The death of Kathleen Ferrier has bereft music-lovers and her friends of a consummate artist and of a rich, lovable and warm personality. She rose from obscurity in an incredibly brief span of time and achieved an international reputation rarely accorded to English singers. For two years she well knew the nature of the painful illness from which she suffered, and she also knew that there was little hope of cure or recovery. But she was undismayed. The crisis came last February when she was appearing for the first time in the Orfeo of Gluck at Covent Garden. Her lovely and moving singing gave no indication of the agony and mental stress which she must have been enduring. But when the curtain fell and muffled the din of enthusiastic acclamation resounding in the theatre, she could hardly manage to walk off the stage. From her dressing room she was hurried to University College Hospital. In the summer, although still too crippled to walk, she was thought well enough to return to her Hampstead home. It was there that she died on October 9.
Born at Preston in 1912, her father was the headmaster of St Paul's School, Blackburn; his great occasion was singing in the choir which Sir Thomas Beecham conducted when he visited Blackburn. For nine years Kathleen Ferrier worked as a telephone operator at the Blackburn Post Office. In her spare time she studied the piano. When she was 15 she won a Daily Express piano competition and was awarded a grand piano and a trip to London. It was not until she was 25 that she began to take singing seriously, when, as a result of a dare by a girl friend, she won not only the piano, but also the singing prize in open competition at Carlisle and, in addition, the special prize for the best singer at the Festival. Her first professional engagement as a singer followed, the offered and accepted fee being a guinea. Despite great obstacles, she contrived to have regular singing lessons with Dr Hutchinson, whose tuition and influence was invaluable, and she sang up and down the country to audiences of soldiers, factory workers and miners. In 1942, Alfred Barker the violinist introduced her to Sir Malcolm Sargeant with the word: 'This girl has a voice!' Sir Malcolm heard her sing, it was in a Manchester hotel; he telephoned a well-known concert agent, as a result of this there was another audition in London, the success of which persuaded Kathleen Ferrier and her father to move from Blackburn and settle in their new home at Hampstead on Christmas Day, 1942. Then followed further tuition with Roy Henderson and now quickly it began to be realised that a singer of the highest rank was about to emerge; her contralto voice, almost mezzo in range, pure and lovely of tone, and her feeling and artistry, suggesting that she was the best English contralto since the halcyon days of Muriel Foster.
She toured Europe, Canada and America and had the distinction of being the first English singer to sing Mahler at Salzburg. In 1946 she was honoured with a CBE and the Royal Philharmonic Society's gold medal for services to music. She sang at every Edinburgh Festival except the last. It was at Edinburgh that she met Dr Bruno Walter. She said that it was he who removed those inhibitions in her and so common to English singers which had kept her shy of letting her emotions go. It was at Fdinbtirgh, in 1947, that she sang Mahler's Das Lied van der Erde. At the final repetitions of the word 'Ewig', her eyes filled with tears, her voice faltered into silence. In the artistes' room she was full of contrition to Bruno Walter that she had failed at the end. 'My dear Miss Ferrier,' he said, 'if we had been all as great artists as you, we should all have wept – orchestra, audience, myself – we should all have wept.'
She strove for perfection and attained it so often. She died at the grievously early age of 42, but the memories of her singing remain ineffable, albeit but a ghostly whisper of beauty, and of artistic integrity. This gracious woman was greatly beloved. RIP.