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Superstar singer Kathleen Ferrier was loved by all
11:51am Wednesday 18th April 2012 in Kathleen Ferrier: 1912-1953
SHE was the schoolteacher’s daughter whose voice charmed the world.
She performed on some of the biggest stages and took tea with royalty. Her recordings reportedly outsold the likes of Frank Sinatra and Vera Lynn, composers such as Benjamin Britten wrote pieces especially for her.
When she died in 1953, a victim of cancer at just 41, her death affected the whole country. The combination of her extraordinary contralto voice and down-to-earth personality meant she was genuinely loved by all, from the highbrow music critic to the man in the street.
At the time of her death, she was said to be the second most famous woman in Britain after the Queen Kathleen Mary Ferrier was born on April 22, 1912, and originally lived at Bank Terrace, Higher Walton, before the family moved to Lynwood Road in Blackburn when she was just a toddler.
Her father William was head teacher at St James’ Primary School in the town and the young Kathleen attended Blackburn High School for Girls.
At 14 she left school to become a trainee telephonist with the GPO in Blackburn to supplement the family income.
She would remain a telephonist for nine years eventually moving from Blackburn to Blackpool Telephone Exchange in 1934 to be nearer her future husband, bank employee Herbert Wilson.
A talented pianist, Kathleen continued her lessons with the Blackburn teacher Frances Wilson and in 1928 actually won an upright piano for winning the regional heats of a competition organised by the Daily Express.
Although she did sing occasionally there were no real signs of what was to come.
She and Herbert were married in 1935 and Kathleen was forced to leave the GPO, which at the time did not employ married women. They moved to Silloth in Cumbria where Herbert was appointed manager of the District Bank.
the path to stardom
In 1937 Kathleen’s life changed forever.
She entered the prestigious Carlisle Musical Festival piano competition and after a bet with her husband, also signed up for the singing competition.
Not only did she win the piano competition, and although she had never had a singing lesson in her life, she took the singing trophy too.
The festival success led to her first singing engagements and she was paid one guinea for her first professional engagement at the harvest festival in Aspatria in Cumbria.
Over the next few years Kathleen’s singing developed – in 1939 she had her first vocal coach, John Henderson of Newcastle – but her marriage was faltering.
With the outbreak of war, Herbert joined up and effectively moved out of Kathleen’s life; their marriage was annulled in 1947.
The war years saw Kathleen’s spectacular rise. In 1940 she successfully auditioned for CEMA – the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts – and embarked on a series of concerts for troops, munitions workers and local communities.
It also brought her into contact with mussicians with international reputations. She sang with the Halle Orchestra, and was spotted by conductor Malcolm Sergeant and taken on by the leading agents Ibbs and Tillet.
At Christmas 1942 with bombs raining down on London she took the brave decision to move to the capital to further her career.
Her first London performances soon established her as a rising star of the classical world at the same time maintaining a punishing schedule of concerts and recitals as part of the war effort, sometimes performing as many as 29 concerts in a week including entertaining the night shift in factories during their break.
Contrary to what many may think, Kathleen Ferrier was not an opera star. She only ever appeared in two.
In her diaries she said she wasn’t cut out for opera as “my arms are like windmills and my feet are too big”.
Nonetheless the composer Benjamin Britten was so taken by her performance of the Messiah at Westminster Abbey that he wrote the role of Lucretia in his new opera the Rape of Lucretia especially for her.
After the war, Kathleen’s career blossomed. She played both the Proms and Glyndebourne and then started to be invited to tour Europe desperately seeking a voice of calm after the trauma of war.
She was in constant demand for concerts, recitals and as a recording artist.
In 1948 Kathleen embarked on her first concert tour of North America – she would make two more trips in subsequent years –and the three years from 1948 to 1951 were probably the peak of her career.
In March 1951 Kathleen was diagnosed with breast cancer and for the next two years she combined a punishing touring and performing schedule with periods of intense radiation treatment.
At no point were her adoring public ever aware of the serious nature of her illness; even to friends she’d describe it as “rheumatics”.
She performed at venues such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall with some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors.
In 1953, Kathleen began rehearsing for four performances of the opera Orpheus to be staged at the Royal Opera House.
By now she was seriously ill and weakened by her radiation treatment. Her opening night was met with critical acclaim but her next performance would be the last of her career.
During act two some of the audience heard a dull crack, but thought little of it. The opera ran unhindered to the final curtain. Only one or two observers noticed Ferrier sang the rest of the act leaning against a pillar, a slight wince having briefly crossed her face.
Later it emerged she had fractured her left thigh while on stage, her frame was so weakend by her cancer treatment. But in spite of the agonising pain, Kathleen Ferrier continued with the performance and received a standing ovation from an audience who remained oblivious to the real drama unfolding on the stage.
Kathleen Ferrier never performed on stage again and she died in University College London on October 8, 1953. She was 41.
At her memorial service, the Bishop of Croydon said: “She seemed to bring into this dull, drab world of time and space a radiance from another world.”