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Ferrier, Kathleen (1912–1953)

Ferrier, Kathleen (1912–1953)

English contralto who became one of the world's best-known and best-loved singers in the course of an all-too-brief career. Born Kathleen Mary Ferrier on April 22, 1912, at Higher Walton, near Preston, Lancashire, England; died of cancer on October 8, 1953; third surviving child of William Ferrier (a teacher) and Alice (Murray) Ferrier; married Albert Wilson, on November 19, 1935 (annulled 1947); no children.

Born into a musical family, Ferrier studied the piano from age nine and had established a reputation as an excellent amateur accompanist before she won a major singing competition when she was 25 (1937); began to take regular voice lessons; within five years, had established her singing career in London and begun to win international acclaim (1937–42); from oratorio and folk songs, progressed to the songs of Schubert and Mahler and to the operas of Gluck and Britten; when she was 39, diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her (1951), but her voice was unimpaired; for two more years, continued to sing, retaining her infectiously joyous spirit until the end.

Selected discography—the following Decca recordings were originally made between 1946 and 1952: Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice (abridged), 417 182-1 DM (LP); Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, 414 194-2 DH (CD); Mahler and Brahms Recital, 421 299-2 DH (CD); Bach and Handel Arias, 414 623-2 DH (CD); The World of Kathleen Ferrier, 430 096–4 (MC).

Having found no contralto who could adequately perform the taxing music of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde which was to receive its first performance at the inaugural Edinburgh Festival in 1947, the distinguished 71-year-old conductor, Bruno Walter, somewhat reluctantly agreed to audition Kathleen Ferrier, whose singing career had been built primarily upon her interpretation of English folk songs and on oratorio. At 35, she had a well-established reputation in England but was almost unknown internationally. As Walter described the encounter in the Sunday Times, May 9, 1954:

She came in dressed in a kind of Salzburg costume, a dirndl, looking young and lovely, pure and earnest, simple and noble, and the room seemed to become brighter for the charm of her presence. She had the charm of a child and the dignity of a lady.

It was "love at first sight," he wrote, only half in jest.

Kathleen Ferrier was of mixed Welsh, Scottish, Irish, as well as English blood. Her father William Ferrier, who ended his teaching career as headmaster of St. Paul's School, Blackburn, was an excellent bass singer with sound knowledge of music and a "calm and steady" temperament that his daughter was to inherit. Her mother Alice Murray Ferrier , who was possessed of a keen, instinctive love of music and a more volatile personality, was sometimes resentful that family responsibilities had never allowed her to pursue her own interests or develop her talents. Alice was 40 when Kathleen, her last child, was born; Kathleen's sister Winnifred Ferrier was eight years older and her brother George five years her senior.

It was at Alice's prompting that William applied for the headship of St. Paul's School in 1913. His new post brought a sorely needed increase in salary and allowed the family to move to Blackburn from the village where Kathleen had been born. Alice was determined that her children should have the better schooling and increased cultural opportunities that the thriving town could provide.

Kathleen showed her quick intelligence early; she was reading before she started school, and, from the first, there was music. Her mother sensed her natural talent and helped her to learn to read music before taking her to the best available local teacher for formal piano lessons. Unwilling to accept a beginner and suspicious of Kathleen's unorthodox fingering technique, Frances Walker soon discovered real ability in her new nine-year-old pupil. At age 12, Ferrier entered her first piano competition; she placed fourth out of 43 entrants.

No teaching, no musical associations, no help from whatever distinguished quarter could have worked this miracle. It was Kathleen herself, her great gift of voice, her hard work, artistry, sincerity, personality and, above all, her character that made her great.

—Roy Henderson

Kathleen loved performing; she acted in school plays and developed a talent for mimicry to entertain her friends. She began to sing in a choir, one of two that her father had joined, thereby connecting with that tradition of English choral and orchestral music that was particularly strong in the industrial north and especially dominant in an age before the emergence of rival entertainments such as radio and television. Regular choral performances of Messiah and Elijah endeared these works to Kathleen Ferrier, and the connection which she must have instinctively made between the musical and the sacred was probably reinforced by her mother's deep love and respect for music. When the family eventually acquired a radio, no one was allowed to talk while music was being broadcast; Alice insisted that it be listened to or switched off.

