Kathleen Ferrier, Contralto
Created | Updated May 23, 2013
This is a beautiful voice, full of colour and lovely warm velvety quality...It makes me imagine I am being stroked.
- Maurice D'Oisley, tenor and music festival adjudicator at Millom, Cumbria, where Kathleen Ferrier won the Gold Medal in 1938.
When Kathleen Ferrier died from cancer on 8 October, 1953, aged only 41, the English - and indeed the international - musical stage lost one of its greatest-ever natural singing talents. In a career lasting barely more than a decade, she went from being an ordinary Lancashire lass to an international singing star who captivated all who saw her perform.
An Ordinary Lancashire Lass
Kathleen Mary Ferrier was born on 22 April, 1912, in Higher Walton, a village to the south-east of Preston, Lancashire, where her father William was the schoolmaster. She had two elder siblings – a sister Winifred and a brother, George. Early in 1914, the family moved to 57, Lynwood Road in nearby Blackburn, the move being prompted by Kathleen's mother Alice's wish to provide her children with the best possible education available near to their home. Kathleen's father became the headmaster of St Paul's School at Blackburn.
A Lancashire lass Kathleen may have been, but her ancestors were a home nations mix indeed. Kathleen's paternal grandfather, Thomas Ferrier, came from Pembrokeshire, in Wales and had settled (eventually) in Blackburn, marrying an English girl, Elizabeth Gorton. Kathleen's maternal grandfather, James Murray, was a man of Northern Ireland stock who had married Janet Knowles, a lass from Ayrshire in Scotland.
Perhaps it was the combination of both the Welsh and the Lancashire traditions of singing that made music a primary source of pleasure and relaxation for the Ferrier family. Both Kathleen's parents were musical; mother Alice had a pleasing contralto voice and father William was not only a music teacher - they met while teaching, he at the boys' school, she at the infants' - but also was active in the local operatic society. In fulfilment of her mother's aspirations, Kathleen attended St Silas's Elementary School before transferring to Crosshill, the junior feeder department for Blackburn High School for Girls, to which in due course she moved, and where she was a very bright pupil. As for so many girls at that time however, shortage of money at home forced her to leave school at the age of 14, and join the Post Office.
The voice was not Kathleen's first instrument. From an early age she showed prodigious talent for the piano. Like many northern towns, Blackburn enjoyed a rich musical life; it was particularly fortunate to have a talented teacher of piano, Fanny E Walker1, with whom the young Kathleen studied. By the age of 14, she had achieved the final grade of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music.
...an unprecedented success for so youthful a student.
She began her pianoforte studies before she was five, and passed every examination – primary, elementary, lower and higher divisions, intermediate and advanced, and now the final – at the first attempt.
- Her first press notice.
Thereafter, she continued to enter, and frequently win, piano competitions all over the North of England, working in the meantime as an operator at the local telephone exchange – she was to spend nine precious years of her life there. In 1928, she entered a national competition and won her grade in the Northern Region heat at Manchester, taking her to the finals at the Wigmore Hall in London. Her prize for winning the regional heat was rather larger than usual – an upright piano. Nerves prevented her from winning one of the six grand pianos being offered as prizes at the London finals.
At the celebration party held in honour of the prize piano's delivery to the Ferrier household, Kathleen met husband and wife singing duo Tom Barker and Annie Chadwick, and for a couple of years 'toured' Lancashire with them as an accompanist. Through her contact with them, she joined and sang in Blackburn's James Street Congregational Church choir. In 1930, she won the Gold Medal at the Liverpool Festival, and first prize at the competition at Lytham St Annes. She also took part in a recital in Manchester that was broadcast on the radio by the BBC. The following year, she gained her diploma from the Royal Academy of Music2.
Although her principal study was the piano, she had always sung regularly with her family and friends in various choirs and ensembles. In 1934 she decided to enter the Blackpool Festival3 secretly, and asked Thomas Duerden4, the organist and choirmaster at a local parish church, to give her singing lessons. To his surprise, she proposed also to play her own accompaniment at his lessons. Although she achieved nothing at the Blackpool competition a year later, it sowed the seed of her future.
