Kathleen Ferrier: Klever Kaff January 14 2022

There is no need to say how much we loved and admired darling Kath, how we treasured her friendship and were honored and proud to work with her and for her. It is unbelievable that she is no longer with us, and that we shall never hear that glorious voice again. But it will be a very long time before the memory of countless lovely concerts fade, and I myself will never forget, selfishly, her incomparable Lucretia or Abraham and Isaac. They were written for her, and in the future one will only hear pale copies.

Benjamin Britten to Winnie Ferrier, Kathleen's sister in 1953


Kathleen Ferrier at age 1 with her mother, sister and brother

Born in 1912 in Higher Walton, near Blackburn in Lancashire, Kathleen Ferrier was the daughter of two talented amateur singers and musicians, and she was noted as being very musical from a young age. 

[Image] Kathleen Ferrier at age 1 with her mother, sister and brother

The youngest of three, Kathleen was very bright (in later life, a friend's child dubbed her "Klever Kaff", something she often signed off within her letters) - she read well before she started school - and the 'tall sturdy girl' was, as many future professional singers are in childhood, told to 'be careful and sing softly' in the school choir as her voice was already large and loud. Her mother encouraged her into piano lessons, and she excelled, completing her ABRSM grades at only fourteen.

Financial circumstances meant that Ferrier had to leave school the same year, working in the Blackburn telephone exchange first on telegrams, and then later as an operator. A social and friendly girl, she joined the work tennis team, and also the James Street Congregational Choir.

Early Musical Success

Kathleen kept up her piano skills and entered local competitions. In 1928, at the age of 16, she entered the local section of a prestigious national competition and won - her prize was an upright piano by Cramer, worth £250; a small fortune at the time.

Ferrier at age 18

Her skills as a pianist and accompanist were in significant demand locally, and she began working with the 'Sevilles', a comedy group of local singers, one of whom - Annie Chadwick -gave Ferrier her first basic singing lessons. Her first solo singing in public - the mezzo-soprano part of Mendelssohn's Lift Thine Eyes trio from Elijah was favorably reviewed in the local paper, which noted "Miss Ferrier sang pleasingly in the trio Lift Thine Eyes and more will be heard in Blackburn of this young vocalist". She had been horribly nervous beforehand, however, remarking to a girl sitting next to her before she sang who had asked if her knees were knocking that they were playing 'God Save the King'!

[Image] Kathleen Ferrier at age 18

Ferrier married Albert Wilson in 1935, a man she had met two years previously at a dance. The couple moved to Silloth in Cumbria, following Wilson's job. The year before they married, she had failed an audition for the new speaking clock telephone service, which was to be known as TIM. (The job went to Ethel Jane Cain, who held the post until 1963.) Kathleen gave piano lessons to local children and became as involved both musically and personally in the local community as she could, including entering local music festivals.

In 1937, her husband bet her a shilling that she wouldn't dare enter the vocal section of the Carlisle Festival, as well as her more usual piano classes. Never one to turn down a bet, Kathleen did so. She won; not just the piano trophy, but the singing trophy too, and the grand prize - a rose bowl - for the best singer at the festival.

Local engagements followed, including Handel's Messiah, and the year after her festival win, as the contralto soloist in a complete performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah. She was now competing regularly in festivals - and winning them - as a singer, including the Workington Festival, where her rendition of Vaughan Williams's Silent Noon was praised for its "true contralto texture".

Kathleen Ferrier signed photo GA1132

1939, the year war broke out, saw her first radio broadcast as a singer on a BBC Northern radio program, but her appearance at the Carlisle Festival - singing Richard Strauss's Allerseelen in English - was the most important competition she had taken part in so far. The adjudicator, J. E. Hutchinson, was hugely impressed with her, and she became one of his students, branching out into what would become her core repertoire under his guidance.

[Image] Kathleen Ferrier's signed and inscribed photograph with a short sentiment.