Apart from her fast-developing musical abilities, Ferrier did well at school and was so good at games that it was hoped that she might one day teach sport. However, neither music college nor teacher training were to materialize. While her older sister Winnifred had stayed at school until she was 18 and then went on to teachers' college, Kathleen left school at the age of 14 and started work for the Post Office as a telephone operator. Money had always been short, and her father was now about to retire. Her brother George, who had gone to Canada, remained a continual worry to the family and seemed likely to need habitual financial support. Vigorous objections from Kathleen's head-mistress were brushed aside, and Alice found a job for her youngest child.

Ferrier's joyful, resilient temperament seems to have adapted easily to the working world. She impressed her fellow telephone operators with her ability to turn cartwheels, joined the Post Office tennis team, and began singing with a church choir. Nor did she let her new job hamper her piano studies; in 1928, at age 16, she won a piano in the area finals of a national competition, and at 17 she passed the Associate of the Royal College of Music exam, followed by the Licentiateship of the Royal Academy of Music two years later.

Ferrier continued to win prizes and became a much sought-after accompanist, never turning down a booking. Passing the LRAM exam meant that Kathleen had to devote less hours to practicing the piano, and it was at about this time that she began to take occasional voice lessons from her piano teacher and also to study elocution.

At age 21, Ferrier, who had never lacked boyfriends, started seeing one young man in particular who shared her love of dancing and cy-cling: Bert Wilson. They became engaged and were married on November 19, 1935. Well before the ceremony, Kathleen seems to have realized that she did not love the man she was to marry. Years later, she confided to her sister that she could not see any way of calling off the wedding once all the plans had been made, so she simply went along with them and hoped for the best. Optimism was not enough. Bert's conscription into the army in 1940 marked the effective end of the marriage; it was dissolved in 1947 on the grounds of non-consummation, and Ferrier rarely referred to it again.

Upon her marriage, she was forced to leave her job at the Post Office, which did not employ married women. Since Bert was working at Silloth, near Carlisle, the couple set up house there, and Kathleen occupied herself by giving piano lessons. However, she lacked the patience to really enjoy the challenge of teaching. The turning point in her career came in 1937 when she entered the prestigious Carlisle musical festival. To no one's great surprise, she placed first in the piano competition, but, responding to a half-joking challenge from her husband, she not only entered but won the vocal competition also.

Her success at Carlisle seemed to give her the confidence in her voice that she had previously lacked. It is likely also that her voice had taken time to mature, as is often the case with the darker contralto range; Ferrier was still only 25. She began singing lessons in earnest and started accepting professional singing engagements, winning still more vocal competitions and occasionally broadcasting on radio.

Following the outbreak of war in 1939, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts sponsored concerts throughout Britain to entertain the troops and to bring music to the lives of those who had little opportunity to hear it. In 1941, Ferrier was offered a contract, and for the next four years she traveled throughout the country, singing in church halls, basements, and barns: "anywhere it was possible to put a piano," observes her biographer Maurice Leonard, "and she soon established an extensive repertoire of English folk songs, along with works by Purcell and Schubert as well as offering numerous performances of Handel's Messiah."

In 1942, Ferrier auditioned for England's best-known conductor, Sir Malcolm Sargent, who advised her that she would have to go to London if she wanted to pursue a professional singing career. It was through Sargent that Kathleen secured an audition with John Tillett of Ibbs and Tillett, one of the most important concert agencies in the world. Tillett accepted her on first hearing and plans were soon made to make the essential move to London to launch her career. On Christmas Eve, 1942, the two sisters, along with their now-widowed father, moved into the small flat they had rented in Hampstead.

Kathleen had spent part of that same Christmas Eve on a train with the well-known tenor Roy Henderson, following a concert in which they had appeared together. Henderson was also represented by the Tillett agency, and he reported to John Tillett that he was unimpressed with this new contralto: "It was a good voice, but too dark. And she kept her nose buried in the score the whole time, terrified to look up. I told her she should learn her words and throw away the book." Ferrier realized the value of Henderson's advice and soon sought him out in London at the Royal Academy of Music, where he was teaching, to request some lessons.

Lessons with Henderson began in March 1943 and were to continue on a regular basis until 1947. Her new teacher's first focus was upon improving Kathleen's breath control, giving her exercises to strengthen her diaphragm.