Against advice, in 1935, at the age of 23, Kathleen married a bank official, Bert Wilson. The following year Bert was transferred to another branch, so the couple went to live at Silloth, on the Cumbrian coast. The marriage was a mismatch and was later annulled, although they separated amicably and kept in contact. The location of her new marital home brought her into the vicinity of Carlisle.
For a music competition at Carlisle in 1937, husband Bert bet her a shilling (5p) that she wouldn't enter the competition class for contraltos, as well as the piano class. She did, and not only took the first prize for piano, but also won the Rose Bowl in the vocal class, a premier prize in the fiercely contested world of Northern England competitions. This was the turning point in her career – from now on she would be a professional singer.
In letters to her family and friends, Kathleen sometimes referred to herself as Klever Kaff, Not-so-Klever Kaff, or simply KK, particularly if describing something she had achieved or was pleased with (or not!). The origin of this epithet lies with a young boy called Peter Hetherington. Peter's parents, Wyn and Jack, together with Kathleen and Bert, were about to depart on a picnic outing, when the boy's father found that a button had come off his coat. Quick as a flash, Kathleen sewed it back on again, with a final flourish as though concluding a piano piece. Young Peter, much impressed, remarked Clever Kaff. In its slightly modified form, the epithet stuck5.
A Career Begins
In 1939 she began to study with Dr JE Hutchinson6, a conductor and singing teacher, whose Newcastle school had been evacuated to Keswick. Hutchinson first saw Kathleen when he was one of the judges in a competition that she won at Carlisle in 1939; his teaching skills did much to address the technical shortcomings in Kathleen's voice. In December 1940, he conducted her in a performance of Messiah at Newcastle City Hall. When husband Bert was drafted into the army, Kathleen, her sister and her (now widowed) father moved to Carlisle.
Encouraged by - and following an audition with - the conductor Malcolm Sargent, Kathleen decided to move to London in 1942, and to try to forge a career as a concert artist. Sargent also promised to arrange an introduction to the prestigious concert agents, Ibbs and Tillett, who were soon to secure for her all her subsequent professional engagements. Her audition for them was held at London's Wigmore Hall, the same venue in which 14 years earlier she had competed as a pianist. She now appeared as a singer.
Now aged 30, Kathleen moved into a flat7 at Frognal, near Hampstead Heath, on Christmas Eve, 1942. Two days later she made her first visit to the Royal Albert Hall, where she heard a performance of Handel's Messiah. The Hampstead flat was not far from the studio of Roy Henderson (1899 - 2000), a concert baritone and singing teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, who worked with her on that staple of the concert platform diet, the German Lieder8 of Brahms, Schubert and Schumann. She and Henderson, whom she soon came to refer to as 'Prof', first met in December, 1942, when they sang together in a performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah, at Runcorn in Cheshire. An early task for Henderson, once Kathleen became his pupil, was to give her exercises to strengthen her diaphragm and to expand her lungs. Her voice at this time, although rich, lacked colour and was limited in range.
As her part of the war effort, Kathleen maintained a busy schedule of recital tours for CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts). Her repertoire now expanded to include Bach: St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor, Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, Elgar: Dream of Gerontius, Mahler: Kindertotenlieder9 and Das Lied von der Erde10.
Immediately prior to one of her CEMA tours, this time to Scotland, she came down with pneumonia and had to be admitted to a nursing home in Aberdeen, where she was bedridden for almost three weeks in April 1943 – she diligently records in her diary that the ambulance cost her 6/3d (about 31p)!
The Private Kathleen
Away from the concert platform, she enjoyed the cinema – 'the flix' as she called them – golf and painting. After her move to London, she become a keen theatre-goer. She was also a prolific letter-writer. Several hundred of her letters survive.
As well as her letters, her diaries from 1942 onwards survive. The earliest of them paint a vivid picture of the start of her London-based career; it could be short on glamour, as her entry for Wednesday, 20 May, 1942, shows:
Up with the blooming lark! 6.30 having slept on settee. Made date with Malcolm [Sargent] in Manchester! Flix in afternoon. Holst in concert at night – slept in a bathroom at the Albion.11
Her audience was sometimes a little unexpected – Wednesday, 3 December, 1942:
Great Saughall [near Chester]. Dreadful kids in audience. Told 'em off! Good for me! Little brutes.12
Her great – if, it has to be said, sometimes ribald – sense of humour showed four days later, on 7 December:
Got lost in blackout! Arrived in Hackness [North Yorkshire] 50mins late! Just caught the audience! 13
The later diaries, however, are more a record of her busy schedule.
