A guest post from VFTP contributor Peter Davison, in recognition of the recent Kathleen Ferrier annversary.
A tribute to Kathleen Ferrier
(based on an address made at Kathleen Ferrier: an Ordinary Diva, an event presented on 3 March 2012 at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.)
The much-loved contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, was born a century ago on 22 April 1912 near Blackburn in the heart of Lancashire. She gave many of her most memorable performances in Manchester with the Halle orchestra under Barbirolli and she felt at home in the city, where perhaps she could resolve the tension between her provincial roots and her creative abilities. It is highly appropriate for us to commemorate her in this city, where her memory still lives on so tangibly. Her reputation endures, almost sixty years after her untimely death, because of her wonderful legacy of recordings and because of the remarkable and moving story of her life and death which continue to capture the public imagination.
The peak of her success occurred just after the Second World War; a time characterised by austerity, but also the burgeoning of hope. As a beautiful and gifted classical singer, Kathleen Ferrier was, for many, a beacon of that better future – a sure sign that the nation’s culture would soon flourish once again. For that reason, her loss at the age of just 41 in 1953 was a bitter blow. She had been greatly admired for her sincerity and the warmth of her personality which always shone through in her performances. Yet, in the distinctively rich colour of her voice, there was a hint of deep sadness; a vulnerability belying her happy-go-lucky exterior. In the post-war period, the country needed to grieve the many social upheavals of the preceding decades, and Ferrier articulated that grief with compassionate humanity. Her melancholy found its most sublime expression in her interpretations of the music of Gustav Mahler; the provincial boy who rose to the top of the musical world. His was a journey of many difficult separations, and Ferrier shared that journey, from an ordinary, provincial background to the heights of cosmopolitan culture and international success. She also had features of Mahler’s mercurial personality in common, such as an earthy sense of humour and nostalgia for lost roots. If Kathleen Ferrier remained ‘an ordinary diva ’, it was by remembering with humility her origins, even at the peak of her fame. Yet her voice was anything but ordinary. It was a rare and precious instrument, which carried her towards destiny and away from what was familiar and provincial.
While Kathleen Ferrier remained unspoilt by her rise to prominence, she nonetheless took great personal risks in pursuit of a career, paying a high price for success. Powell and Pressburger’s acclaimed film “Red Shoes” was released in 1948, telling the tragic love story of a ballerina torn between the all-consuming demands of artistic excellence and her wish for personal happiness. There could be no compromise in the eyes of her cruel mentor. Misery and self-destruction follow. While Kathleen Ferrier had no such cruel mentor behind her, her single-minded dedication to her work stretched her physically and mentally to the limit. Like Mahler, she never found happiness in a personal relationship. Her short-lived and unhappy marriage left scars which she buried out of sight and, just as Mahler’s final illness was played out before concert-goers, Ferrier’s demise was also a public martyrdom. The agony of her predicament was curiously reflected in the music of Gluck’s Orfeo which she was singing at the time. In the opera, Orpheus grieves the loss of his beloved, snatched by Pluto, god of the underworld.
What shall I do without Eurydice?
Where shall I go without my love?
Eurydice! Eurydice! O God! Answer!
I am still true to you!
Eurydice! Eurydice! Ah, for me there is
no more help, no more hope
neither on earth, nor in heaven!
The music prophesied Kathleen’s fate, but also symbolised the wider loss of soul, when Man is overtaken by senseless furies and dark shadows; never more apparent than during the two World Wars which framed her short life. She made Gluck’s aria very much her own, giving voice to her own hidden feelings and those brought to the fore by the wider human tragedy of those dark times. Some lives are emblematic, where the personal and collective meet with poignant significance and potent creative consequence. Kathleen Ferrier’s was such a life; a conflation of art and reality which can often appear implausible, like the plot of some darkly sentimental novel. Then history has a habit of repeating itself. In Manchester, where Kathleen Ferrier gave many of her most memorable performances, a rather more temperamental diva, Maria Malibran, pushed herself beyond the limits of endurance during a concert at the cathedral in 1836 and never recovered.
Bruno Walter, the great conductor and close friend of both Gustav Mahler and Kathleen Ferrier, wrote that she would want us to remember her in a major key. The sad circumstances of her passing and the pathos of her music-making undoubtedly mirrored many of the experiences of Gustav Mahler. But, like him, her great gift was to transcend suffering through moments of redemptive beauty. As we commemorate Kathleen Ferrier during this centenary year, we can be genuinely and generously grateful for a life which bore such eloquent witness to the healing power of music.