Remembering Kathleen Ferrier in a Major Key

Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) is celebrated 100 years after she was born.(Photo: EMI)
Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) is celebrated 100 years after she was born.(Photo: EMI)

The British contralto Kathleen Ferrier was born on April 22, 1912 and died forty-one years later.  She is far from forgotten here, but in the U.K. she remains a national monument on the order of the Queen Mum, Winston Churchill and David Beckham. Her American career began with a recital at Denison University in 1946.

Why is she not forgotten today? Well:



People who die young tend be remembered lovingly at the expense of their very real humanity. Kathleen was a small town girl who worked as a telephone operator in prewar England to pay for piano and singing lessons. She fled an unhappy marriage to try her luck in London. Her career began in earnest in 1943 and lasted barely ten years. In reading about her, one learns two things: the voice was a rare, true contralto of staggering beauty-and the lady herself had a bawdy (to put it nicely) sense of humor.  Programs of Brahms, Schumann and Elgar would be topped off with naughty songs like “The Floral Dance” (which cannot be posted here). This was no demure English lass.

Ferrier sang little opera. She created the title role in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and soon added Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. She said she looked like a broken windmill onstage, but her true home was the concert hall.  Britten, Peter Pears, Sir Adrian Boult, Herbert von Karajan, and Bruno Walter were among her colleagues and admirers.

“Kath” studied the songs of Mahler with Bruno Walter. Walter was, after all, a great conductor and the protege of Mahler himself, and mentored Ferrier through all the great song cycles, plus Das Lied von der Erde. Thus, a bawdy young beauty with a great voice became Mahler’s most important evangelist in the generation after the composer’s death. The final Ferrier/Walter collaboration was a recording of Das Lied von der Erde with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1952. Everyone knew, but did not acknowledge, that Kathleen would never sing this music again.  At the end of the recording session she asked Bruno Walter, “Was that alright, luv?”

She became  ill in 1950.  Cancer was diagnosed and she spent the rest of her life in pain. On and on she went anyway, singing and recording worldwide and having  fun all the same. Ferrier collapsed on stage during a performance of Orfeo at Covent Garden, and she died a few months later.

One hundred years after her birth and nearly sixty after her death, Ferrier’s recordings still sell briskly and no BBC vocal program is complete without her. While mourning her death, Bruno Walter said, “Kathleen should always be remembered in a major key.”