Famous and not so famous Brits – Kathleen Ferrier
Kathleen Ferrier, “the nation’s darling”
An intriguing trend in pop music is the increasing number of successful singers with trained voices. In Britain, it’s not uncommon to find records by classically-trained singers in the pop album charts – but this doesn’t mean that classical music or opera are popular in themselves. A clear divide has emerged: pop-classical singers (and their managers) often deride the classical/opera world as snobbish and elitist, while classical music lovers tend to dismiss the hit singers as mediocrities who rely on a limited and predictable repertoire. Yet, in the first half of the twentieth century, there were British singers who were both genuinely popular and critically acclaimed as artists of high quality.
The most fondly-remembered of these is the contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953). Her international fame was based on her mastery of classical repertoire (especially that of Bach, Brahms, Mahler and Elgar), but she also sang folk songs; her unaccompanied recording of the Northumbrian song Blow the Wind Southerly became a favourite with listeners to BBC Radio for many years after her death. She was born in Lancashire; her father was a teacher who became headmaster of a school in Blackburn. Both of her parents were keen amateur singers and Kathleen showed early talent as a pianist. However, she was unable to attend music college because her parents lacked money (her father was about to retire) so she left school in 1926 to train as a telephonist with the General Post Office. She continued to enter (and win) numerous amateur piano competitions, but in 1935 married Albert Wilson, a bank employee, and was forced to give up her job, as the GPO refused to employ married women.
Her singing career began in 1937; she won both the piano and singing competitions at the Carlisle Festival, having entered the singing contest as a result of a bet with her husband. She built up her reputation through live and radio performances in the North of England, and after the outbreak of the Second World War was recruited by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), to sing at concerts and recitals throughout the country. In 1942, her career was boosted when she met the conductor Malcolm Sargent, whose recommendations enabled her to move to London and develop her career. She was able to perform regularly at leading London and provincial venues, and to make many BBC radio broadcasts.
In 1946, Ferrier made her stage debut, in the Glyndebourne Festival premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia. In 1947, she made her first appearance as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, a work with which she became particularly associated. (Her English-language recording of Orfeo’s aria Che farò -”What is life” – became another radio favourite.) She formed close working relationships with major musical figures, including Britten, Sir John Barbirolli, Bruno Walter and the accompanist Gerald Moore, toured the United States three times between 1948 and 1950 and made many visits to continental Europe. Ferrier was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 1951, although, as was customary at the time, details of her illness were kept secret. She continued to perform and record and her final public appearance was as Orfeo, at the Royal Opera House in February 1953. Her death, eight months later, came as a shock to the public; she was “the most celebrated woman in Britain after the Queen” and according to one critic “not since Ellen Terry had any artist been so universally loved”. The Kathleen Ferrier Cancer Research Fund was launched in May 1954; the Kathleen Ferrier Scholarship Fund, administered by the Royal Philharmonic Society, gives annual awards to aspiring young professional singers. Her recordings remain in record company catalogues and continue to sell well.
NOTE: Wikipedia has a full biography of Kathleen Ferrier: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathleen_Ferrier
Two leading British music critics commemorate
Kathleen Ferrier: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ culture/music/opera/9019989/Kathleen- Ferrier-Consoling-angel-and-the-nationsdarling. html,