Patrick O'Connor

The Contrary Contralto

Letters and Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier


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KATHLEEN FERRIER GAVE what was to be her final performance in February 1953, singing the title role in Gluck’s Orpheus at Covent Garden, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. During the second act, members of the audience heard a crack on stage: Ferrier’s left thigh had fractured. She continued to sing, leaning against a plllar, and finished the opera. Afterwards, she talked to admirers in her dressing-room, smiling and laughing with friends. Once they had gone, she turned to her sister and said, ‘Send for a stretcher, love’. Eight months later, she died of the cancer that had been diagnosed just over two years before. Ferrier’s voice and her ~ersonalitvs eem to have affected everyone she worked with or met. She was the first British singer to gain an international reputation after the Second World War, yet she had been singing professionally for only a few years, and her repertory – Handel oratorios, Enghsh folksongs and ballads, German Lieder (nearly always the more serious side) and modern music bv Britten. Berkelev and others – was hardlv designed to appeal to the masses. ‘Too highbrow nowadays’, she commented about herself, after one lukewarm reception t a provincial concert. Ferrier was Lancastrian, brought up in Blackburn, and her spirited, no-nonsense attitude to life and fame shines through all these letters, and even the diaries, which are just engagement books with the odd comment scribbled after the event (‘Toronto. Bought new frock. Wonderful last concert – everybody stamping and shouting!’). The earliest letter is fiom 1940, when Ferrier was just on the threshold of her career. She had been a telephonist, and one of her earliest audtions – she &dn9t &t the jbb – was to be the voice of the speaking clock (‘Dial T-I-M’). The whole experience of using the telephone system might have been different if her mellow contralto had told the time. Performers are often unable to describe what it is they do, or why it is special. Most of Ferrier’s letters are concerned with other things; the struggles of wartime Britain, and the years of austerity afterwards, mean that she is often writing about food, or the lack of it, or making do with whatever clothes she can find. However, there are several striking passages in which she writes about her method of interpretation. After driedone opera performance in Amsterdam, she comments: ‘If I could act confidently, it’s really much easier than a recital, but I still feel it’s a lot of playacting – where I live and love and die in a song.’ After a review by Neville Cardus (music critic for the Manchester Guardian), Ferrier writes a long description of her feelings about Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben: ‘All the highlights of joy and sorrow. . . . I probably underline more than I ordinarily would the changes of mood … But I promise you I am never aware of the audience to the extent that I do anything to impress or wake ’em up!’ The self-portrait that emerges hm Ferrier’s letters is of a hard-working, often modest, but gradually more and more confident artist, who appreciates others’ qualities, but when crossed can put up a good fight. Ferrier toured the USA three years running, and many of her letters home describe her experiences there with, amongst others, a manic-depressive accompanist, and various concert promoters (including being ‘sold to places by glib-mouthed salesmen like a bloody vacuum cleaner’). No letters to her husband, Bert Wilson (from whom she was divorced, amicably, in 1947), are included. Nor are there any to the one boyfriend for whom she seriously contemplated remarriage, Rich Davies. She must have written to them both, especially to her husband when he was in the army. during the war. If we could see something of this side of her life, the image of her as a somewhat withdrawn, spinsterish type might be further dispelled. More than once she refers to her ‘virginal’ couch, and she writes, ‘I guess I’m meant to be a lone she-wolf’.

Like many other strong female performers, Ferrier was rumoured to have been at least bisexual. (‘No chorus girl was safe’, one soprano told me – but that was only backstage gossip.) There is no hint of this in any of the letters: she pronounces Act 1 of Der Rosenkavalier to be ‘a bit embarrassing’, and when Desmond Shawe-Taylor refers to her as ‘this goitrous singer with the contralto hoot’, she counters with a dismissive put-down of him and another critic as ‘a couple of dried one up inhibited fairies’.

Whatever passion she had went into her singing. It is there to be heard in every recording she made. Her relationships with Bruno Walter, John Barbirolli and the Canadian pianist John Newmark all went far beyond just professional understanding. Ferrier’s most celebrated recording is that of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (with Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic), made in May 1952. When they first performed this work together at the inaugural Edinburgh Festival in 1947, Ferrier was in tears towards the end of the last movement, and unable to sing the last phrase, the word ‘Ewig’, as the poet contemplates the return of springtime. She apologised to Bruno Walter afterwards for her ‘unprofessional’ conduct, to which he replied, ‘My dear Miss Ferrier, if we were all such artists as you, we would all have been in tears.’ As well as their concerts, Walter accompanied her in Lieder recitals, and the final page in Ferrier’s correspondence is a telegram she sent to Walter less than a month before her death, wishmg him a good birthday: ‘Deepest gratitude now and always … In deep affection, Kathleen’.

This is a most valuable addition to the biographies of Ferrier by her sister Winifred and, more recently, Maurice Leonard. ‘Win’, anxious to protect her sister’s memory, censored many of the letters she used, so the robust, often earthy aspect of her correspondence has never before been shown. Once, at a dinner after a recording session, she stood up and recited the toast, ‘Here’s to the young girl on the hill, / If she won’t, her sister will. / Here’s to her sister!’


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