Kathleen Ferrier: Her death in 1953 aged 41 cut short a career that lasted only a decade
In almost any repertoire, the way men and women sing has changed profoundly over the last 50 or 60 years. In a way, it is not surprising: the way our speaking voices sound has changed too, as anyone listening to a black-and-white film on television of a Sunday afternoon will quickly discern. Those who like cut-glass tones will not much like what they hear as they go about their daily business, or in the broadcast media, today. Similarly, I often find the diction of today's singers, whether singing in English or a foreign language, not what it used to be. I know nothing about the training of classical singers, and I don't doubt that it has changed in the last 75 years, just as the teaching of so many other physical skills has. I don't find the results as appealing as they used to be.
For me, nothing represents how singing at its best used to sound more than Kathleen Ferrier. I often wonder how we would assess her, or even describe the unique nature of her voice, had she died in the 19th century rather than in 1953, and no record had been left. As it was, there are many — though still not enough — recordings of her astonishing, deep, rich voice to convince those of us not born at the time that she was intensely special. Had she died before the era of recorded sound, how would we have known? Words cannot describe the sound of her contralto tones, so rare was it. So although her death from cancer at the age of 41 — she was born 100 years ago this April — was tragic, we do at least have the consolation of knowing for sure just how great she was.
Like many of my generation, I first encountered Ferrier through what would now, vulgarly, be described as her greatest hit: her unaccompanied rendition of "Blow the Wind Southerly". The human voice is an instrument, and hers was a Steinway or a Stradivarius: and to hear it undiluted by a piano or orchestra is to understand its almost unmatchable quality. I first heard it the best part of 50 years ago, and I was little more than a toddler. Her records were played at home in a sense of awe, for there was no other singer like her, and with a sense of still amazed shock at her cruel death, which had happened more than a decade before. Ferrier, the daughter of a Lancashire schoolmaster who had worked as a telephonist before almost accidentally falling into a career as a singer, was enormously beloved by the public. She was a profound cultural force. People who would not normally in a million years have been attracted by the classical voice were gripped and moved by hers. One does not exaggerate to say that she changed lives.