A Voice of Pure Gold

Kathleen Ferrier’s wonderful career was cut short by her death at 41 in 1953. Thankfully plenty of the contralto’s songs were committed to vinyl

Culture & Anarchy Music
Kathleen Ferrier: Her death in 1953 aged 41 cut short a career that lasted only a decade

In almost any repertoire, the way men and women sing has changed profoundly over the last 50 or 60 years. In a way, it is not surprising: the way our speaking voices sound has changed too, as anyone listening to a black-and-white film on television of a Sunday afternoon will quickly discern. Those who like cut-glass tones will not much like what they hear as they go about their daily business, or in the broadcast media, today. Similarly, I often find the diction of today’s singers, whether singing in English or a foreign language, not what it used to be. I know nothing about the training of classical singers, and I don’t doubt that it has changed in the last 75 years, just as the teaching of so many other physical skills has. I don’t find the results as appealing as they used to be.

For me, nothing represents how singing at its best used to sound more than Kathleen Ferrier. I often wonder how we would assess her, or even describe the unique nature of her voice, had she died in the 19th century rather than in 1953, and no record had been left. As it was, there are many — though still not enough — recordings of her astonishing, deep, rich voice to convince those of us not born at the time that she was intensely special. Had she died before the era of recorded sound, how would we have known? Words cannot describe the sound of her contralto tones, so rare was it. So although her death from cancer at the age of 41 — she was born 100 years ago this April — was tragic, we do at least have the consolation of knowing for sure just how great she was.

Like many of my generation, I first encountered Ferrier through what would now, vulgarly, be described as her greatest hit: her unaccompanied rendition of “Blow the Wind Southerly”. The human voice is an instrument, and hers was a Steinway or a Stradivarius: and to hear it undiluted by a piano or orchestra is to understand its almost unmatchable quality. I first heard it the best part of 50 years ago, and I was little more than a toddler. Her records were played at home in a sense of awe, for there was no other singer like her, and with a sense of still amazed shock at her cruel death, which had happened more than a decade before. Ferrier, the daughter of a Lancashire schoolmaster who had worked as a telephonist before almost accidentally falling into a career as a singer, was enormously beloved by the public. She was a profound cultural force. People who would not normally in a million years have been attracted by the classical voice were gripped and moved by hers. One does not exaggerate to say that she changed lives.

Her folksongs remain my favourite of her recordings, not least because it is when she sings in English that one can understand so well the quality of her English voice. She is peerless in “Das Lied von der Erde”, ravishing in the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, and stunning in Handel and Bach: but there remains something almost incomprehensibly good about her singing “My Boy Willie,” “Come you not from Newcastle” or “O Waly, Waly”. Contraltos are out of fashion these days, for reasons I find incomprehensible; so when one hears Ferrier one does not just hear supreme artistry and musicianship, one hears something that very distinctly has a period feel. Although the recording is slightly distorted, her account of “Land of Hope and Glory” from Elgar’s Coronation Ode, which she sang under Barbirolli’s baton at the reopening of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1951, puts Ferrier very much in her context, and places her as the greatest British voice of the period.

By 1942 Ferrier was undertaking regular professional engagements, but her career    really flourished after 1945, with the cultural renaissance in Britain after the war. She was taken up by Benjamin Britten, her almost exact contemporary, whose English folksong arrangements she sang so perfectly. Ferrier became a prized part of the Aldeburgh set; one of the great “what ifs” is what Britten might have written for her throughout the 1950s and ’60s had she survived. Part of her attraction to the public was her down-to-earth take on life; there was nothing of the diva about her. When visited on her sickbed in 1953 and told that Britten and his partner Peter Pears were moving house, she wondered whether the new menage would be called “Homo Sweet Homo”. She could not abide 12-tone music, which she pungently described as “three farts and a raspberry, orchestrated”.

Ferrier remains a unique example of the English voice of her age: but to my ear there was a golden age of singing that lasted really from the 1920s to the 1960s, and which now seems hopelessly old-fashioned and is dismissed as a result. It starts for me with Steuart Wilson and Heddle Nash, continues with Isobel Baillie and Astra Desmond, goes through Ferrier to John Cameron, Jennifer Vyvyan and Norma Procter, and is rounded off by John Shirley-Quirk (a male voice with a uniqueness approaching Ferrier’s) and Janet Baker. Many of their recordings remain in the catalogue: they tend to be overlooked by those who love to have their “fi” high, and those who find the mid-20th century mode of singing arch or mannered.

I would be the first to admit that there is an element of nostalgia in my affection for these singers; but I do suspect that things aren’t what they used to be. I feel the same with Wagner: I go to the Opera House and hear Heldentenors that are about as heroic as a cabbage leaf. I hear Brunnhildes who struggle with, admittedly, the most taxing roles in opera. It is a far cry from Max Lorenz, Josef Greindl, Wolfgang Windgassen, Martha Mödl or Astrid Varnay, the great Bayreuth singers from the 1930s and ’50s whose voices are, thank heaven, immortalised on countless recordings.

That brings us to another “what if”: Ferrier was asked to sing at Bayreuth, as Brangane in Tristan and Erda in The Ring. She did not live long enough, and that is not the worst part of the terrible tragedy of her death.