His methods proved effective; a new smoothness of line became apparent in her singing, and, in later years, Ferrier was to explain to her dressmaker that any gown she wore for a performance must allow for at least a three-inch expansion of the diaphragm. But Henderson in London, and J.E. Hutchinson in Carlisle before him, could only work to improve Kathleen's voice; they did not make it. Indeed, given her unusually large throat cavity, natural musicianship and the unique timbre of her "instrument," as well as what critic Alan Blyth called the "combination of dignity and radiance" evident in her performances, it might be argued that once her technique was secure, Kathleen had little more to learn.

Yet Ferrier was never one to rest content with herself; while she heeded Henderson's advice to avoid studying the theoretical aspects of voice production, she strove to be more spontaneous and less inhibited while on stage and to extend her performing repertoire. A down-to-earth north of England lass, she had been brought up far away from the rarefied world of opera and had never learned to care for it. Although she incorporated occasional Verdi arias into her concert performances and was advised by some to consider operatic roles, the more she saw of opera the less inclined she was to sing it. She told the soprano Joan Hammond that she would feel foolish dressed up as somebody else.

In June 1944, Ferrier made her first recording for the Columbia Gramophone Company in a test performance to determine whether her voice would be suitable, given the limited technology of the time. The contralto voice was notoriously difficult to render faithfully, and the company decided that care would have to be taken with microphone placement in order to avoid distortion. Ferrier was not disturbed by the cautious verdict; she still regarded the recording studio as something of a novelty and believed records to be far less important than live performance.

That same year, Ferrier sang for the first time under the direction of Sir Malcolm Sargent, and she worked much of that summer to learn the Four Serious Songs of Brahms which Sargent had recently orchestrated. Ferrier found the songs, especially the poignant third in the cycle "O Death, How Bitter," deeply moving, and often both she and her accompanist would be overcome by tears. On such occasions, Kathleen would change the mood by breaking into one of the many bawdy songs or rhymes she knew, and, with emotions under control, the hours of practice would continue. Ferrier gave the first broadcast of the songs on August 26.

By the end of the war in 1945, Ferrier had achieved a national reputation, especially for her performances of religious works with England's major choral societies. She continued to be in great demand for radio broadcasts and had begun to record on a regular basis, although she remained dissatisfied with the results.

During the winter of that year, Benjamin Britten, England's best-known young composer, was at work on a new chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia, which was to be premiered at the reopening of the Glyndebourne opera house in 1946. Britten's friend, Peter Pears, suggested that Ferrier be considered for the title role, a heroine who, it was essential, should be "essentially pure and chaste." As unenthusiastic about opera as ever, Ferrier was convinced that she had not made a good first impression upon Britten and his librettist, Ronald Duncan. "She did not know," Duncan later wrote in Opera magazine, "that even while she was going down the stairs we were improvising a war dance of pleasure." In Ferrier's "natural simplicity and dignity," they had found "the precise quality" they wanted, "and something no stage technique could ever achieve."

Working hard to overcome her nerves at being selected for the most important role of her career, Ferrier was cheered by winning the support of another of England's most influential conductors, Sir John Barbirolli, the outcome of her superlative performance with him in The Dream of Gerontius. Barbirolli became one of her staunchest admirers and most devoted friends; he was enchanted by her lack of pretentiousness, her humor, and her graceful beauty.

Ferrier did not feel graceful on stage; she continued to be painfully self-conscious. During the weeks of rehearsal for Lucretia, she sought advice from the soprano Joan Cross about how best to move her arms and, especially, her large feet. As Cross recalled:

My advice was simple. "Why don't you leave them alone? Your voice expresses all you need." After that she stood still on stage, and that was enough. If you confine acting to movement on stage then she was not brilliant, but if you define it as the ability to convey great depths of emotion, then she was a fine actress.

British reviews for the new opera were mixed and Lucretia attracted far more attention and praise in Holland, where it was performed at the end of a two-month tour following its month at Glyndebourne. The Dutch appearances marked the first of many overseas engagements. Her return to England saw her schedule crammed with bookings and several recording sessions for the Decca company with whom she had now signed a contract in the hope of achieving technically better results. Certainly her February 1946 recording of Gluck's "What is Life?" shows a vast improvement over her 1944 demo-disc for Columbia; the Decca recording sold well and remained at the top of the best-selling charts for several months.