The ribaldry of her humour was demonstrated at a private dinner when she proposed the toast: Here's to the young girl on the hill. If she won't, her sister will. Here's to her sister! Another instance was the way in which she often referred to her car as JT (John Thomas).
One of her favourite orchestras was Manchester's Hallé Orchestra, with its charismatic conductor, Sir John Barbirolli. 'JB' and his wife Evelyn become her great personal friends. He was the last person to hear her sing – in her hospital bed only two days before she died.
Ferrier and Britten
In May, 1943, Ferrier sang Messiah at Westminster Abbey, together with the soprano Isobel Baillie, the tenor Peter Pears and the bass, William Parsons. One member of the audience was Annie Chadwick, whom she had toured with and accompanied more than ten years earlier. Also in the audience was Peter Pears's partner, the composer Benjamin Britten. As a result of this encounter with Kathleen, Britten wrote the title role of his opera The Rape of Lucretia for her in 1946. This was her first acting role, and one of only two operas in which she appeared. The opera was premièred at the post-war re-opening of Glyndebourne on 12 July, 1946, with soprano Joan Cross, Peter Pears and Kathleen as the principal singers. After the Glyndebourne performances, the opera was taken on tour round the UK, and then on to Holland (Amsterdam and The Hague) – Kathleen's first visit abroad.
In 1948, Britten again had her voice in mind when he wrote the contralto part in the Spring Symphony, op44. Kathleen, together with soprano Jo Vincent, Peter Pears and the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Eduard van Beinum, gave that work its world première performance on 14 July, 1949, at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam.
Another Britten work, the Canticle Abraham and Isaac, for alto, tenor and piano is dedicated: To Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears, and was first performed by the dedicatees on 21 January, 1952, at the Albert Hall, Nottingham, with Britten at the piano. This concert marked the opening of a tour to raise funds for the fledgling English Opera Group.
Always a favourite with the Promenaders, Kathleen was turned down after her audition for the 1943 season of Promenade Concerts, but made her Prom debut two years later, on 15 September, 1945, singing Joan's Farewell Aria from Tchaikovsky's opera, The Maid of Orleans. The Glyndebourne production of The Rape of Lucretia meant she was unavailable for the Proms in 1946, but returned in subsequent seasons to sing the Brahms Alto Rhapsody and Four Serious Songs. A scheduled performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde on 1 September, 1953, shortly before her death, had of course to be cancelled.
The English Folksong
As well as the staple of her repertoire – arias by Handel, Gluck and Bach, and Lieder by Brahms, Schumann and Mahler – Kathleen would nearly always include in her recital programmes, or as an encore, at least one group of traditional folksongs and ballads. Of these, two very popular items were Blow the Wind Southerly and The Keel Row.
In 1947, she sang her first Orpheus in Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice at the Glyndebourne Festival. Immediately after this, she sang at her first Edinburgh Festival, where she took the alto part in Gustav Mahler's symphonic song-cycle, Das Lied von der Erde. This deeply personal work ends quietly, with the singer slowly and repeatedly intoning the word Ewig ('Forever'). Overcome by the emotion of the performance, Kathleen, in tears, was unable to sing the final Ewig.
The UK and European Tours
Throughout her short but busy professional career, Kathleen sang in all types of hall in locations all over the UK. Taking February 1947 alone as an example:
- 4: West Hartlepool Music Society
- 5: Methodist Church, Haltwhistle
- 7: Leeds University
- 8: Albert Hall, Bolton
- 12: Ipswich
- 13: Civic Hall, Orpington
- 15: Central Hall, Walsall
- 16: Odeon Cinema, Wrexham
- 18: St Mary's Church, Market Drayton
- 19: Albert Hall, Manchester
- 22: Queen's University, Belfast
- 26: King's Hall, Ilkley
Inevitably, her performances were either of a large scale – performances of Handel: Messiah, Bach: Mass in B minor and St Matthew Passion, Elgar: Dream of Gerontius etc. with orchestra, choir and other soloists – or on a very intimate scale, with just Kathleen and a piano accompanist.
