On the centenary of her birth, Michael Kennedy pays homage to ‘Klever Kaff’, occasional golfer, and inventor of Rabelaisian limericks
Was she as wonderful an artist and woman as legend has it? Yes. Everything is true that has been said or written about the contralto Kathleen Ferrier, the centenary of whose birth is 22 April. She has been dead for 59 years, but through her recordings her voice — rich and always with a vein of melancholy — lives on, and could be mistaken for no one else and no one else for her. Never has a woman singer been so widely loved. The radiance of her personality suffused the music whether it was Bach or a folk song.
When she died from cancer on 8 October 1953, someone perceptively wrote that she may well have been the most celebrated woman in Britain after the Queen. The Austrian conductor Bruno Walter said, ‘The greatest thing in music in my life has been to have known Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler — in that order.’ Her international career can be charted from 17 May 1943, when she sang in Messiah with the Bach Choir in Westminster Abbey, until the night of 6 February 1953 at the Royal Opera House in the second performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, when during Act II a loud crack was heard. Her femur had fractured and a fragment of bone had broken away, causing agonising pain. She sang the rest of the opera motionless, leaning against the scenery.
That Abbey performance a decade earlier was significant because a large number of distinguished musicians had been in the audience to hear whether this woman from Lancashire was as good as people were saying. The BBC delegate reported that she had ‘a good voice but I cannot imagine she would ever move me’. Poor chap! The composer Benjamin Britten, on the other hand, contemplating an opera on the subject of The Rape of Lucretia, was convinced he had found his Lucretia.
Kathleen was a schoolmaster’s daughter, born in the village of Higher Walton near Blackburn. She left school at 14 to train as a telephonist. She had piano lessons but there was no money for further education. She won prizes and gave a piano recital for the BBC. Work, a disastrous marriage and competing at local festivals as pianist and, later, as singer was the pattern of her life until 1939 at Carlisle when her performance of a Strauss song impressed an adjudicator, the well-known teacher J.E. Hutchinson.
Hutchinson took her as a pupil and encouraged her to sing Bach, Handel, Brahms and Elgar. In December 1941 she sang in a Hallé Messiah alongside the soprano Isobel Baillie. She sang in munitions factories and military camps. An application to the BBC Head of Music in Manchester for an audition was rejected but Sir Malcolm Sargent heard her, introduced her to the agents Ibbs and Tillett and advised her to move to London. She lived in Hampstead from Christmas 1942, and soon made her first recordings. ‘What is life? (Che faro)’ from Gluck’s Orfeo and the unaccompanied north-eastern folk song ‘Blow the wind southerly’ made her a household name.
Britten had not forgotten her. In 1946 she sang Lucretia at the first postwar Glyndebourne Festival and toured with it to Holland. Moreover, Glyndebourne’s manager, Rudolf Bing, recommended her to Bruno Walter as the contralto soloist in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the 1947 Edinburgh Festival. Walter had conducted its first performance in 1912 and many thereafter. He nervously wondered what an English singer in the oratorio tradition would make of Mahler, but his verdict after their first rehearsals was, ‘I recognised with delight that here potentially was one of the greatest singers of our time.’ The following year she sang Das Lied with Walter at two concerts in New York. The American critics were by no means unanimous in praising her. ‘Well, well,’ she wrote home, ‘I can’t cope with the New York critics — it seems to be the biggest political racket ever…’ But the audiences loved her.
When the American contralto Marian Anderson met her she exclaimed, ‘My God, what a voice — and what a face!’ I know what she meant. Kathleen always looked superb on stage. Meeting her I was entranced by her beauty, her speaking voice (mellow, with no trace of Lancashire) and her friendliness. Soon she would reveal the gloriously funny offstage ‘Klever Kaff’ (as she often signed her witty and vivacious letters). She was an occasional golfer, the inventor of Rabelaisian limericks (unprintable here), spot-on imitator of Gracie Fields, lover of good wine.
In 1946 Sir John Barbirolli engaged her to sing in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius with the Hallé. It proved to be a partnership made in heaven. It is almost criminal that no recording, commercial or pirate, exists of her singing of the Angel. I can see and hear her now, when the Angel prepares Gerontius for the glance of God with the words ‘It shall pierce thee, too’. The word ‘pierce’ seared the soul. She sang Mahler, including Das Lied, with Barbirolli and he insisted she sing Chausson’s ‘Poème de l’amour et de la mer’ because he wanted her voice to go higher and not become plummy like many contraltos. They adored each other and she became an extra member of the Barbirolli family on holidays. ‘Memorable day,’ she wrote in her diary on 16 November 1951 when the then Princess Elizabeth reopened the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and Barbirolli conducted a short concert which ended with Kathleen and the chorus singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ as it has never been sung before or since. There is a recording of the occasion and you should commit murder to obtain it.
She was now in demand everywhere and it is exhausting to read her engagement books. She would go to Vienna to sing Bach with Karajan, reducing him to tears (no mean feat) in the ‘Agnus Dei’, and a few days later she would be in her old haunts in the north giving recitals of Handel and Brahms and singing folk songs in her jaunty way so that you cried or laughed. But she often felt ill and in March 1951 had a breast removed. She returned to the platform as soon as she could.
Most of what she achieved in the last year of her life — memorable concerts with Barbirolli, the rehearsals with him for the fatal Orfeo, the classic Das Lied von der Erde recording in Vienna with Walter — was against a background of hospital visits and treatment. In 1953, as she lay dying at home, she was appointed CBE (why not Dame?) and, which pleased her more, she became the first woman singer since 1914 to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. They all knew time was running out for Klever Kaff.