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Kathleen Ferrier, contralto

By March 11, 2018April 7th, 2023No Comments

Kathleen Ferrier was a marvelous English contralto and a great artist. Bruno Walter, the esteemed conductor, said about her, “the greatest thing in music in my life has been to have known Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler-in that order.” She is certainly one of my favorite singers. Tragically, her life was cut short by breast cancer when she was 41.

I will post the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, a Mahler Lied (Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen), an oratorio aria (
O Rest in the Lord), and a Purcell duet sung with Isobel Baillie.

Alto Rhapsody

Brahms Alto Rhapsody youtube

German original English Translation

Aber abseits wer ist’s?

Im Gebüsch verliert sich sein Pfad;

hinter ihm schlagen die Sträuche zusammen,

das Gras steht wieder auf,

die Öde verschlingt ihn.

But who is that apart?

His path disappears in the bushes;

behind him the branches spring together;

the grass stands up again;

the wasteland engulfs him.

Ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen

dess, dem Balsam zu Gift ward?

Der sich Menschenhaß

aus der Fülle der Liebe trank!

Erst verachtet, nun ein Verächter,

zehrt er heimlich auf

seinen eigenen Wert

In ungenügender Selbstsucht.

Ah, who heals the pains

of him for whom balsam turned to poison?

Who drank hatred of man

from the abundance of love?

First scorned, now a scorner,

he secretly feeds on

his own merit,

in unsatisfying egotism.

Ist auf deinem Psalter,

Vater der Liebe, ein Ton

seinem Ohre vernehmlich,

so erquicke sein Herz!

Öffne den umwölkten Blick

über die tausend Quellen

neben dem Durstenden

in der Wüste!

If there is on your psaltery,

Father of love, one note

his ear can hear,

then refresh his heart!

Open his clouded gaze

to the thousand springs

next to him who thirsts

in the wilderness!

Brahms composed the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869) as a wedding gift for Julie Schumann, the daughter of Robert and Clara Schumann, who was for a time the object of the composer’s affections. Shortly after completing the work, Brahms showed it to Clara Schumann, prompting her to write in her diary, “A few days ago Johannes showed me a wonderful work…. He called it his bridal song. It is long since I have received so profound an impression; it shook me by the deep-felt grief of its words and music.” The Alto Rhapsody was first performed in Jena on March 3, 1870 of the same year.

The text consists of three stanzas from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Harzreise im Winter (Harz Mountain Journey in Winter); together they make for a self-contained poetic and dramatic unit in which desolation gives way to the possibility of consolation. Brahms set each of the stanzas differently. The first, which introduces the wanderer’s plight, receives the freest, most rhapsodic musical treatment; the fragmented voice part never repeats an idea, and there is a sense of aimless resignation.

The second section, marked by a faster tempo and more agitated rhythm, becomes an intense plea for pity on behalf of the lost wanderer: Is there to be no consolation for him? Brahms organized the second stanza along the lines of a da capo aria; the first lines of the stanza return at the end with the same melody and an only slightly modified accompaniment.

The chorus makes its first appearance in the third stanza, which takes the form of a simple, hymn-like song. The warm harmonies of the chorus and the straightforward phrases are indeed a balm for the first two stanzas; perhaps the wanderer will indeed find hope and consolation. Though they begin similarly, the alto’s solo and the four choir parts eventually gain some measure of independence; the overall effect is that of a duet for alto and choir.

The Alto Rhapsody has remained one of Brahms’s most popular and successful works; the sincerity of its sentiment and the universality of its plea for future contentment have given it a timeless quality that transcends its occasional inspiration.

“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” – Mahler

Please note that Ferrier was dying of cancer when she recorded this Lied.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen youtube

The text in English and German is in the youtube video.