The Gluck opera from which Ferrier's "hit" was taken, Orfeo ed Euridice, was presented to great acclaim, with Ferrier as Orfeo, at Glyndebourne during the 1947 season. It was no doubt this success would lead to Ferrier's audition for the German conductor, Bruno Walter, and to world fame as a singer of the songs of Gustav Mahler. Invited to launch the newly established Edinburgh Festival in 1947, Walter was determined to conduct the first performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Scored for contralto, tenor, and orchestra, the work ends in an ecstatic contralto song, "Abschied," an impassioned farewell to the earth which can take 20 minutes to sing. Having been persuaded to audition Ferrier, the distinguished conductor was instantly won over. He believed that he had found the perfect Mahler voice, and he championed her career for the next six years, assisting her in establishing an international reputation.

Ferrier's triumph with Walter at the Edinburgh Festival was followed by her first American tour and a packed schedule of concerts at home and abroad during 1948. She had been experiencing occasional pain in her breast and arm, and, as she had always had a rather superstitious dread of cancer, she had a thorough medical check-up late in the year and was greatly relieved to be pronounced fit.

The year 1949 saw another taxing North American tour that also included appearances in Cuba. Before leaving, she recorded some of her best-loved English folk songs for Decca and had empowered her accompanist, Phyllis Spurr , and her sister Winnifred to agree to release them if they were satisfied with the quality. While the two deputies were pleased with the results, the recording was, as so often before, a great disappointment to Ferrier. However, she was too late to withdraw the record, and the songs have continued to delight listeners ever since.

Nor was Ferrier ever satisfied with her theatrical performances: during rehearsals for Orfeo ed Euridice in Holland during the summer of 1949, she wrote, in typically self-deprecating style:

I'm working quite hard, but need every minute of it, as I'm lousy on stage. Can cope with expressing sorrow, happiness and fright on me old dial, but oh! my large extremities! I fall upstairs, downstairs, even over my own feet—there is a nice pet of a producer who's very patient and long suffering. And, it'll perhaps be alright on the night—I hope so!

It was indeed "alright on the night"; Kathleen was now a great favorite in Holland, as she was throughout Europe and, increasingly, in North America, where she toured again early in 1950.

Her full-packed performing schedule left her little time for anything else but music; a romance with Liverpool antique dealer Rick Davies petered out; "I don't mind him for a buddy for two days" she wrote to Winnifred, "then I've had enough and want to retire behind an iron curtain and not have to listen and make conversation!"

Given her punishing round of appearances, it was scarcely surprising that Kathleen showed signs of exhaustion between engagements. She also found the recurring pain in her breast spreading to her shoulder and neck and becoming more troublesome but, once again, a medical examination in the summer of 1950 revealed no apparent cause. However, in March 1951, she discovered a lump on her breast and, upon her return from a tour of Holland and Germany, received the diagnosis of cancer. All engagements were canceled for two months, and she had the breast removed in April.

From the first, Ferrier was determined to stay cheerful and make the best of things, telling her friends that she was glad of the rest and confident of recovery. Nine days after the operation, she wrote that she was "being spoiled to death and thoroughly enjoying myself" and on April 22, her 39th birthday, she held a lively party for friends in her hospital room, complete with oysters and champagne.

Radiation treatment followed with Ferrier remaining positive and optimistic throughout. Her assistant Bernadine Hammond , who, as it happened, was also a qualified nurse, observed to Kathleen's favorite accompanist, Gerald Moore:

Kath enjoyed life from the moment she woke and purred over her morning cup of tea.… During the day she would say so often, "Lucky, lucky, Kath!" Troubles, and they were not infrequent, were never made much of. If there was anything she could do about it, then she did it smartly, otherwise she waited for it to blow over and turned her mind to something else.

Painting, gardening, playing the piano and singing for small groups of friends relaxed and restored her. Not contemplative by nature nor ostentatiously religious, she seems to have drawn strength from the beauty of the world around her and, most especially, from her music. She returned to the concert platform in June, and in July she embarked upon a strenuous series of performances in Holland, pronouncing herself "as fit as a flea." Further radiation treatment was fitted in between performances and broadcasts in England during the summer, but a projected North American tour in the autumn had to be canceled. Kathleen was suffering from exhaustion and experiencing continuing arm and back pain. In mid-November, she was forced to cancel her remaining engagements for the year, but by January 1952 she was once again touring England.

