In the 41 years that made her life, Kathleen Ferrier became one of the best-loved and most admired singers in the world. Ferrier’s voice was a true contralto - quite a rarity – not a forced-down mezzo, and her style of singing was uniquely British.
The daughter of a school-teacher, Kathleen Ferrier left school at the age of 14 and became a telephone operator on the Blackburn exchange. Not the most promising of beginnings for a future interpreter of George Frideric Handel, Gustav Mahler and Gluck. Yet her background had been musical, her mother had insisted she had piano lessons from an early age, and her father was a music teacher and enthusiastic chorister who had instilled rigid principles of musicality into his daughter. If a piece was to be played it was to be played properly, and according to the composer’s intentions. By the time she was 17 she had passed her ARCM examination in piano and undoubtedly could, had she wished, have become a concert pianist. But, although she regularly entered piano competitions as an amateur, she chose marriage instead. Had that worked out, and had she become a mother, music would never have been more than a hobby, albeit a passionate one.
The marriage, however, was a disaster and annulled - yet she was indebted to her husband for at least one gesture. In 1937 the Carlisle Festival took place and Kathleen had entered as a pianist. He bet her a shilling she would not also enter as a singer (she has previously sung in public at a few minor, unpaid functions), and she took him up. She sang Roger Quilter’s To Daisies and won both categories. The Carlisle Journal recorded that she had ‘one of the finest voices’ they had heard.
From then on, at the age of 25, Kathleen Ferrier became a professional singer, learning her trade by appearing virtually wherever she was asked. Her first professional engagement was at he Aspatria Harvest Festival for which she received a fee of 7s.6d. She took singing lessons from a local teacher, J.E. Hutchinson, regularly driving for lessons to Carlisle from her home in Silloth in a second-hand Morris. She was a proficient pupil and he a dedicated teacher. It became apparent to both of them that the Ferrier voice has possibilities of which neither of them has initially dreamed.
In 1942, three years after war had broken out, Kathleen Ferrier moved to London to try her luck as a concert singer. Her first recital was at lunchtime concert at the National Gallery organized by Dame Myra Hess, where she sang (in English) Lieder by Johannes Brahms, Schubert and Wolf. She continued her studies, but this time under Roy Henderson, a celebrated former Glyndebourne baritone.
Part of the individual timbre of the Kathleen Ferrier voice is due to the fact that it is a natural sound with no conservatory training. Both Hutchinson and Henderson conceded that that the voice was already there when she came to them and that they merely refined and coached the instrument.
On May 17, 1943 Kathleen Ferrier appeared in G.F. Handel’s Messiah at Westminster Abbey with fellow soloists Isobele Baillie, Peter Pears and William Parsons, conducted by Reginald Jacques. Benjamin Britten was in the audience. Critic Neville Cardus singled out this appearance as the moment when Ferrier first ‘made a serious appeal to musicians’. Numerous oratorios followed including Edward Elgar’s The Kingdom and The Dream of Gerontius, Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah and J.S. Bach’s B minor Mass (BWV 232), plus recitals and performances of J. Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody and Four Serious Songs.
In 1946 Kathleen Ferrier sang Lucretia in the premiere of B. Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia for the reopening of Glyndebourne after the war, a part the composer specifically tailored to her talents. The following year saw the inauguration of the Edinburgh Festival for which Bruno Walter had been invited to conduct the Wiener Philharmoniker. He had chosen Das Lied von der Erde, having been a pupil of G. Mahler. G. Mahler was largely unknown to British audiences, his music considered too rich for British palates. Ferrier was 34 at the time and Bruno Walter decided hers was the perfect voice for the work. She began to specialize in G. Mahler and sang not only Das Lied von der Erde but also the Kindertotenlieder and the Rückert-Lieder all over Europe and in subsequent tours of America. For many among the audience it was their first taste of the composer. It is in no small part thanks to Ferrier’s perseverance that G. Mahler is now so popular both in Britain and America, Bruno Walter himself was so impressed by Ferrier’s singing that he paid her the ultimate compliment of personally accompanying her at the piano during various recitals.
Numerous British, continent and American concerts followed. In these Kathleen Ferrier reintroduced many previously neglected British songs to her audiences, such as Blow the wind southerly, Now sleeps the crimson petal and Ma bonny lad, some of which she was castigated for singing at the time, as they were considered artistically inferior but which now, thanks to her courage in recording them, form a much-loved part of her musical heritage.
In 1953, at the request of John Barbirolli, Kathleen Ferrier was engaged to sing Orpheus at Covent Garden in a new production of Gluck’s Orfeo et Euredice (she had first sung the role at Glyndebourne in 1947). This was to be sung in English and re-titled Orpheus. Critics were unanimous in their praise of her singing and interpretation but, tragically, she lived only long enough to complete two performances before succumbing to the cancer against which she had valiantly struggled for the last years of her life.