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Kathleen Ferrier’s father was a schoolteacher and a keen amateur musician, while her mother was a capable singer. She showed great early talent as a pianist and was taught by Frances Walker, herself a pupil of Tobias Matthay. Despite her musical promise however, family circumstances decreed that from 1926 she should train as a telephonist rather than as a musician. Ferrier continued with the piano however, winning several regional competitions, broadcasting for the BBC in 1930, and being awarded her Royal Academy of Music Licentiate (diploma) in 1931—the year in which she began to take singing lessons. Several years later, as a result of a domestic bet, she entered the vocal section of the 1937 Carlisle Festival alongside that for piano, and won both.

After this Ferrier was quickly offered further work as a singer and in 1938 was heard by a BBC producer who offered her a broadcast from Newcastle in February 1939 which gained wide attention. At the 1939 Carlisle Festival she was heard by the singing teacher and conductor J. E. Hutchinson, who took her on as a pupil and helped to extend her repertoire to include Bach, Handel, Brahms and Elgar. In 1940 she sang in a performance of Handel’s Messiah conducted by Hutchinson and during the following year, after successfully auditioning for CEMA (which arranged concerts for troops) Ferrier began to work with musicians of international reputation.

After a concert with the Hallé Orchestra she sang for the conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent, who recommended her to the music agency Ibbs and Tillett and suggested she move from the north of England to London. This Ferrier did, accompanied by her sister, in 1942. She gave her first London recital in December 1942 as part of Myra Hess’s National Gallery series, after which she decided to take further lessons from the baritone Roy Henderson. A May 1943 performance of Messiah at Westminster Abbey alongside Isobel Baillie and Peter Pears led to further engagements and numerous broadcasts. Her first recordings were made for EMI in 1944, but following a strained relationship with Walter Legge, Ferrier quickly switched to Decca.

By now she was firmly established, singing the Angel in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in Leeds during November 1944, Sea Pictures with Sir John Barbirolli and an aria from Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans at the 1945 Proms. Although Ferrier did not enjoy singing in opera, Benjamin Britten persuaded her to sing the title role in the first performances of his opera The Rape of Lucretia at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1946. This production enjoyed considerable critical success and led to Ferrier singing in Holland where she became especially popular. She returned to Glyndebourne the following year to sing a highly praised Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with Fritz Stiedry conducting. Rudolf Bing, then general manager at Glyndebourne, recommended her to Bruno Walter as the contralto soloist for a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the first Edinburgh Festival of 1947, and once again she struck up a close relationship with a musician of high calibre.

At the start of 1948 Ferrier made the first of three annual trips to North America, and henceforth her career was international. Highlights included the first performance of Britten’s Spring Symphony with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra under Eduard van Beinum (1949), Gluck’s Orfeo with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux and Bach’s B Minor Mass and St Matthew Passion with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan (all 1950).

A diagnosis of breast cancer was confirmed at the beginning of 1951, but after a mastectomy in April Ferrier returned to work in June (while continuing with therapeutic treatment) and sang in a searing account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’ under Otto Klemperer at the 1951 Holland Festival. During 1952 she continued to give concerts and to record; in the New Year Honours for 1953 she was awarded a CBE. During February she sang in a production of Orfeo ed Euridice especially mounted for her at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden under Barbirolli, but collapsed during the second performance. It was to be her last public appearance.

Ferrier’s outgoing personality, singularly plangent vocal quality and heightened musicianship gave her singing an emotional directness and intensity that are most unusual. Her fortunately numerous recordings stand as an eloquent testimony to her unique art.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

Role: Classical Artist 
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