Archive Features

My Tribute to the Divine Contralto Kathleen Ferrier

  • Kathleen Ferrier in 1947. She was an English contralto known for her exceptionally low, rich voice and her surprising death at 41.

    Kathleen Ferrier in 1947. She was an English contralto known for her exceptionally low, rich voice and her surprising death at 41.

  • Kathleen Ferrier at right, with Anna Pollak, center, and Margaret Ritchie, right, in “The Rape of Lucretia.”

    Kathleen Ferrier at right, with Anna Pollak, center, and Margaret Ritchie, right, in “The Rape of Lucretia.”

  • Ms. Ferrier with the conductor Bruno Walter. Photo: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

    Ms. Ferrier with the conductor Bruno Walter. Photo: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

  • Kathleen Ferrier with the tenor Peter Pears at the Edinburgh festival. Photos by Gerti Deutsch/Getty Images.

    Kathleen Ferrier with the tenor Peter Pears at the Edinburgh festival. Photos by Gerti Deutsch/Getty Images.

A Voice That Embraced a Nation

July 6, 2012  |  The New York Times

The conductor Bruno Walter once said that the two greatest musical experiences of his life were knowing the contralto Kathleen Ferrier and Mahler — in that order. From humble beginnings as a telephone operator near Blackburn, England, Ferrier became one of Britain’s most beloved singers, her rich and haunting voice providing solace to a war-torn nation.

In honor of the centennial of her birth, EMI has released her complete recordings on the label in a three-disc set, an impressive showcase of her artistry in trademark works of Bach, Gluck, Handel and Mahler. Decca has released a centenary edition with 14 CDs, as well as a new film, directed by Diane Perelsztejn and narrated by the English actress Charlotte Rampling, that explores the life and legacy of Ferrier, who died at 41 from cancer. The film includes a companion CD of unreleased live recordings, including Brahms lieder.

Ferrier’s voice was remarkable not only for its unusually low range and striking timbre, but also for the expressive, yearning qualities that often reduced audiences and colleagues to tears.

In the film the contralto Nathalie Stutzmann says that Ferrier “had the deepest voice imaginable for a woman,” combining “the color of a chest voice, usually found in male voices, with the clarity of a female voice.”

The melancholic quality of Ferrier’s singing penetrates her performances of a wide range of repertory, including the English folk songs she often performed. Her interpretations of arias like Handel’s “Ombra mai Fu” remain among the most moving ever recorded.

In archival footage featured in Ms. Perelsztejn’s film Walter describes the first time he heard Ferrier: “She came and sang Brahms for me, and I engaged her. Her singing was of such rare beauty: beauty of expression, beauty of voice, purity, and beauty of personality. It was one of my greatest impressions in my life.”

Benjamin Britten was similarly smitten when he heard Ferrier sing Handel’s “Messiah” at Westminster Abbey in 1943, one of her first London engagements. Like Walter he became an important collaborator. “In the part of the voice that is usually the weakest Kathleen’s voice was the strongest,” he says during an interview in the film. “The music sailed across vast spaces with a confidence and beauty that I think I’d never heard before.”

Ferrier originated the title role of Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia” at Glyndebourne in 1946 and sang it in the Netherlands in 1947, her first trip abroad. Unlike many singers, she preferred recitals to the opera stage, where she never felt fully comfortable. She wrote that she couldn’t believe how difficult it was to make simple arm movements “without looking like a broken windmill.” Her tentative acting abilities occasionally frustrated conductors.

Orfeo, in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” was one of the few other roles in her repertory. Her heart-rending recording of “What Is Life” was a hit in Britain in 1945.

Writing in The New York Times in 1955, the music critic Howard Taubman wrote after a concert performance of “Orfeo” at Town Hall that Ferrier “managed, through the power of her voice and art, to probe so deeply into the heart of Gluck’s and Orfeo’s emotion that one did not need sets, costumes or lightings.”

By the end of World War II Ferrier — who had participated in many events organized by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, established during the war to provide entertainment in factories, hospitals, bomb shelters and schools — had earned a stellar reputation in Britain. She had become a much-loved performer who charmed audiences with her singing and her gregarious, down-to-earth personality.

