Thursday, 19 November 2009

Record #3: Brahms' Alto Rhapsody by Kathleen Ferrier

This disk comes from the early 60s, as far as I can tell, but the recording itself is from the 1940s. Kathleen Ferrier was a contralto opera singer who died of breast cancer aged 41 in 1953. She's remembered, if at all these days, for finishing a performance of Orpheo ed Euridice after a leg bone, affected by her cancer which was advanced, shattered and chipped on stage. She clung on to a pillar and finished the opera stationary. It's an incredible story, but it unfortunately overshadows her amazing voice. There still surrounds Ferrier an aura of the tragic heroine, one who died too young. It's true that she was incredibly brave, not only in the abovementioned performance but in the unrelentingly chipper way she faced dying. A few months before her death she wrote to an old schoolteacher of hers saying
"It broke the ligaments and a piece of bone of the hip in the middle of an Orpheus performance, so that is why I have stayed so long here, to give the leg a chance to get strong again. For the time being I must go round in a wheel chair, but I expect I shall soon become expert at steering a middle course and avoid scratching the paint on the doors!
"It was lovely to hear from you, and I do hope that if by any chance you are in St. John's Wood, you would call, and give me the great pleasure and privilege of welcoming you."
She's so winsome it's impossible not to like her. All this doesn't matter though. If she were still with us today at 97 she would still have produced some remarkable work. This is a setting of a few stanzas of Goethe composed in 1869 and although my copy of it is a little crackly (found in a charity shop, no doubt) her voice just cuts across that and is unearthly in its clarity. It's really beautiful.
Although I said earlier that it was a shame that the beauty of her voice has been overshadowed by the tragedy of her death, some great good has come indirectly out of it. Soon after her passing a number of people, including Ferrier's sister, Winifred, who wrote the biography I quote the letter above from, and Hamish Hamilton, who published it, established The Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship Fund which continues to assist young singers and The Kathleen Ferrier Fund for Breast Cancer Research, also ongoing. I feel it appropriate to plug both it and the Kathleen Ferrier Society here.
The fund required money and much of that came from the musical and theatrical world, she was, it seems, well-liked. Large amounts of money were also donated by members of the public, who were naturally endeared to Ferrier's story. My second-impression biography is signed by Winifred, suggesting promotion by appearances and signings even for the reprints. At the time she was pretty universally lauded as a singer, but as that renown has faded the fame that remains is in a large part due to those early memorialisers. Her memory has been helping people in mant different ways for over 50 years whih is a fantastic acheivement, but it would be a great shame if these bits of black plastic, which the charity shops are rife with, were forgotten.

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