Magazine article The Spectator

The Unforgettable Ferrier - on the Centenary of Her Birth, Michael Kennedy Pays Homage to "Klever Kaff", Occasional Golfer, and Inventor of Rabelaistian Limericks

Magazine article The Spectator

The Unforgettable Ferrier - on the Centenary of Her Birth, Michael Kennedy Pays Homage to "Klever Kaff", Occasional Golfer, and Inventor of Rabelaistian Limericks

Article excerpt

Was she as wonderful an artist and woman as legend has it? Yes.

Everything is true that has been said or written about the contralto Kathleen Ferrier, the centenary of whose birth is 22 April. She has been dead for 59 years, but through her recordings her voice - rich and always with a vein of melancholy - lives on, and could be mistaken for no one else and no one else for her. Never has a woman singer been so widely loved. The radiance of her personality suffused the music whether it was Bach or a folk song.

When she died from cancer on 8 October 1953, someone perceptively wrote that she may well have been the most celebrated woman in Britain after the Queen. The Austrian conductor Bruno Walter said, 'The greatest thing in music in my life has been to have known Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler - in that order.' Her international career can be charted from 17 May 1943, when she sang in Messiah with the Bach Choir in Westminster Abbey, until the night of 6 February 1953 at the Royal Opera House in the second performance of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, when during Act II a loud crack was heard. Her femur had fractured and a fragment of bone had broken away, causing agonising pain. She sang the rest of the opera motionless, leaning against the scenery.

That Abbey performance a decade earlier was significant because a large number of distinguished musicians had been in the audience to hear whether this woman from Lancashire was as good as people were saying. The BBC delegate reported that she had 'a good voice but I cannot imagine she would ever move me'. Poor chap! The composer Benjamin Britten, on the other hand, contemplating an opera on the subject of The Rape of Lucretia, was convinced he had found his Lucretia.

Kathleen was a schoolmaster's daughter, born in the village of Higher Walton near Blackburn. She left school at 14 to train as a telephonist. She had piano lessons but there Ferrier may well have been the most celebrated woman in Britain after the Queen was no money for further education. She won prizes and gave a piano recital for the BBC. Work, a disastrous marriage and competing at local festivals as pianist and, later, as singer was the pattern of her life until 1939 at Carlisle when her performance of a Strauss song impressed an adjudicator, the well-known teacher J.E. Hutchinson.

Hutchinson took her as a pupil and encouraged her to sing Bach, Handel, Brahms and Elgar. In December 1941 she sang in a Halle Messiah alongside the soprano Isobel Baillie. She sang in munitions factories and military camps. An application to the BBC Head of Music in Manchester for an audition was rejected but Sir Malcolm Sargent heard her, introduced her to the agents Ibbs and Tillett and advised her to move to London. She lived in Hampstead from Christmas 1942, and soon made her first recordings. 'What is life? (Che faro)' from Gluck's Orfeo and the unaccompanied north-eastern folk song 'Blow the wind southerly' made her a household name.

Britten had not forgotten her. In 1946 she sang Lucretia at the first postwar Glyndebourne Festival and toured with it to Holland.

Moreover, Glyndebourne's manager, Rudolf Bing, recommended her to Bruno Walter as the contralto soloist in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde at the 1947 Edinburgh Festival. …

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