Sunday, 22 April 2012

Kathleen Ferrier 100

Today. Kathleen Ferrier would have been 100 years old.  Her career wasn't long, because she died of cancer in 1953. But she's remembered because she made groundbreaking recordings like Mahler Das Lied von der Erde with Bruno Walter. To her, that was "new music" so she approached it completely without expectation.  She wasn't fluent in German but responded emotionally. Walter said that she couldn't stop crying, which in itself says something about her personality. She was so forthright that she had no affectation. She wasn't a self-conscious diva aware of her image. She was so spontaneous that she had to coached out of gestures like holding up her hand while singing "Du, Ring an meinem Finger". She  didn't really have a happy life but she had fun.

 Soon after her death, her sister edited a book with contributions from people who knew her, including Bruno Walter and Neville Cardus. It's lovely: I used to have three copies, including a first edition, but can't find them anywhere. The book was a tribute, but closer to reality than expected. The recent new edition of her letters confirms the impression in the first volume. "Klever Kaff", swearing and partying, altering her own gowns, discovering America after post-war British austerity.

Kathleen Ferrier created the template for British mezzos, although she probably wasn't aware she was doing so and certainly doesn't seem someone who took herself too seriously. Certainly she was in the right place at the right time. Mahler and Walter! She helped make Kindertotenlieder a vehicle for female singers even though it was written from a man's perspective (and most moving sung by a man). She was active when Benjamin Britten was starting to write opera for her voice type. Her Lucretia is deeply affecting. Had she lived, what might she have inspired in Britten, his ideas of womanhood shaped by his mother and Imogen Holst?

The photo at the top shows Ferrier arriving at Schiphol in 1951 for the Holland Festival. It was a big occasion. She was a big star and might have been even bigger. The smaller photo shows the house where she was born, in Preston.  I could do a clip of her singing Der Abschied, because it's beautiful, but it's so obvious. Besides, everyone knows that. Instead, I'll do her singing Blow the Wind Southerly. There's a story about a very elderly gentleman who couldn't sleep unless he heard this played before he went to bed. A lullaby for adults who can appreciate its deeper sentiments.

"They told me last night there were ships in the offing and I hurried down to the deep rolling sea. But my eye could not see it, wherever might be it, the barque that is bearing my lover to me...... Is it not sweet to hear the breeze singing, as lightly it comes o'er the deep rolling sea? But sweeter and clearer by far 'tis when bringing the barque of my true love in safety to me."

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