Kathleen Ferrier made such an impact that contraltos and mezzo-sopranos who have come along since have often found themselves compared to her.


‘I had a naturally very dark voice,’ says Irish mezzo Patricia Bardon, ‘and when I came in to audition for my singing teacher in the late 1970s [Veronica Dunne, who sang with Ferrier], she said this was Kathleen Ferrier reincarnated.’

So defining were her interpretations, so magnetic her personality, that for many Ferrier remains Britain’s greatest contralto. That she became a singer almost by accident makes her success even more remarkable. Teaching piano and accompanying choirs in Cumbria, she entered a local music competition in 1937 and won both piano and vocal categories. And yet she had only entered the vocal class after a bet with her husband.

Concert engagements followed, and good words from people such as Sir Malcolm Sargent helped secure her a contract with the agency Ibbs and Tillett in 1942. For ten years, she enjoyed an international career, fostering artistic relationships with Britten, Bruno Walter and Sir John Barbirolli. Her voice could be heard on the BBC’s Light Programme and the Home Service, and as such Ferrier endeared herself to huge numbers of people.

What was so special about Kathleen Ferrier?

‘She seemed to be able to communicate very directly with her audience,’ says mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers, whose parents had a record player reserved for The Beatles, Verdi’s La traviata and Ferrier.

‘The hugely respected conductors who paid tribute to her remarked on her depth of emotion and spirituality. This is from people who stood right next to her on a stage and saw first-hand how she was able to communicate. In an increasingly secular world, the radiance and commitment Ferrier brought to oratorio and other sacred music are a real inspiration.’

What did Kathleen Ferrier sing?

Ferrier’s repertoire was not huge. In opera, she gave the premiere of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia and performed only one other operatic work – Gluck’s Orfeo. She recorded Lieder by Schumann and Brahms, as well as English folk songs. She excelled in oratorio, giving compelling performances of pieces such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. And with Bruno Walter she helped to put Mahler on the map with her interpretations of his song cycles. As a consequence, for the generations of singers who have come after Ferrier, approaching certain repertoire can pose quite a challenge.

‘It’s almost impossible to do an original performance of “O rest in the Lord” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah because of Ferrier’s recording,’ says mezzo Diana Moore. ‘Sometimes a presence like that in a piece of music can be hell, especially if you’ve known a recording for a long time.

'You almost feel you’ve got the ghost of her on your shoulder. When I was singing a lot of different oratorios, the review would often say “reminded me of Kathleen Ferrier” and I used to feel that was a real compliment because it made me feel that I had gone in the right direction. The trouble is that can then be a problem, because if you feel that’s what people are after you forget to go in your own direction.’

Contralto Hilary Summers faced a similar challenge early on in her career, particularly when it came to Bach. ‘“Erbarme Dich” from the St Matthew Passion was a massive influence on me when I was younger,’ she confesses. ‘I would listen to Ferrier because she also had trouble with the top of her voice – you can hear that occasionally and she negotiates it very cleverly. But what really inspired me was how she just completely goes for it and the breath powers her through all those difficult top bits. And I loved her portamentos and the way she does those phrases is absolutely ravishing, whatever people say about the anachronistic style. Ferrier definitely has influenced me.’

As Summers suggests, Ferrier had her technical faults, but she turned the weaknesses to her advantage, with Britten praising the tension at the top of her voice for having ‘an intensely moving quality’. Unlike contraltos before her such as Clara Butt, Ferrier made efforts to disguise the change between her chest voice and middle register to create a smooth sound almost throughout the voice. It’s something, as Catherine Wyn-Rogers says, that modern singers strive for.

‘I’d rather a singer had something to say with their instrument than all the polished, microphone-friendly, even-voiced performances you often hear today, even though I can envy their technical achievement,’ she says. ‘Maybe if Ferrier had lived longer, she would have clarified some of her vowel sounds which are a bit “chewy”. But the magic of what she brought to the music shines through.’

The magic has been very much to the fore this year, with centenary exhibitions in Ferrier’s home town of Blackburn, as well as at Glyndebourne, and Naxos has re-issued some of her recordings. Hilary Summers and Diana Moore have both developed a Ferrier tribute programme, performing pieces associated with Ferrier, interspersed with extracts from letters and diaries. Ferrier’s legacy lives on.

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When did Kathleen Ferrier die?

Kathleen Ferrier died of breast cancer on Oct. 8, 1953

What has happened to our contraltos?

There is just one area however where Ferrier’s passing began a decline of sorts. Hilary Summers is adamant that she is a contralto, as Ferrier was. Yet today the contralto is a rare breed. The demand for oratorio is not as high as it was, and a singing career based entirely on recitals is no longer appealing.

‘There is an emphasis now on a different voice with a more forward, brighter sound and more overtones,’ says Patricia Bardon. ‘For me it was a conscious decision not to be a contralto, because I felt I’d be doing Messiah and the Alto Rhapsody for the rest of my life!’

Opera is where a lot of the work is for the singer, and this demands greater versatility and a bigger range in terms of the voice. In essence, argues music historian and conductor Dr Christopher Fifield, being a contralto has gone out of fashion.

‘A contralto stereotype is an operatic granny and an also-ran,’ he says. ‘They don’t get all the pyrotechnical vocal exercises and arias that bring the house down. A contralto rarely, if ever, stops the show. But the music for contraltos hasn’t gone away. What has happened is that voices have been pushed up by singing teachers and singers who want to sing higher, and they’ve done it at the expense of the bottom of the voice.’

Whether you mourn the decline of the true contralto, or accept that the classical music industry has moved on, the appreciation of Ferrier’s artistry is no passing fad. ‘Ferrier really invested herself in what she was doing,’ concludes Diana Moore. ‘That’s not to say that other singers aren’t expressive, but you often hear someone using a voice. There are only very few voices which become more than that, and those are truly the greats.’

Kathleen Ferrier’s best recordings


‘Blow the wind southerly’ etc

Naxos 8.111081

Ferrier’s ‘signature’ tune is a moving folk song from Northumbria


Das Lied von der Erde

Ferrier, Julius Patzak; Vienna Phil/Bruno Walter

Decca 466 5762

Made the year before she died, it’s hard to hold back the tears, especially in ‘Der Abschied’


‘Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion’

Ferrier, LPO/Adrian Boult

Decca 475 6060 (part of 10-disc set)

Hard to imagine Handel sung like this today, but the diction is winning


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