opinion of many, of having the most flexible voice for its power ever known in England. Other features of her vocalisation were the depth of feeling she infused into her singing, and the thoroughness with which she entered into the subject matter under rendition (and especially of sacred music). The latter feature was something marvellous, and the rendering of her favourite solos, "I know that my Redeemer liveth," and "From mighty kings," were, in this particular, the subjects of universal admiration.
Mrs. Sunderland's first appearance in London was in 1842, at the "Ancient Concerts," at the Hanover Square Rooms, when she was personally complimented by the Prince Consort and the Duke of Cambridge, who were highly pleased by her singing of "From mighty kings." Her first appearance at Exeter Hall was at the Sacred Harmonic Society, in the "Messiah," November 2nd, 1849, and again December 22nd, 1851, in the same oratorio ; and on the 31st December, 1855, she took the leading role in the "Creation," and on the 30th January, 1856, sang the whole of the soprano solos in "Elijah" with most distinguished success. Her last appearance in London was also at Exeter Hall, on the 10th December, 1858, in the "Messiah," along with Miss Dolby, Mr. Sims Reeves, and Signor Belletti. The following criticism appeared, the following day, in the Daily News, from the pen of Mr. Geo. Hogarth, father-in-law of the late Charles Dickens : "Mrs. Sunderland is the Yorkshire prima-donna who has long enjoyed unbounded favour in the northern counties, though she has been little heard in London. We should be very glad that she should be heard more, for she is a singer of high attainments, worthy to hold a principal place on any Metropolitan orchestra. Her voice is a real soprano, at once clear, mellow, flexible, and delicately in tune. Her 'Rejoice greatly' was a piece of brilliant execution, chastened by purity of taste ; her performance, taken altogether, was admirable, and could scarcely have been surpassed by any of our English sopranos."
For a quarter of a century Mrs. Sunderland was a leading attraction, not only in England, but in Ireland and Scotland, and her concerts and concert tours in the principal towns were wonderfully successful. She also sang at the Leeds and Bradford Musical Festivals, and at the last festival she took part in at Bradford, she was listened to by Mdlle. Titiens for the first time The last-named expressed her great delight at the performance, warmly embracing the Yorkshire vocalist, and complimenting her on her magnificent voice and artistic rendering of the piece "O bid your faithful Ariel fly," and added that it was the finest English voice she had heard, and that Yorkshire ought to be proud of her. Mrs. Sunderland was one of the principal artistes at the first musical festival in Leeds in 1858, when the Leeds Town Hall was opened by Her Majesty the Queen. Her Majesty was so much pleased with the singing of Mrs. Sunderland that the latter received a command to sing before the Queen at Buckingham Palace, on which occasion she was personally complimented by Her Majesty on her singing of "The Captive Greek Girl."
Her retirement into private life whilst in the height of her popularity caused intense regret in musical circles. Farewell concerts were arranged in many of the towns in which Mrs. Sunderland was best known, and all proved wonderfully successful, evoking everywhere the utmost enthusiasm. Courteous and obliging in all her relations with the profession, with always a word of encouragement for the rising members thereof, she was universally respected all through her public career.
Moreover, as a means of perpetuating the memory of her distinguished services to music, a subscription was started, and the sum of money which was raised applied to the foundation of an Annual prize, to be called the "Mrs. Sunderland Prize," which has since been established in connection with the Huddersfield Technical School and Mechanics' Institute, and is open for competition to vocalists born in Yorkshire.