Few, if any, would dispute the description of Kathleen Ferrier as the greatest lyric contralto England has ever produced. To update the words of her friend and singing colleague, soprano Isobel Baillie, ‘Fifty years after her death on 8 October 1953, the very inflection in the mention of her name is invariably tinged with a deep and genuine affection and more than a hint of sadness’. Why was this so? Well, the manner of her rise to stardom was unique. Born in Blackburn, Lancashire, she went from being a telephone operator in the mid-1930s to becoming a nationally known singer within ten years, followed by a further five years of international fame. She had no formal music training, but was a fine pianist and a good musician. She had the luck to be spotted by certain key people who in turn passed her on to others of influence and prestige in the music profession, names such as John Barbirolli, Bruno Walter and Gerald Moore. Two composers whose music played a prominent part in her career frame her birth on 22 April 1912. Gustav Mahler (whose Das Lied von der Erde she gave a consummate performance) died the year before and Benjamin Britten (who wrote for her the title role of his opera The Rape of Lucretia in 1946) was born the year after.
She began to make a name for herself in 1942 when she moved down to London from Carlisle. Not only did she continue her busy schedule of wartime recital tours for CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), but also to broaden her repertoire to include Handel’s Messiah, the Bach Passions and B minor Mass, Elgar’s oratorios (in particular Dream of Gerontius), Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody and Four Serious Songs, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Resurrection Symphony as well as Das Lied von der Erde, and a wealth of Lieder by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Opera was limited to just two works, Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and Gluck’s Orfeo. As soon as the war was over she began to travel beyond Britain and won for herself an enduring reputation in Holland, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. In 1948 she undertook her first tour of America, returning there and to Canada in 1949 and 1950, and enjoying huge popularity everywhere she performed.
Her voice, instantly recognisable even half a century after it was silenced, was full to the brim with her character, her love and understanding of the music she sang, the vibrancy and clarity of its text, and an unpretentious manner in communicating to all who heard her. Her audiences mirrored society, whether it consisted of a housewife listening to the ‘wireless’, a worker entertained by her at lunchtime in a factory canteen, a business man at Glyndebourne, or the young Queen Elizabeth at a country house, and all of them were moved by her. The manner of her death was the stuff of literature, but it was truly far too short a life and far too brief a career. Fortunately her recordings and surviving broadcasts will keep the voice alive, and touch the hearts of those who never heard her.
Text by Christopher Fifield