The following month, with pain and weakness continuing, she reentered the hospital and received yet more radiation treatment. Persuaded to seek other medical opinions, Ferrier refused to consider hormone injections, which might have altered her voice, and she eventually decided to opt only for further courses of radiation.

In May 1952 came Ferrier's long-awaited opportunity to record Das Lied von der Erde with Bruno Walter in Vienna. Despite her weakness and the taxing demands of the recording studio, she persevered and brilliantly executed all that was required of her, never once showing signs of tiredness or impatience. These songs, and the other three Mahler songs she recorded on this occasion, were an artistic triumph.

She rested for much of the summer, working on her garden and recovering her strength in time for the Edinburgh Festival at the end of August. Her performance of Das Lied von der Erde at Edinburgh was unanimously lauded by the press; The Daily Despatch was typical: "She is indeed a great singer—with the voice of a generation and intelligence and sensitivity to match." Engagements throughout England and Ireland followed, despite continuing back pain which Kathleen dismissed as "rheumatiz." The year also saw two private concerts for the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II and a November recital in London's Royal Festival Hall which prompted a rare negative review by Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian. Cardus was critical of Ferrier's mannerisms, particularly her overuse of her hands during the performance. While understandably disturbed, Kathleen wrote a graciously forgiving letter in response to a letter from Cardus: "I don't think you were 'unkind'—it's just made me think, and that doesn't do anybody any harm."

On December 23, Ferrier sang what was to be her last Messiah. A week later, on New Year's Day, 1953, she was honored by the queen with the title Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her services to music. The opening days of the new year left her little leisure to celebrate, for she was due to give four performances of Orfeo ed Euridice in a new production with Barbirolli at Covent Garden commencing on February 3.

Barbirolli had secured the best of everything for what he was determined would be the definitive production of the opera: scenery and costumes by Sophie Fedorovitch , choreography by Frederick Ashton, and ballet sequences by the Sadler's Wells Company. During the intensive rehearsals in January, Kathleen was receiving daily radiation treatment. She refused to consider the suggested removal of her ovaries in order to inhibit the breast cancer once she learned that her voice might be altered as a result: "She said," reported her specialist, "that she regarded her voice as a divine gift and would go to the grave with the voice as it had been given her."

The press was unanimous in its praise following the first performance and, on this occasion, the Manchester Guardian pronounced that "certain passages touched the sublime." However, during the second performance Ferrier was over-come with a paralyzing pain in her leg and only managed to complete her role by a tremendous effort of will. She was injected with morphine and taken to hospital on a stretcher the moment the curtain fell. The remaining performances were rescheduled for April, when, it was hoped, she would be sufficiently recovered. Her sorrow at having to withdraw is evident in a letter she wrote from the hospital: "For the first time I really felt it had been done as I could have wished with a most lovely ballet and fine chorus and, between you and me, I wasn't so bad meself!!"

The two remaining performances of Orfeo never took place; on October 8, 1953, Kathleen Ferrier died at the age of 41. The capacious Southwark Cathedral was too small to hold all who wished to attend her memorial service. She had endeared herself to the elite in the international world of music; in a highly competitive profession, she seems to have made no enemies, only vast numbers of friends and admirers. Also, through her broadcasts and constant touring, she had touched the hearts of ordinary people, in Britain, Europe, and North America. And it was not merely Ferrier the glorious singer whom they mourned; her down-to-earth honesty and her warm-hearted spontaneity, qualities that seemed to shine through her every performance as they shone through her life, made "our Kath" a friend to thousands who had never had the chance to meet her.

sources and suggested reading:

Cardus, Neville, ed. Kathleen Ferrier, 1912–1953: A Memoir. Hamish Hamilton: London, 1954.

Henderson, Roy. "Ferrier, Kathleen Mary," in Dictionary of National Biography, 1951–1960.

Leonard, Maurice. Kathleen: The Life of Kathleen Ferrier, 1912–1953. Hutchinson: London, 1988.

(Dr.) Kathleen Garay , Assistant Professor of History and Women's Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

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