Throughout her life Kathleen Ferrier made music. As a child at home in Blackburn, Lancashire she was keen to learn the piano and proved to be exceptionally talented. As a young woman she took singing lessons from a family friend and sang in a local choir, working during the day as a telephone operator. But it was not until after her marriage in 1935 that, giving up work and with time to spare, she began to take her voice seriously.
The first triumph came in 1937 when Ferrier entered the Contralto Class, as well as the Piano Class, in the Carlisle Festival. That she won both says much for her natural musicianship; following this unexpected success, she determined to study as a singer and under the tutelage of Dr John Hutchinson in Newcastle upon Tyne and, later, of the baritone Roy Henderson in London, the full potential of her voice was realised. Ferrier never attended a conservatoire but she worked continually at refining her art. A career move from Cumberland to war-torn London in 1942, almost continuous touring around the country and sheer willpower all prepared her for the international acclaim that she attracted in those austere post-war years. Who would have imagined that, ten years after winning the silver rose bowl in Carlisle, she would be appearing at Covent Garden, at Glyndebourne Opera, preparing for the first Edinburgh Festival with Bruno Walter and making records of arias, oratorios and German Lieder?
The voice was quite unmistakeable, the personality warm and welcoming. She was “the girl next door” whom men and women equally found endearing when they heard her on the radio, or saw her sing at London’s Royal Albert Hall, or Pontypridd Town Hall, in Gloucester Cathedral or Newcastle City Hall (all of which she did, for example, in May 1945). Kathleen Ferrier led her audiences as she explored the works of Bach, Schubert, Mahler and Britten — and a hundred other composers. Very few who heard her were not swept up by her love of music and zest for performance.
When Kathleen Ferrier died in 1953, at the age of forty-one, thousands mourned a woman they had never met; she had been their companion through difficult times and had smiled with them when life became easier. Now, one hundred years after her birth, new generations are captivated by “our Kath” and her life-affirming spirit.