The broadcast time of The Music Treasury on KZSU 90.1 FM remains Sunday, from 19:00 – 21:00 PDT. You can also listen online at kzsulive.stanford.edu during the broadcast time.
This week’s installment is featuring the notable contralto Kathleen Ferrier, a defining voice for the first half the 20th century. The show is hosted by Dr Gary Lemco, with works of Mendelssohn, Bach, Brahms, Mahler and other.
Kathleen Ferrier, contralto
Kathleen Ferrier was (and still is considered) one of the world’s great singers. Her appeal transcends all ages and seemingly all generations, more so perhaps than any other singer. She died more than fifty years ago, yet she is still remembered and her voice is still heard and loved by millions around the world.
Kathleen Mary Ferrier was born on 22 April 1912 at Higher Walton, a village near Preston in Lancashire in the North of England. She died in London on 8 October 1953. During her short career she went from one triumph to another, received the adulation of her peers, critics and audiences all over the world, and still maintained her natural charm, nobility, humility, humor, and love for truth, people and life.
Kathleen’s father was the village schoolmaster at Higher Walton. A good singer himself, he taught most of the music at the school. He later became a headmaster in Blackburn and the family moved there when Kathleen was two years old.
Kathleen did not begin her career as a singer. Her mother, keen to encourage Kathleen’s musical interest, arranged piano lessons for her and, as a talented young pianist of only 14 she passed the final grade of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. A newspaper of the time called this ‘an unprecedented success for so youthful a student.’
She left school at 14 and went to work for the Government Post Office in Blackburn, first in the telegrams department and then as a switchboard operator. In July 1930, aged 18, Kathleen took part in her first concert as a pianist, which was broadcast from Manchester, and began to accompany local singers in Lancashire. She regularly entered and won major music festivals, but became interested in singing and began taking rudimentary lessons from the singers she accompanied.
By the time she was 23, she was married and living in Silloth, on the Cumbrian coast, where her husband was the local bank manager. Kathleen gave piano lessons to the local children. When she entered the prestigious Carlisle Festival in 1937 as a pianist, her husband bet her a shilling that she dare not enter for both the singing contest and the piano prize. Never one to refuse a dare, Kathleen accepted the challenge, entered the contralto solo class and not only carried off both trophies, but won the first prize for the best singer at the Festival. Carlisle was a turning point, and this brilliant new singer was in great demand. In 1939 she made her first radio broadcast as a singer.
Kathleen was approached by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), the forerunner of the Arts Council of Great Britain. It was wartime, and CEMA was bringing music to people in the factories, villages and hostels throughout Britain. In June 1941 she signed up with CEMA and her professional career began. The CEMA tours were hard but invaluable training. Wartime travel was extremely difficult and the venues were geographically haphazard – the North one day, South next, North the day after, and so on. She sang in church halls, cinemas, schools, and factories – anywhere an audience could be got together.
In 1942 she sang for the great English conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent, who told her that she had a great future, but that to further her career she must live in London. With the help of her sister, Winifred, the decision was made and they moved into a flat in Hampstead. Kathleen began lessons with the baritone singer, Professor Roy Henderson who helped improve Kathleen’s voice dramatically.
Her career began to take off. She made records and became well known on the concert platform and in all the great oratorio works, particularly the Messiah and Elgar’s masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius. Benjamin Britten wrote his second opera, The Rape of Lucretia, with Kathleen in mind for the title role.
In 1948, Kathleen sang for the first time in New York, to great acclaim, and began tours of America, Canada, Holland, Scandinavia, and America again. Travelling abroad was almost as difficult as travelling at home. Stars did not have the entourages they have now, and Kathleen was mostly on her own, coping with indifferent and sometimes non-existent hotel arrangements.
In 1951 Kathleen had an operation to remove a malignant breast tumor. This seemed successful and she resumed her career. She toured at home and abroad and was one-half of many brilliant collaborations – with Roy Henderson, Benjamin Britten, Sir John Barbirolli and the great German conductor Bruno Walter, with whom she was instrumental in bringing the work of Gustav Mahler to a wider audience. Throughout 1952 she was dogged by problems of movement and further treatment was necessary. Determined as ever, she fulfilled as many commitments as she could between regular hospital visits. Eventually, she was unable to meet the travel demands. She and Barbirolli were working on an English version of Orfeo and it was as much as she could do. Despite a further operation her condition continued to deteriorate, and she was re-admitted to hospital where she died on 8 October 1953.
Kathleen Ferrier’s life was not a tragic one, despite its brevity. She was 41 when she died. In the ten years or so of fame granted her she achieved more than most singers achieve in a lifetime. In tribute, Bruno Walter said that the greatest privileges in his life were to have known and worked with Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order.
Among her many memorials, the Kathleen Ferrier Cancer Research Fund was launched in May 1954. The Kathleen Ferrier Scholarship Fund, administered by the Royal Philharmonic Society, has since 1956 made annual awards to aspiring young professional singers.
Handel: Ottone: Spring is coming; Come to me, soothing sleep
Quilter: Now sleeps the crimson petal; The fair house of joy; To daisies
Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232: Et in unum Dominum; Agnus Dei
Chausson: Poeme de l’amour et de la mer, Op. 19 (w/J. Barbirolli)
Mendelssohn: I would that my love, Op. 63, No. 1;
Greeting, Op. 63, No. 3 (w/I. Baillie)
Gluck: Orfeo, Act III: Vieni, Vieni con me. . .
Ah, per me il duol ricomincia. . .Che faro senza Euridice?
Rubbra: 3 Psalms, Op. 61 (w/F. Stone)
Brahms: Four Serious Songs, Op. 121 (w/M. Sargent)
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder: Nun will die Sonn’ . . .In diesem Wetter (w/B. Walter) 11