Ferrier rose to fame from modest roots, the daughter of a Lancashire village schoolmaster. In the Decca film her sister, Winifred Ferrier, recalled that her sibling’s vocal talent was initially unrecognized and undeveloped. “I remember when Kathleen was at school, she wanted to join the choir, and the teacher tested her and said, ‘Yes, you can come in if you don’t sing too loudly because your voice is very husky.’ ”

Kathleen Ferrier enjoyed success in several piano competitions as a young girl and hoped to attend a music college. But because of her family’s financial situation, she instead left school at 14 to begin training at a telephone exchange in Blackburn. She continued to compete in piano competitions while working as a telephone operator with the General Post Office. She also began singing lessons.

At 23 she married Albert Wilson, a bank manager, and left her job, since married women were not then employed by the telephone exchange. The marriage was unsuccessful and effectively ended when her husband joined the Army in 1940; they divorced in 1947 but remained on good terms. Ferrier — who drank beer and smoked cigarettes and was said to have an ebullient personality, rowdy sense of humor and quick wit — never remarried, although she had a long-term companion in Rick Davies, a Liverpool antiques dealer.

Her first professional singing engagements and BBC radio appearances came after her victory in her vocal division of the Carlisle Festival in 1937. (She also placed first in the piano division.) She moved to London with her sister after being accepted onto the roster of a prominent artist agency and made her London debut recital in 1942 at the National Gallery.

The concert went well, but Ferrier was disappointed by her performance and began studying with the baritone Roy Henderson, who in the film says: “The musicianship was all there, but from an interpretive point of view, she hadn’t really started. She was terrified of doing anything with face or feeling. When I had dinner with her and Winifred, I realized what sort of a person she was. The restrictions of the studio fell away, and she became full of fun and life. I felt I must harness this to her singing.”

She also began working with the collaborative pianist Gerald Moore, well known for his performances with legendary singers including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. She made one recording on Columbia in 1944, with Moore, then switched to Decca.

Ferrier’s international career spanned just eight years, between 1946 and 1953, the year she died. She made her New York debut in 1948 singing Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” at Carnegie Hall with Walter, soon after their performance of the work — which was then largely unknown in Britain — at the 1947 Edinburgh International Festival.

Ferrier toured America and Canada in 1949 and 1950, performing in dozens of cities. She probably would have entered Wagnerian terrain had she lived longer. Bayreuth management had hoped to engage her to sing Brangäne in “Tristan and Isolde” and Erda in the Ring Cycle. But Ferrier learned she had breast cancer in 1951 and underwent a mastectomy. She continued singing despite ill health.

One of her last major projects was a recording of Mahler’s “Rückert Lieder” with Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic, an intensely affecting interpretation that is included on the EMI release. The discs also feature her performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor, selections by Handel and Purcell and the complete “Orfeo.”

Ferrier took on the role of Orfeo with the conductor John Barbirolli at the Royal Opera House, in English. During the rehearsal period she had daily treatments in the hospital. The premiere, in February 1953, was a success, but the cancer had spread to her bones. During the second performance the femur in her left leg fractured while she was onstage. She remained standing, immobilized, and finished the performance, her audience unaware. Ferrier, who would never walk again, was hospitalized that night. She died a few months later.

Her fans, who had been told she had arthritis but were not informed about the cancer that had plagued her for years, were shocked by what seemed to be an unexpected early death. Ferrier, who had charmed listeners in all echelons of British society, had even told all but her closest friends to ignore any rumors of serious illness.

With the exception of the marvelous mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson — who also began a singing career relatively late in life and died young of cancer, in 2006 — few have rivaled Ferrier’s emotional vulnerability and intensity in her core repertory.

In his memoir “Untold Stories” the English writer Alan Bennett recalls how Ferrier’s artistry mesmerized his parents, even though “they weren’t big ones for singing.”

“What makes music inviolable still for me,” he writes, “are scenes like that, a Methodist chapel in the slums of Leeds lit up and packed with people on a winter night in 1947 and the voice of Kathleen Ferrier drifting out over the grimy snow.”

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