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Kathleen Ferrier – British contralto; a voice in a century

By February 3, 2019March 31st, 2023No Comments

Kathleen Ferrier had one of the great voices of the 20th century. She came to singing late, and her career lasted about 10 years after which time it was cut short by her death from breast cancer. A true contralto is a very rare type of voice. Ferrier’s vocal production is beautiful. Although her voice was low, it was free to resonate. Her ability to convey complex emotions is poignant and beautiful. She is a singer whom many still listen to and regard as someone to emulate. While I could have given many examples of Ferrier’s art, I chose 4 selections which illustrate her singing in different styles. Do yourself a favor and listen to all of them.

Rhapsodie für Alt, Männerchor und Orchester, op. 53

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.

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.

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!

Alto Rhapsody

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.

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.

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!

J.S. Bach, Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, give us peace.

An die Musik

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,

Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,
In eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir,

Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!

To Music

Beloved art, in how many a bleak hour,
when I am enmeshed in life’s tumultuous round,

have you kindled my heart to the warmth of love,
and borne me away to a better world!
borne me away to a better world!

Often a sigh, escaping from your harp,
a sweet, celestial chord

has revealed to me a heaven of happier times.
Beloved art, for this I thank you!
Beloved art, I thank you!

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

I am lost to the world

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

Kathleen Ferrier

Kathleen Ferrier was born on April 22, 1912, in a Lancashire village in the north of England. Despite the limited financial means of the household, her mother insisted that Kathleen should have a proper education. Very early on, she became fascinated by the piano. Although a very bright student, she seemed to go on to university, but unfortunately, funds were lacking and she had to leave school at the age of 14 to start work as a telephone operator. As a pianist she participated in the many local festivals and won numerous prizes. Very soon, she accompanied her singing friends. In 1935 Ferrier married and the couple moved to Carlisle. It was her husband who challenged her to enter the Carlisle Festival for singing. After winning both the piano and singing prizes there in 1937, she decided to work as a professional singer, learning by appearing wherever she was asked. She studied with J.E. Hutchinson, who built her repertoire (songs by Purcell, Bach’s B minor Mass and Passions according to Saint John and Saint Matthew, excerpts from cantatas, Italian arias, oratorios by Handel and Elgars’ The Dream of Gerontius). She continued her studies with Roy Henderson, a former baritone and dedicated teacher who also introduced her to German songs. Within a short time Kathleen Ferrier became one of the world’s leading concert artists. She enjoyed tremendous success in Mahler’s orchestral songs, in songs by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann as well as in oratorios. She worked with all the celebrated conductors of the time like Monteux, Enescu, Karajan, Van Beinum, Erich Kleiber, Busch and Schuricht, to name but a few. The artist also reintroduced many previously neglected British songs to her audiences. She told in interviews that working with her mentor and fatherly friend Bruno Walter was probably of the greatest importance to her. Glyndebourne Festival saw her as Lucretia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eudridice (sung in English), her only two operatic roles. In 1951, a first operation interrupted her touring and, two years later, death of breast cancer put an early end to her too brief career.