The War, and London

Ferrier's marriage effectively ended in 1939, when Albert Wilson went to war. Although it wouldn't be dissolved until 1947 - on the grounds of non-consummation - the "millstone" around her neck was, apparently reasonably amicably, gone. Ferrier reverted to her maiden name, having been singing as Kathleen Wilson until this point. She successfully auditioned for CEMA, the Council for the Encouragement of the Arts (and forerunner of the Arts Council of Great Britain), which was set up to provide entertainment both to the military and in workplaces to boost morale.

By 1941, she was established enough to appear in the same billing as Isobel Baillie for a Messiah with the Hallé Orchestra. However, she was still not successful in gaining an audition for the BBC in Manchester, even though she had future performances booked with the Hallé. Sir Malcolm Sargent heard her at one of these in Blackpool and recommended her to the legendary agency Ibbs & Tillett, where she was accepted at once. In the surviving agency audition book, her appearance is described as 'attractive', and her voice as 'excellent...even throughout...warm and vibrant.' She was never to be without work for the rest of her life. This was impetus enough for Ferrier, her now-widowed father, and her sister to move to a flat in Hampstead, and for Kathleen to base herself in London for the rest of her life and career. It was Christmas Eve 1942.

Kathleen Ferrier Signed Program

Dame Myra Hess, the celebrated English pianist, chose to keep music alive throughout the Second World War by staging lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery.

[Image] Program for a performance of Kathleen Ferrier and Denis Matthews, 1950.

Theatres were blacked out to avoid being targeted by bombers (with the notable exception of The Windmill, a revue bar that kept playing throughout with the motto "We Never Close"). Ferrier gave her first London recital as part of this series in late December 1942, and although she noted in her diary that it "went off very well", she was personally disappointed that her voice wouldn't always do exactly what she wanted - possibly through nerves, as she notes in a letter to friends Eleanor and Bill Coyd that "oh boy! Did my knees knock!" A week prior, she had sung alongside Roy Henderson in a Messiah performance - also represented by Ibbs & Tillett - and she approached him at the Royal Academy of Music for further lessons. He remained her vocal coach for the rest of her life.

Her technique had been polished enough within five months that she impressed another relative newcomer, the tenor Peter Pears in a Messiah at Westminster Abbey - so much so that she became something of a second muse to his partner, Benjamin Britten, who happened to be in the audience for that performance.

June 1944 brought her first recording for Columbia, and also her first concert under Sir Malcolm Sargent, the Brahms Four Serious Songs. Ferrier would lighten the mood in rehearsals - the third song, O Death, How Bitter, would frequently reduce her and her accompanist to tears - by breaking into bawdy (and often unrepeatable!) songs or limericks, something for which she became famous amongst her colleagues and which pepper her letters to friends, as evidenced in Christopher Fifield's book.

By the end of the war, she was in huge demand nationwide.

The Rape of Lucretia World Premiere 1946

The Rape of Lucretia World Premiere in 1946: Kathleen Ferrier with Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten, Otakar Kraus, Ernest Ansermet, Nancy Evans, and other.

Ferrier and Glyndebourne

In 1946, Ferrier was engaged to share the title role in Britten's new opera, The Rape of Lucretia, at Glyndebourne. It was the first of only two complete operas she ever performed in. She was about as enthusiastic about opera as she always had been, i.e. not at all, and convinced she had made a poor impression on Britten and his librettist, Ronald Duncan. However, what she didn't know was that her "natural simplicity and dignity" was exactly what they were looking for, and that "even while she was going down the stairs we were improvising a war dance of pleasure".

The 'other' Lucretia was Nancy Evans and it was one of her performances, but on 18th July 1946, it was Ferrier who was summoned to meet Queen Mary after the performance, to "present yourself, in dinner gown, in the Organ Room".

Kathleen Ferrier and colleagues

Beautiful signed photograph of K. Ferrier with her colleagues German baritone Horst Gunter, Austrian composer Hans Gal, German soprano Irmgard Seefried and Austrian Tenor Julius Patzak. 