It was frequent practice in Kathleen Ferrier's day for recitalists to provide their own accompanist, and pay them out of their own performance fee. Accompanists are, in general, unsung heroes. For any small ensemble, but especially for a recital singer, the chemistry between singer and accompanist is all-important. No matter how much is rehearsed beforehand, once on the stage they have to be in touch with each other like a pair of ice-dancers; communication has to be instinctive. Three with whom Kathleen worked particularly closely were Phyllis Spurr, who accompanied her for many years; Gerald Moore, arguably the greatest accompanist of all time and certainly one of the very, very few to be a star in his own right; and John Newmark, who accompanied Kathleen on her last two American tours.
The American Tours
Kathleen made three tours of America, in consecutive years. The tour planned for the fourth year had to be cancelled as a result of her serious, and ultimately fatal, illness.
The Cunard White Star liner, RMS Mauretania, set sail from Southampton on New Year's Day, 1948, carrying passenger Kathleen Ferrier on her maiden voyage to the United States. Despite the swell on the Atlantic Ocean, Kathleen found she was a good sailor and loved every day of the week-long crossing. She found the contrast between the sumptuous food and service onboard the liner, and the shortages and rationing of immediate post-war Britain stark.
A week after arriving in New York, the first concert of the tour was at Carnegie Hall, with the tenor Set Svanholm and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter, in a performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, a work that has since become something of a Kathleen Ferrier signature piece. The reviews by the fiercely difficult critics were mixed, but her American debut had undoubtedly been a success. Two further performances were given at Carnegie Hall over the next couple of days, the last of which was broadcast to an American radio audience of between 15 and 20 million listeners.
Departing New York for a short recital tour of the Chicago area, her accompanist was a Hungarian by the name of Arpad Sandor. On this tour, Kathleen was impressed and pleased with him, an opinion that would be very different on the next tour. During her five weeks away, she realised that her expenses were very high and she would need to be very careful financially.
Kathleen returned in mid-February the following year for a longer tour, staying until the end of May. Unlike the previous year, she did not have her London agent with her (he had died in June), and had to be much more self-reliant in making travel arrangements for herself and Arpad Sandor, who accompanied her again. This time he proved to be a total liability, sometimes not playing as they had worked out at rehearsal – the last thing a concert recital singer needs. During the tour, Kathleen grew to hate him more and more. In fact, unbeknown to her, he had been suffering a mental breakdown for almost a year. Eventually, in mid-April, Sandor was persuaded to withdraw, and was replaced by a Canadian, John Newmark. This new partnership worked right from the start and was a great success.
Locations on the tour included, in addition to New York – Ohio, Montreal (Canada), Detroit, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Delaware, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, Cuba and Miami. A number of the locations chosen by the tour management, Columbia Concerts, were not really suitable for a singer of Kathleen's calibre and the reviews were mixed, but it taught Kathleen a great deal about the concert tour business.
The 1950 tour was an even greater marathon than the previous one, including this time among many other cities, Nashville, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Santa Fe. Kathleen left England on the liner RMS Queen Elizabeth just before Christmas, 1949, and did not return home again until early April. In the three months away, she gave more than 30 concerts and recitals, the latter again with her North American accompanist John Newmark. Not that it was all work; Bruno Walter graciously made his house in Beverley Hills and two staff available to Kathleen for a two week holiday in February. This was by far the best of her three American tours; the venues were smaller and the critics pretty well universal in their praise.
The recital on 27 April in Toronto, Canada, would be Kathleen's last in North America. Another tour was planned for the autumn of 1951, but personal events in the spring of that year meant it would never take place.
In March, 1951 Kathleen was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had confided her worries in her new secretary14, Bernie Hammond – a former nurse – on 15 March while in Cologne. As soon as she returned to England, an appointment for a medical examination was made. On Good Friday, Kathleen sang the Bach St Matthew Passion at Glyndebourne. The appointment with the doctor was the next day, Easter Saturday. The result, recorded in her diary, was 'All work cancelled', with immediate effect.
