Kathleen Ferrier (1912–1953) – Her life and legacy

Distinguished author and lecturer Paul Campion gave a fascinating talk in Westminster Music Library yesterday, to commemorate the centenary of one of the UK’s best loved singers.

Paul Campion talks about Kathleen Ferrier at Westminster Music Library

In the 41 years that made her life, Kathleen Ferrier became one of the most admired and popular singers in the world.  Her voice was a true contralto – quite a rarity – and her style of singing was uniquely British. The daughter of a school-teacher, Kathleen left school at the age of 14 and became a telephone operator on the Blackburn exchange. Not the most promising of beginnings for a future interpreter of Handel, Mahler and Gluck. Yet her background had been musical, her mother had insisted she had piano lessons from an early age, and her father was a music teacher who instilled rigid principles into his daughter. If a piece was to be played it was to be played properly, and according to the composer’s intentions.

At the age of 25, Kathleen became a professional singer, learning her trade by appearing pretty much wherever she was asked. The great conductor Bruno Walter himself was so impressed by her singing that he paid her the ultimate compliment of personally accompanying her at the piano during various recitals.

Kathleen gave many British, European and American concerts where she sang previously neglected British songs to her audiences, songs such as Blow the wind southerly, which some of her critics considered artistically inferior, but which now, thanks to her courage in recording them, form a much-loved part of her musical heritage.


In 1953, Kathleen was engaged to sing Orpheus at Covent Garden in a new production of Gluck’s Orfeo et Euridice. To be sung in English, critics were unanimous in their praise of her singing and interpretation. Tragically, she lived only long enough to complete two performances before succumbing to the cancer against which she had valiantly struggled for the last years of her life. An extraordinary and unaffected talent, and unlike in today’s world of divas and celebrities – she really was “just an ordinary lass from Lancashire”.

Kathleen Ferrier by Norman Parkinson for Vogue, 1952“She had such a lovely voice and seemed so natural, when I was a girl she was on the radio all the time”

“I remember my Father playing “Blow the wind Southerly” on the Dansette [record player] over and over, I was sure that record would wear out”

[Ruth]

 

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