She stayed with the Christies, and in a letter dated 8th April 1946 arranging her stay over the season, assures them she is "a very good washer-upper"! Once at Glyndebourne, a letter to Kathleen Jamieson indicates that she was rather enjoying "early nights and nine o'clock breakfasts" rather than constantly traveling from one engagement to the next. As for the music, she wrote to her agent, John Tillett, that she was "enjoying it tremendously and I should think it's the most marvelous part one could possibly have."

Kathleen was still uncomfortable with being on stage. Over the many weeks of rehearsal, she sought advice from Joan Cross, who was singing the role of Female Chorus, how to move on stage - especially her large feet. Cross's advice was simple "why don't you leave them alone? Your voice expresses all you need."

Ferrier considered herself a concert and oratorio singer and was uncomfortable at the thought of stage work, something she didn't feel she was suited for. However, it was her natural stage reserve that Britten wanted for his title character, not to mention her vocal discomfort (at that time) in alt for the high-lying rape scene.

The Rape of Lucretia also brought her first taste of foreign travel when it played in Holland during October of that year, and she had made such a success of her Glyndebourne debut that she was engaged to sing the title role in Orfeo for the 1947 season.

A 1951 recital in Edinburgh with Bruno Walter

Kathleen Ferrier in recital in Edinburgh with Bruno Walter, 1951.

Orfeo wasn't quite the happy experience that Lucretia had been, although Kathleen was once again staying with the Christies - significant amounts of the material that she had managed to memorize whilst traveling underwent cuts and changes, and in a letter to her father and sister, she gives an idea of just how hard a time she is having at the hands of the conductor, who shouted at her constantly and called her an oratorio singer. She refers to the prop lyre that stage management gave her to get used to as "a lovely weapon when Stiedry tries me too far."

Ferrier in Orpheus at Covent Garden 1953

Her role debut as Orfeo, however, was successful and was recorded by Decca, with whom she had signed the previous year.

[Image] K. Ferrier as Orpheus at Covent Garden 1953

Britten also wrote the canticle Abraham and Isaac to showcase Kathleen and Peter, and the contralto solos in his Spring Symphony, and another great British composer, Sir Arthur Bliss, wrote The Enchantress for her.


Das Lied von der Erde

Perhaps Ferrier's other most famous association is with the works of Gustav Mahler. In Bruno Walter, who had been a personal friend of the composer, she found a conductor who made her feel that she was "gaining knowledge and inspiration from the composer himself".

Her most famous project is probably the Das Lied von der Erde recorded in Vienna in 1952 in between hospital appointments and treatments. Already dying from breast cancer, Kathleen Ferrier's singing is riveting - especially given that she was in considerable pain throughout the recording.

Bruno Walter and Kathleen Ferrier first met when she auditioned for him to perform the work at what was its British premiere, at the 1947 Edinburgh Festival. Walter was reluctant to hear the singer; since his friend Mahler's death, he had found no contralto adequate for the challenge, and Ferrier's track record of English folk songs and oratorio didn't fill him with confidence.

However, as he reminisced after her death "the room seemed to become brighter for the charm of her presence. She had the charm of a child and the dignity of a lady...it was love at first sight". He was to champion her career for the rest of her short life.

American Tour and First Signs of Illness

After her sister's death, Winnifred Ferrier said that Kathleen had known there was 'something not right' since late 1943. Certainly, throughout 1947 and 1948 there are increasing references in her letters and diaries to how tired she is, and her letters to her agent, John Tillett, become even more insistent and protective about her days off. She had had a phobia of cancer since childhood, having witnessed a neighbor die slowly and painfully from the disease. It was a relief to her, therefore, having been experiencing pain in her breast and arm, to have a clean bill of health late in 1948. However, there can be very little doubt that the cancer had been missed by her doctor.

