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Ferrier, Kathleen Marylocked

  • Harewood

Kathleen Mary Ferrier (1912–1953)

by Sir Cecil Beaton, c. 1950

© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Ferrier, Kathleen Mary (1912–1953), singer, was born on 22 April 1912 at 1 Bank Terrace, Higher Walton, Walton-le-Dale, Lancashire, the third surviving child of William Ferrier, schoolmaster, and his wife, Alice Murray. Ferrier's father taught in a school in Blackburn, where her natural talent as a pianist (she became an ARCM at the age of eighteen) already suggested a career before she became a Post Office telephonist at fourteen. However, work as solo pianist and as accompanist continued to come her way (her first solo broadcast was in 1931). Her marriage on 19 November 1935 to Albert Wilson (b. 1908/9), a bank clerk, involved a move to Silloth, near Carlisle. (The couple were divorced in 1947, and there were no children.) It was at the Carlisle musical festival in 1937 that for a bet Ferrier, a contralto, entered for singing as well as pianoforte playing and won the rose bowl. Encouraged to take singing lessons, she worked from 1939 until 1942 with J. E. Hutchinson of Newcastle, and gained sufficient reputation locally to earn engagements with the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts.

Sir Malcolm Sargent heard Ferrier in Manchester and advised her to move to London, where she sang for Mrs Tillett, the concert agent. Events moved fast, starting with a début in Handel's Messiah at Westminster Abbey (May 1943) and continuing with a decision to take singing lessons from the well-known baritone Roy Henderson, with whom she had sung Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah (in 1942 at Runcorn) and who remained her singing teacher as well as a firm friend for the rest of her life. By coincidence, the Westminster Abbey Messiah brought her into contact for the first time with the conductor Reginald Jacques and the tenor Peter Pears, with each of whom she performed frequently throughout her career.

Concerts of music from Bach and Handel to Elgar and Vaughan Williams followed throughout the war years, broken only by a single concert performance of Bizet's Carmen undertaken against Ferrier's better judgement and remembered with sufficient distaste (according to her sister Winifred) to prompt her to turn down a possible production at Glyndebourne. In 1944 and 1945 she made her first recordings, for Columbia; she then switched in 1946 to Decca, for whom she recorded (with a single exception) for the rest of her career.

It was Benjamin Britten, whom she had met during the war, who brought Ferrier to opera, writing for her the central role in The Rape of Lucretia, whose production at Glyndebourne in 1946 was little short of a triumph, given that in her first opera she showed little sign of self-consciousness but was (according to unpublished memoirs by Joan Cross, who sang with her at Glyndebourne) deeply uncertain about how to behave on stage, what to do with her hands, and how to walk. Britten himself nevertheless wrote that her Lucretia 'grew steadily in stature, always vocally richer and her acting more relaxed, until it became one of the most memorable of contemporary opera creations' (Cardus, 232).

Britten at one stage planned with Ferrier an opera based on Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, but this was not to be, and instead she undertook in 1947 a new production at Glyndebourne of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. It was her second and last operatic role, and no less successful than her first; moreover she repeated it, not least in the Netherlands, until the end of her life. In many ways the apogee of her career came half-way through it in 1947, when the conductor Bruno Walter chose her to sing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde at the first Edinburgh Festival, achieving a rare match of music, voice, and temperament. The partnership with Walter took her the following year to a New York début, with Das Lied von der Erde, and involved also lieder recitals and some recordings.

Recitals, partly because of the call of tours and often with Gerald Moore as accompanist, became an important part of Ferrier's life, but, well though she sang songs, her gifts were even better suited to the grander scale of concert platform and opera stage. Of the latter she became, Orfeo apart, more and more suspicious as time went by, though only illness kept her from a revival in 1951 of Lucretia. The inherent size of the voice, together with its sumptuous quality, allowed music to pour from her in great rolling phrases at any dynamic level, and the serenity she brought to Bach, Handel, and especially The Dream of Gerontius, in which she sang the Angel, was nothing less than ideal. After her death Neville Cardus wrote, 'the mingling of an impersonal grandeur with tenderness free of sentiment made her interpretation of the Angel one of the most moving experiences, musical and spiritual, of a lifetime' (Cardus, 216).

In contrast to the impression that anyone who knew Ferrier formed of her offstage, when with jokes and stories she could be the life and soul of the party, an ingredient of her vocal manner was a certain seriousness. It is not surprising that, in addition to Lucretia, Benjamin Britten wrote for her the Spring Symphony (1949), with its deeply affecting central section to words by W. H. Auden, and in 1952 Abraham and Isaac, where the joining of her voice in unison with that of Peter Pears made an unforgettable impression. Though she was a fine practising musician, she was no specialist in contemporary music; however, as well as the Britten, music written for her included Arthur Bliss's The Enchantress and Lennox Berkeley's Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila.

In 1951 Kathleen Ferrier was operated on for cancer. She nevertheless resumed her career within three months, travelling to Vienna to record a classic performance of Das Lied von der Erde with Walter, and a climax came in early 1953 with a production for her at Covent Garden of her favourite Orfeo, conducted by her great friend John Barbirolli. During the second of four scheduled performances she had to be assisted from the stage, and this turned out to be her last performance. Ferrier died in University College Hospital, London, on 8 October 1953. She had been appointed CBE in the new year honours of 1953 and was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society's gold medal in the same year.

Apart from her rich vocal endowment and her rare musical prowess, Kathleen Ferrier possessed the gift of communication, and her common touch made her beloved by audiences all over Europe and in North America as were few singers of her time. After she died Bruno Walter wrote that 'she was not enigmatic, not problematic, but a rare combination of profundity and clarity, of abundance and simplicity … The greatest thing in music in my life has been to have known Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler—in that order.' Few singers have earned so powerful a valedictory from so senior a colleague.

Although Kathleen Ferrier's public career lasted a bare ten years, few singers of the twentieth century earned such fame for sheer beauty of voice as well as love for the natural, unaffected personality she radiated from platform and stage. She died mourned by a nation. Scholarships are awarded annually in her memory by the Royal Philharmonic Society, and after her death a Kathleen Ferrier Cancer Fund was established at University College Hospital, funded in part by royalties from broadcasts and tapes.


  • C. Rigby, Kathleen Ferrier (1955)
  • M. Leonard, Kathleen (1988)
  • J. Spycket, Kathleen Ferrier (Lausanne, 1990)
  • P. Campion, Ferrier—a career recorded (1992)
  • A. Blyth, ‘Ferrier, Kathleen Mary’, New Grove, online edn
  • Daily Telegraph (9 Oct 1953)
  • The Times (9 Oct 1953)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Blackburn Art Gallery


  • BL NSA, ‘Dear Kath’, 8 Oct 1983, T6140WR TR1
  • BL NSA, ‘Kathleen Ferrier: the person and the voice’, 1979, 29E BBC TRANSC 144697/8
  • BL NSA, ‘On the wings of song’, BBC Radio 2, 30 Jan 1996, H6452/4
  • BL NSA, performance recording
  • Decca Record Co.


  • M. Codner, portrait, 1946, NPG
  • C. Beaton, photograph, 1950, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Allan, bust, Bridgwater Hall, Manchester
  • A. J. Fleischmann, bust, Blackburn Art Gallery

Wealth at Death

£15,134 14s. 11d.: probate, 21 Dec 1953, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
S. Sadie, ed., , 20 vols. (1980); 2nd edn., 29 vols. (2001)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]