The first operation, a mastectomy, was carried out on 10 April at University College Hospital, and was followed by a six-week course of radiotherapy. From then on, Bernie Hammond's nursing skills would be required more and more. Kathleen responded well to her treatment and was permitted to resume her engagements on 19 June, scarcely more than two months after her operation, with a performance of Bach's Mass in B minor at London's Royal Albert Hall.
In May, she had expected to cancel only the first month of her next American tour, but by August it was clear that the whole tour would have to be cancelled. She required further radiotherapy treatment, this time on her back. She performed at the Edinburgh Festival in September and sang Das Lied von der Erde at the Royal Albert Hall under Basil Cameron in October. After this, her only appearance for the rest of the year was in mid-November, at the opening of the new Free Trade Hall in Manchester15, at which she sang Land of Hope and Glory in the presence of HM Queen Elizabeth, the King's consort.
During the early part of 1952 Kathleen suffered increasing pain, and the advice of a second specialist, the surgeon Sir Stanford Cade, was sought. In May she flew to Vienna to make the now-legendary recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with the tenor Julius Patzak and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bruno Walter – apart from a brief visit to Dublin, it was the last time she left Britain. She fulfilled a number of engagements during the year, including the Edinburgh Festival, but also attended numerous hospital appointments.
The Final Curtain
In February, 1953, she was to sing Orfeo in a production of Gluck's opera, Orfeo ed Euridice at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Despite the pain, and the fact she found it increasing difficult to climb stairs, she managed to attend both the rehearsals and the hospital appointments for continuing radiotherapy. The opening on 3 February was a triumph, but at the second performance, on Friday, 6 February, an event occurred that is scarcely credible today. Part of the way through Act II, a dull crack was heard and Kathleen was seen to wince – the femur of her left leg had partially disintegrated and a piece of bone had detached. Using a scenery balustrade to support herself, she sang on, immobile, the other members of the cast improvising their action around her as though she was a pivot. The performance was completed, but it was her last appearance before the public. Back in her dressing room, after everyone had gone, her sister Win said to her: 'What can I do for you, love?' Kathleen replied: 'Get me a stretcher.'
The next day she was taken back to University College Hospital. The spiral staircase to her flat had now become an unassailable barrier, and so new ground-floor accommodation at 40, Hamilton Terrace, St John's Wood, London, NW8, was found for her. However, she was only able to rest there until 22 May, when she returned to hospital and underwent an operation to remove her ovaries. In July, she had a further operation to remove her adrenal glands, but the battle with cancer was lost. She died on the morning of 8 October, 1953.
Kathleen Ferrier had been made a CBE16 in the 1953 New Year's Honours List, and very shortly before her death was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. This latter award particularly warmed her heart, given as it is to musicians from musicians.
The Kathleen Ferrier Award
Immediately after her death, the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship Fund was established for the purpose of making an annual award to a young British singer, sufficient to cover the cost of a year's study and general support. The first competition was held in 1956, and subsequent notable winners of the prize have included the soprano Sheila Armstrong, the mezzo-soprano Felicity Palmer and the baritone Bryn Terfel.
In recent years, there has been occasional criticism of Kathleen's singing – was she really that good, or was her fame based more on her early death than on her vocal talent? The same kind of criticism has also been levelled at people like James Dean, Buddy Holly and Marilyn Monroe. The problem is that much of her recorded legacy is from studio recordings, less of concerts and recitals. It was in the concert or recital hall that Kathleen Ferrier really shone, where she had an audience to communicate with, and 'Klever Kaff' was a born communicator. Those who were privileged enough to have heard her sing in performance had no doubt. In certain works she was not comfortable, for example Elgar's Sea Pictures. Her rendition of the Angel in Elgar's oratorio Dream of Gerontius, however, was reputedly sublime, but unfortunately there is no sound recording of this left to us.
In Coronation Year, 1953, the year of her death, it was said that Kathleen Ferrier was very nearly the most popular woman in England, second only to the young Queen Elizabeth II.
She put herself at the service of the music, seeking to enter into its spirit, rather than use it as a means for displaying her voice and talent.
- Lennox Berkeley, composer17