On the 100th anniversary of Ferrier’s birth, we examine the legacy of the British “girl next door”.

If not for a dare from her husband, Mrs Kathleen Wilson would not have entered the 1937 Carlisle Festival’s singing competition. Wilson had already signed up for the Festival’s piano competition when Bert bet her a shilling she wouldn’t dare try her hand at the vocal division too. She couldn’t resist, and with a rendition of Quilter’s To Daisies, won not only the bet, but first prize as well. Offers of professional singing engagements soon followed, and within a few years Kathleen Wilson – now known as Kathleen Ferrier – was emerging as one of Britain’s brightest singing stars.

Born in April 1912, the daughter of a Lancashire village schoolmaster, Ferrier was always musically inclined. Both her parents sang, and Kathleen too was involved in choirs. But the piano was her forte: from the age of 12, she was entering piano competitions and at just 14, passed the final grade of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. Financial woes, however, dashed her hopes of attending a music college, and she was obliged to leave school and take up work at the local telephone exchange. Her career as a telephonist lasted almost a decade, ending with her marriage, in 1935, to Bert Wilson, a bank clerk. They moved to Sillot, in Cumbria, where Kathleen became resident accompanist for the local choral society. Two years later came the Festival – and the bet – that would change her life.

“She surprised herself, and other people,” says Ferrier expert and discographer Paul Campion. “The adjudicator said she had a very beautiful voice and that she ought to make singing her career. Two years later she entered the same festival as a singer and met Dr John Hutchinson, who became her first serious teacher in the north of England. He said, ‘There are possibilities here which are rather marvellous. She is a real contralto with a most artistic conception of the song’.”  

The Wilsons’ union had never been a very satisfactory one, and when Bert was conscripted in 1940, it was, to all intents and purposes, the end of their marriage. Kathleen reverted to her maiden name – at first ostensibly because it had a better professional ring to it – and eventually they would agree to an annulment. Her career was going from strength to strength, and in 1942, she sang for Malcolm Sargent, who advised Ferrier to move to London and arranged an audition for her with the concert agency Ibbs and Tillett. The audition was a success. Kathleen Ferrier was on her way.

“When Kathleen moved to London, she was already pretty well established,” says Campion. “But I think the ‘important’ concert was when she sang Messiah in Westminster Abbey in May 1943. The other singers were Peter Pears, William Parsons and Isobel Baillie, with conductor Dr Reginald Jacques. The young composer Benjamin Britten was in the audience… Without this introduction she might well not have sung at Glyndebourne and thence had the introduction to Bruno Walter.” Ferrier’s artistry was also developing under the guidance of a new teacher, Roy Henderson. “In [the] early days she lacked a certain spontaneity and freedom in her interpretations, which… Henderson helped her with very much after 1942. But it was clear from early on that she had a very special ‘presence’ on the platform, and the rich quality of her voice was recognised early too.”

The Messiah at Westminster Abbey led not only to other significant engagements, but also to an increase in Ferrier’s radio appearances and to her first studio recordings. After a brief and unhappy time with Columbia, she shifted to Decca and remained there until her death, recording a wealth of concert repertoire, English songs, Lieder and the occasional operatic aria. Intensely self-critical, Ferrier was rarely satisfied with her recordings – but fans who rushed to buy her records felt differently, turning her renditions of Blow the Wind Southerly andChe faro (“What is life”) into bestsellers and helping to make her a household name. 

Unusually, Ferrier shied away from opera. She found it, Campion explains, “a somewhat artificial medium. She had no aptitude for acting and is quoted as saying that she would feel like a broken-down windmill on stage, never knowing what to do with her arms. And she was afraid of falling over her own feet!” It was Britten who managed to change her mind, persuading her to come to Glyndebourne to take the title role in his new opera The Rape of Lucretia. Despite initial misgivings, she scored a terrific personal and critical success in the role, and returned the following year to sing Gluck’s Orpheus – the only other operatic role of her career, and one with which she is still intensely identified. Asked why Ferrier never expanded her operatic repertoire, Campion responds: “It was the richness and quality of the music in these operas that let her enjoy these works, which I think she would not have found in other operas – even if the roles lay within her vocal range.”

Ferrier’s Glyndebourne connection played another crucial role when the festival’s general manager, Rudolf Bing, introduced her to conductor Bruno Walter. Their concerts of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, began an extraordinary collaboration centred on the Austrian composer, for whose vocal music Ferrier had an almost eerie facility. Walter would later famously declare that the greatest experiences of his life had been to know Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order. Why were Mahler and Ferrier such an ideal match? “It is a sense of spirituality that so informs the recordings such as Das Lied von der Erde, Kindertotenlieder and the Second and Third symphonies,” suggests Campion. “It is also a refusal to embellish this music with her own will, but to interpret simply some of the most complex music composed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” 

In 1948, her fame in Britain firmly established, Ferrier began to travel further afield, giving concerts and recitals in the USA and Europe. The next few years saw her career reach its apex. Composers wrote for her, critics raved and audiences in their thousands fell under the spell of her rich, instantly recognisable contralto and magnetic presence. “Her stage presence and embracing warmth seemed to be evident at every performance,” says Campion. “Even people who only heard her on records or on the radio felt she had befriended them – she was the ‘girl next door’.” 

Then in 1951, just as Ferrier seemed poised for decades at the top of her profession, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her indomitable spirit refused to be cowed: she returned to performing just a few months after a mastectomy and for the next two years continued to sing despite increasing health problems. In 1953 she began rehearsing for what would be her final performance: an English-language Orpheus and Eurydice at the Royal Opera. Opening night was a triumph; but during the second act her left femur partially fractured. Incredibly, she finished the show, before being taken to hospital. Her condition continued to deteriorate over the following months, and on October 8, 1953, Ferrier died. She was just 41 years old. More than a thousand mourners attended her memorial at Southwark Cathedral.

Almost 60 years since her death – and a century this month since her birth – Kathleen Ferrier lives on, in the hearts, minds and CD players of opera lovers around the world. She lives on, too, through the tireless work of the Kathleen Ferrier Society, more active than ever with recitals, lectures and exhibitions to celebrate her centenary; through the Kathleen Ferrier Cancer Research Fund; and through the Kathleen Ferrier Awards, which number Bryn Terfel, Yvonne Kenny and Kate Royal among those they have helped towards stardom. Her professional career may have lasted little more than a decade, but it was filled with such achievements as might fill several more – and her legacy has endured longer still. She is, just as Bruno Walter said she should be, “remembered and spoken of in a major key”.

This article appears in the April issue of Limelight, available here.