Kathleen Ferrier was born on 22 April 1912 in Lancashire, England and died 70 years ago today on 8 October 1953, in London. The contralto was one of the most widely beloved British singers of her day.
The New York Times wrote of her:
As a singer, Kathleen Ferrier achieved greatness in a few short years. She found she had a voice when she was well past 20, and she did not become a celebrity until after World War II. She was hardly past 40, when in 1953 her voice was stilled forever. And yet it has not been stilled. It can be heard on records, and it has engraved itself on the memories of thousands of people everywhere.
On the first anniversary of her death, a short book of memoirs was published including the extracts below from the chapters by the composer Benjamin Britten, the conductors John Barbirolli and Bruno Walter, and the accompanist Gerald Moore.
There have been certain moments in my life when I have had to face tasks of the greatest difficulty. I doubt, however, if any of them compare with the difficulty of trying to write about Katie.
Why should it be so difficult? To begin with, there is the grave danger of setting down a string of superlatives when writing or talking about her which in the end would tend to become meaningless. In her character was an almost startling simplicity which leaves little scope for elaborate analysis. Her sense of humour was of the broadest, and some of her comments on people and personalities in the musical world were edged with an almost Restoration sense of imagery and directness; bowdlerized for publication they would lose all that rich and salty tang which was their essence, so perforce they have to remain the treasured possession of such of us as had the good fortune to hear her utter them…
[There was] an occasion when I found it almost impossible not to break down in front of her. It was not many weeks before she left us and she was lying in her cot at the Westminster Hospital patiently enduring unspeakable agonies; she turned to me with a smile and said: “Tita, (The name she always called me, and which is the Italian diminutive of Giovanni Battista),I sometimes pass the time trying to see how much I can remember of me words, and started going through the Chausson [Poème de l'amour et de la mer] during the night, but always got stuck in the same place”. I told her I was always doing the same kind of thing, particularly in the Bach ‘cello suites I had memorized as a boy. Then she began to sing to me the opening phrases of the Chausson in a voice with all the bloom and tender ache of spring in it; the ravages of the disease were destroying her body, but, as if in some act of divine defiance, the glory that was hers remained untouched.
She had the charm of a child and the dignity of a lady, or, to say it more drastically and perhaps more to the point, she was a country lass and also a priestess. When she sang an English folk-song — gay or sad — it had the natural, the authentic ring which revealed her as a child of the people; and just as convincing and authentic was her rendering of Bach's St Matthew Passion or Handel's The Messiah. She loved fun like a child, and all kinds of innocent jokes, but in her relation to her art she had the humility and the inspiration of the initiate. No summit of solemnity was inaccessible to her, and it was particularly music of spiritual meaning that seemed her most personal domain.
I never had any discussion with Kathleen about religion, and so I do not know whether in that particular expressive power in her interpretation of works by Bach and Handel spoke a deep faith or only her intuitive artistic understanding of the innermost meaning of their music. But this much I can say: when she sang religious works of this kind we heard more than the performance of a highly gifted artist, more than a congenial interpretation of a composer's work or of the words she sang; there spoke an inspiration which could only come from a deeper source than interpretative talent, and I am sure that in a longer life than that granted to her it would have become a dominant force in her soul.
So she was in art and in life a shining example, and whoever listened to her or met her personally felt enriched and uplifted. By her sublime art and by her loving nature she gave happiness and received happiness, and therefore no dirge shall be intoned to deplore her terrible suffering and early death — I know she herself would prefer to be remembered and spoken of in a major key.
It was in the last days of the war, at a performance of The Messiah in Westminster Abbey, that I first heard Kathleen Ferrier sing. I was impressed immediately by the nobility and beauty of her presence, and by the warmth and deep range of her voice. It seemed to me (and seems so still) that hers was one of the very few voices that could tackle with success the low tessitura of that alto part. So, a few months later, in the autumn of 1945, when we were looking for a contralto to play the name part in a new opera I was writing, The Rape of Lucretia, and she was mentioned as a possibility, I enthusiastically welcomed the idea.
