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artist information

Kathleen Ferrier

Kathleen Mary Ferrier CBE (22 April 1912 – 8 October 1953) was an English contralto, born in Blackburn. She gave herself the nickname "Klever Kaff". She later moved with her family to Higher Walton, Lancashire.


Ferrier left school at 14 and worked as a telephone operator in Blackburn. She married a bank manager named Bert Wilson in 1935, and moved to Silloth and later to Carlisle, in the north of England.

Whilst in Carlisle, her husband bet her that she would not take part in a music competition. She entered and won in two categories - singing and piano. It was this which brought her talents to public attention, and was a significant factor in her deciding to pursue a career in singing. During the early days of the war she gave concerts for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) and then, on the advice of Malcolm Sargent, moved to London in 1942, where her main career began. In the end, her marriage did not work out, and was annulled after 12 years.


She studied with Dr Hutchinson in Newcastle and later with baritone Roy Henderson, who was a well known singing teacher at the time. The unique timbre of her voice was in part due to a medical anomaly: her throat was exceptionally wide.


Ferrier excelled in the music of Mahler, in Bach and in Handel. Her recitals often included songs by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms and towards the end of her career she sang Chausson's Poeme de l'amour et de la mer - her only major work from the French repertory. Ferrier is well remembered for interpretations of British folk songs, including Blow the wind southerly.

She was in demand throughout the UK, and also sang regularly in the Netherlands, where she was extremely popular, and in France, Germany, Italy and in Scandinavia. She paid three visits to North America (1948, 1949 and 1950) and sang at each of the first six Edinburgh International Festivals .

Benjamin Britten wrote several parts specifically for her, including Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia, Abraham and Isaac (also written for Peter Pears), and part of the Spring Symphony (1949). Among other composers who wrote specifically for her were Lennox Berkeley, Arthur Bliss and Edmund Rubbra.

She worked with many famous conductors, including Bruno Walter, John Barbirolli, Malcolm Sargent, Clemens Krauss, Herbert von Karajan, Eduard van Beinum and also with Benjamin Britten. She also worked with other famous singers such as Isobel Baillie, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Julius Patzak and Peter Pears.

She had previously sung Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at Glyndebourne in 1947 and in the Netherlands in 1949 and 1951. A recording of the latter was found in the archives of the Dutch National Opera and released on vinyl in the early 1980s, but the Royal Opera House performance was sung in English.

Final role

Her final role was as Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice at Covent Garden in February 1953.

Already seriously ill with breast cancer, which had spread to her bones, she got through the opening night of Orfeo successfully, but at the second performance a bone in her leg broke while she was on stage. She managed to finish this performance, and left the theatre in a stretcher. It was her final performance.


Ferrier died of breast cancer in October 1953.

Popular recitals

Works she was particularly well known for include:

  • Bach
    • St Matthew Passion
    • B Minor Mass
  • Brahms
    • Alto Rhapsody
    • Vier Ernste Gesange
  • Chausson, Poeme de l'amour et de la Mer
  • Mahler
    • Das Lied von der Erde
    • Kindertotenlieder
    • Rückert Lieder
  • Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice
  • Handel, Messiah
  • Schumann, Frauenliebe und -leben
  • Various folk songs, including Blow the wind southerly, The Keel Row.

Ferrier performed some of these pieces in both their original language, and also in English. Examples include the St Matthew Passion, arias by Bach and Handel, and Gluck's Orfeo. Ferrier made numerous recordings in her short career, though some of her performances were not recorded, or recordings were destroyed. These include performances of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, and Messiah.

Music samples

  • Have mercy, Lord on me (file info) — play in browser (beta)
    • From St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. With National Symphony Orchestra of London conducted by Malcolm Sargent. Recorded at Kingsway Hall, London, 6 February 1946.
  • What is life to me without thee? (file info) — play in browser (beta)
    • From Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck. With London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent. Recorded at Kingsway Hall, London, 27 February 1946.
  • Problems playing the files? See media help.


  • Bach, B Minor Mass, Suzanne Danco, Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears, Bruce Boyce, Norman Walker, BBC Chorus, Boyd Neel Orchestra, conducted by George Enescu, (1951), BBC
  • Bach, St Matthew Passion, Greene, Suddaby, Ferrier, Cummings, Bach Choir, Jacques Orchestra, conducted by Reginald Jacques, Decca, now on Dutton. (1947/8)
  • Bach and Handel arias (sung in English), London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult, Decca, recorded 7th and 8th October, 1952.
  • Brahms, Alto Rhapsody, Op 53, Men of the Oslo Philharmonic Chorus, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Erik Tuxen, Oslo (1949), APR

Brahms, Alto Rhapsody, Op 53, Danish Radio Male Chorus, Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Busch (Copenhagen, 6 Oct., 1949, live perf.), Danacord

  • Brahms, Alto Rhapsody, Op 53, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Clemens Krauss, (1947), Dutton (transferred from Decca)
  • Benjamin Britten, The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Kathleen Ferrier, contralto (Lucretia), Peter Pears, Joan Cross, Owen Brannigan (Collatinus), Edmund Donleavy (Junius), Otakar Kraus, baritone (Tarquin), Anna Pollak (Bianca), Margaret Ritchie (Lucia) English Opera Group Orchestra directed by Hans Oppenheim, Gala
  • Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Walter, Julius Patzak (tenor), Decca, Polygram
  • Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, Hallé Orchestra, John Barbirolli, Richard Lewis (tenor), 1952, APR
  • Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, Set Svanholm (tenor), 1948, Naxos
  • Mahler, Kindertotenlieder, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Walter, EMI, 1949
  • Mahler, Kindertotenlieder, Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, Decca 1951
  • Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor "Resurrection", also Jo Vincent (Soprano), Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, (1951), Archipel
  • Schumann, Frauenliebe und -leben, Brahms and Schubert lieder, live at the 1949 Edinburgh Festival accompanied on the piano by Bruno Walter, Decca, 1949