Playing the piano she won in 1928

Her first American tour was met with a lukewarm reception at first until she was heard on a radio broadcast - the next concert was a sell-out. She returned to the US the following year a star, and this time her tour also included appearances in Cuba.

[Image] Kathleen Ferrier playing the piano she won in 1928

Prior to this second departure, she recorded some of her favorite folk songs for Decca, leaving her accompanist, Phyllis Spurr, and her sister Winnie in charge of agreeing to release if they saw fit. They were both delighted, but Ferrier was disappointed - however, it was too late to withdraw the recording, and it has delighted those that have heard it ever since.

Still, she was having pain in her breast, shoulder, and neck, and once again, a medical examination in the summer of 1950 gave her a clean bill of health. Once again, there can be little doubt that her cancer had been missed.

Final Illness, Orfeo, and Legacy

However, in March 1951 she notes "I had discovered a bump on mi busto", and after returning from a tour of Germany and Holland, cancer was finally diagnosed. She canceled all engagements for two months and had a mastectomy in April. She was determined to stay positive and cheerful, and on 22nd April - her 39th birthday - even threw a party in her hospital room for friends, complete with champagne and oysters.

She returned to the concert platform in June, and resumed performances in Holland in July, declaring herself as "fit as a flea". However, radiation treatment continued, and she still complained of arm, and low back pain. In November, she was so ill that she canceled the rest of her engagements for 1951.

Winifred Ferrier and Kathleen Ferrier visiting New York

Winifred Ferrier and Kathleen Ferrier visiting New York

1952 saw continuing treatment and continuing work - the Das Lied von der Erde discussed above, and also private concerts for the new Queen Elizabeth II, of whom she says "chatted with the young Queen on all subjects - sweet poppet she is."

She dismissed her ongoing back pain as "rheumatiz".

On 23rd December, she sang her last Messiah, and received the honor of Commander of the British Empire (the CBE) from the new Queen a week later. On February 3rd, Orfeo opened at Covent Garden.

Her great friend Barbirolli - who always called her Katie, and who had conducted her through so many of her greatest performances - was conducting, and they had worked on the translation together. By this stage, she was receiving daily radiation therapy, and refusing the recommendation of the removal of her ovaries in case it ruined her voice.

Recording for EMI in 1946

Kathleen Ferrier during a recording session for EMI in 1946

The first night was a triumph. During the second performance, her femur shattered - somehow, she completed the show, standing absolutely still, and was helped offstage by Veronica Dunne who had been singing Eurydice. Her cancer had spread to her bones.

Ferrier never sang in public again and died on 8th October 1953 - the day she had been due to sing as the contralto soloist in Delius' Mass of Life. One of her last visitors had been her great friend, Sir John Barbirolli. He had introduced her to the Chausson Poeme de l'amour et de la mer which they had performed together in 1951, and she sang the opening bars to him "in a voice with all the bloom and tender ache of Spring in it...the glory that was hers remained untouched."

Her funeral service was held at Southwark Cathedral, but there wasn't room for everyone who wanted to mourn "Our Kath". In keeping with the mores of the time, the nature and severity of her illness had been concealed, and the death of such a loved and popular classical singer came as a huge shock.

A scholarship fund was immediately set up in her name, and the first Kathleen Ferrier Awards competition was held in 1956, won by Barbara Anne Robinson, a 20-year-old singer from North Wales.


Friends remember Kathleen Ferrier's life and legacy

Her recorded legacy has notable gaps; there is no complete Messiah, no Dream of Gerontius, and the offers she turned down - not least Erda at Bayreuth - are a catalog of might-have-beens. This very British singer's real legacy, however, is that nearly 70 years after her death, she is still immediately recognizable and adored; ironically mostly in those folksongs, she was so disappointed with.



Kathleen Ferrier Signed Program, Brighton 1950

Kathleen Ferrier Signed Photograph with Friends 

- Kathleen Ferrier Double Signed Album Page



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