Peter Pears, singing with her a few days later, suggested it to her, and she tentatively agreed. She was nervous about learning a new long, modern part; nervous, above all, about her acting I think she had never been on the stage, certainly not the professional stage, in her life. She was persuaded, especially since the rehearsal period was going to be long and calm, and soon she was keenly involved, greedily absorbing each new bit of the score as it came along, and helping in the arrangements too.
[The] tessitura very high for her. One note at the climax, a top A, was quite out of her reach, so I wrote her an ossia of an F sharp. At one of the last performances at Glyndebourne, listening from the side of the stage, I was startled to hear her let out a ringing top A. Afterwards she confessed that she had got excited, forgotten her caution, and the F sharp, and was equally startled to hear herself singing an A (the first she had ever sung in public, I think I remember her saying). After that it was always the A, and I crossed F sharp out of the score.
What a wonderful recital it had been! There was a throng of people round Kathleen dying to touch her hand, to feel a glance from her. I stood, when I had a moment to myself, and looked at this beautiful woman. (Strange how often one gazed at Kath as if seeing her for the first time.) Yes, it had been a colossal success; the great Concertgebouw had never been so packed for a song recital before. Kathleen had had to thread her way through the crush of people down the long stairs in full view of the auditorium: a three-minute procession each time she approached or left the stage.
The acclamation when she first emerged that evening would have unnerved an artist with three times her experience. And did she open her programme, it might be asked, with something easy, something light, or a song calling for a minimum of technical control? No. Her first song was Bach's Bist du bei mir, whose long phrases need the most constant, the smoothest stream of sound. Its slow movement and tranquillity make any shortcomings of the singer flagrantly apparent. Nervousness unsteadies the breathing; this not only affects the intonation but ruins Bach's long and lovely line, here the very essence of the music. Yet she had sung it not only with ease but with a most moving tenderness; not only with a disdain for technical problems but as if poetic considerations were all that mattered.
What was the explanation of this amazing control of Kathleen's? Surely the answer is that she was a born performer. Many artists are heard at their best during rehearsal and admit themselves that they are less good, through sheer fright, at performance. With Kathleen it worked the other way. She was inspired by the occasion, and the bigger the occasion the better she sang. She seemed to embrace the audience as she saw it; her nostrils dilated with excitement, her eyes sparkled with joy. As a finely-trained thoroughbred dances with zestful pride at the feel of the springing turf beneath him, so Kathleen responded to the inspiration of an audience.
Watching Kathleen in the artists' room, I began to wonder if her admirers would ever go. She ought to be feeling tired after such a strenuous evening, and longing to relax. Then suddenly she threw me a quick glance. I was waiting for this message; it was an unmistakable call for help. I pushed my way through, draped her cloak round her shoulders and, regardless of anyone, said with emphasis: “Your car is waiting, Kathleen. I think you ought to be going or you will catch a chill.”
At last alone with her, the floor of the car littered with her flowers, we drove back to the hotel. “You turned down several invitations for us this evening”, I said. “One from the Burgomaster. What do you propose to do during the next hour and a half?”
“I have a little surprise for you. We're going to have supper with old friends.” So, having seen to her bouquets and changed her gown, Kathleen walked out of the hotel, round the corner into a quiet street, and came to a delightful little restaurant where we sometimes lunched as a change from our rather grand hotel. I said: “Your idea of supper here is not wanting in originality, nor is it devoid of charm. I see only one impediment.” “And that?” she asked. “The restaurant is closed.” “Not to me, luv.” She tapped on the door and in a twinkling the restaurateur was there and bowing us in. “Didn't I tell you we were going to see an old friend, Gerald?” And a sumptuous supper it was, with the patron and his wife as hosts.
That was Kathleen! As we four sat round the table laughing and talking, I felt how lucky we were not to be standing in a crush of people at some official reception.
This, I think, is a good example of the utter simplicity of this great woman. Holland was at her feet; the recital at the Concertgebouw was the grand climax, setting the seal on her success. And in the moment of victory she chose to be ‘with old friends'.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.