'My dear Miss Ferrier,' Bruno Walter said, 'if we had been all as great artists as you, we should all have wept – orchestra, audience, myself – we should all have wept.'
Kathleen Ferrier was born and raised in Lancashire where she studied piano as a child and sang in local choirs. She got her first job in telephone exchange at 14 years old.
After gaining her LRAM in piano she began to work on her voice and despite the lack of initial success she was convinced it was the right path for her. The range of her voice at this time was just two octaves.
Her professional career took off in the 1940s and she began climbing the ladder.
After joining CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), she entertained troops and factory workers.
In 1941, she sang Handel’s Messiah with Isobel Baillie and the Halle Orchestra, making a big impression. After that Messiah, she was encouraged to move to London to develop her professional career. It also marked the beginning of a professional relationship with the leading oratorio soprano of the day, Isobel Baillie. They performed and recorded frequently together, although they never became close friends. It was more a case of mutual admiration.
In 1943, she sang Messiah at Westminster Abbey, with Isobel Baillie, Peter Pears and William Parsons. Benjamin Britten was in the audience and was very impressed. Peter Pears recommended her for the title role in Britten’s opera Rape of Lucretia, and she premièred the opera at Glyndebourne in 1946.
There was a huge thirst for culture after the war and Kathleen Ferrier made a memorable appearance at the 1947 Edinburgh Festival with Bruno Walter (a pupil of Mahler) in Das Lied von der Erde with the Vienna Philharmonic. She herself was in tears at the end of the performance and wondered if she had made a fool of herself. But Bruno Walter comforted her, 'My dear Miss Ferrier,' he said, 'if we had been all as great artists as you, we should all have wept – orchestra, audience, myself – we should all have wept.' She sang at every Edinburgh Festival after that until 1952.
These were very busy years with touring the UK and Europe as well as annual visits to North America.
But Kathleen Ferrier was to die young. In 1951, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, describing it as “a bump on mi busto”.
In October 1952, she made her last commercial recording, which was of Bach & Handel arias with Sir Adrian Boult.
In 1953, she was awarded a CBE in the new Queen’s first New Year’s Honours List. She died in October that year at the age of 41.
There is an annual Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship open to singers of any nationality under 29 years of age who have completed one year of study in the UK. Awards have been won by a number of young New Zealanders including: Malvina Major (1966), Keith Lewis (1976), Jonathan Lemalu (2002), Wendy Dawn Thompson (2003), Bianca Andrew (2016), and Julian Van Mellaerts (2017).