Mahler identified profoundly with the directness and refined sensibility of Rückert’s verses, declaring that ‘after Des Knabens Wunderhorn, he could not compose anything but Rückert – this is lyric poetry from the source, all else is lyric poetry of a derivative kind’. Apart from the earliest, ‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’), all the so-called Rückert-Lieder were written in the idyllic lakeside setting of Maiernigg in Carinthia, where Mahler had built a summer villa as a refuge from the habitual turbulence of the Viennese opera season. Four of the songs were completed, in both piano and orchestral versions, by August 1901. A fifth, ‘Liebst du um Schönheit(‘If you love for beauty’s sake), followed a year later, as a gift to his new bride, Alma Schindler. It is Mahler’s sole overt love song, and the only one of the Rückert-Lieder he never orchestrated – doubtless because of its intensely personal significance. When a plausibly Mahlerian orchestral version by the Leipzig musician-cum-critic Max Puttmann appeared in 1916, Alma, predictably, protested.

In their orchestral guise, four of the Rückert-Lieder were premiered at a sold-out concert in Vienna that many Lieder lovers might be tempted to nominate as the greatest ever showcase of new songs: a ‘Lieder recital with orchestra’ – itself a revolutionary concept – in January 1905 that also included the premieres of the Kindertotenlieder and settings from Des Knabens Wunderhorn. Crucially, Mahler chose the small Brahms-Saal of the Musikverein so that the songs could be performed ‘in the manner of chamber music’, in an good acoustics.

Oh rest in the Lord – Mendelssohn (from Elijah)

O rest in the Lord youtube

Sound the Trumpet (Purcell) – Kathleen Ferrier and Isobel Baillie

Sound the Trumpet youtube

Sound the Trumpet is found in Orpheus Britannicus, a collection of songs by Henry Purcell, published posthumously in London in two volumes, the first in 1698 and the second in 1702. In the preface to the first volume, Henry Playford, the printer of the volume and the son of the famous John Playford, extolls Purcell’s skill as setter of English texts.

The first publication of a section of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas was the air “Ah! Belinda” in Orpheus Britannicus, transposed up one step, from C to D.

Henry Hall, who had studied composition with Purcell under John Blow, wrote the dedicatory poems at the beginning of each volume, (1698 and 1702) and also wrote one for Blow’s Amphion Anglicus.

Benjamin Britten, working with Peter Pears, realized and edited a number of songs from Orpheus Britannicus for both solo singer with piano and solo singer with orchestra.

Kathleen Ferrier

Kathleen Mary Ferrier, CBE (April 22, 1912 – October 8, 1953) was an English contralto singer who achieved an international reputation as a stage, concert and recording artist, with a repertoire extending from folksong and popular ballads to the classical works of Bach, Brahms, Mahler and Elgar. Her death from cancer, at the height of her fame, was a shock to the musical world and particularly to the general public, which was kept in ignorance of the nature of her illness until after her death.

The daughter of a Lancashire village schoolmaster, Ferrier showed early talent as a pianist, and won numerous amateur piano competitions while working as a telephonist with the General Post Office. She did not take up singing seriously until 1937, when after winning a prestigious singing competition at the Carlisle Festival she began to receive offers of professional engagements as a vocalist. Thereafter she took singing lessons, first with J.E. Hutchinson and later with Roy Henderson. After the outbreak of the Second World War Ferrier was recruited by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), and in the following years sang at concerts and recitals throughout the UK. In 1942 her career was boosted when she met the conductor Malcolm Sargent, who recommended her to the influential Ibbs and Tillett concert management agency. She became a regular performer at leading London and provincial venues and made numerous BBC radio broadcasts.

In 1946, Ferrier made her stage debut, in the Glyndebourne Festival premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia. A year later she made her first appearance as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, a work with which she became particularly associated. By her own choice, these were her only two operatic roles. As her reputation grew, Ferrier formed close working relationships with major musical figures, including Britten, Sir John Barbirolli, Bruno Walter and the accompanist Gerald Moore. She became known internationally through her three tours to the United States between 1948 and 1950 and her many visits to continental Europe.

Ferrier was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 1951. In between periods of hospitalization and convalescence she continued to perform and record; her final public appearance was as Orfeo, at the Royal Opera House in February 1953, eight months before her death.