Sunday, October 18, 2009

Kathleen Ferrier--First posted Oct. 18, 2008

Kathleen Ferrier CBE (22 April 1912 – 8 October 1953) was an English contralto, born in Higher Walton, Lancashire. She came to prominence as a singer during and immediately after the Second World War, and was especially remembered for her courageous performances during her final illness. Offstage, she had a vivacious personality, and gave herself the nickname "Klever Kaff".

Ferrier left school at 14 and worked as a telephone operator in Blackburn. On a bet, she took part in a music competition and won in two categories - singing and piano. It was this which brought her talents to public attention, and was a significant factor in her deciding to pursue a career in singing. During the early days of the war she gave concerts for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) and then, on the advice of Malcolm Sargent, moved to London in 1942, where her main career began.

Ferrier excelled in the music of Mahler, in Bach and in Handel. Her recitals often included songs by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms and towards the end of her career she sang Chausson's "Poeme de l'amour et de la mer" - her only major work from the French repertory. Ferrier is perhaps best-remembered for her interpretations of British folk songs, including "Blow the wind southerly." She was in demand throughout the UK, and also sang regularly in the Netherlands, where she was extremely popular, and in France, Germany, Italy and in Scandinavia. She paid three visits to North America (1948, 1949 and 1950) and sang at each of the first six Edinburgh International Festivals .

Benjamin Britten wrote several works specifically for her, including Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia, Abraham and Isaac (also written for Peter Pears), and part of the Spring Symphony (1949). Among other composers who wrote specifically for her were Lennox Berkeley, Arthur Bliss and Edmund Rubbra. She worked with many famous conductors, including Bruno Walter, John Barbirolli, Malcolm Sargent, Clemens Krauss, Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan, Eduard van Beinum and also with Benjamin Britten. She also worked with other famous singers such as Isobel Baillie, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Julius Patzak and Peter Pears.

Her final role was in Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at Covent Garden in February 1953. Already seriously ill with breast cancer, which had spread to her bones, she got through the opening night of Orfeo successfully, but at the second performance a bone in her leg broke while she was on stage. She managed to finish this performance, and left the theatre on a stretcher. It was her final performance: not long afterwards, she died on 8 October 1953, aged 41. (Joyce DiDonato wasn't the first!)

This recording was made in October of 1952, when she was undergoing treatments for her final illness. This aria from Messiah is always moving, but listening with the knowledge that it was made during her final recording sessions brings tears to my eyes.

(Bio from Wikipedia.)

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