The Letters and Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier
edited by Christopher Fifield (revised and enlarged edition)
The Boydell Press, Suffolk, soft covers, 489 pages
had only just opened the parcel containing my copy of this book
on Christmas Day when it was immediately pressed into service.
I was writing an article about Sir Arthur Bliss’s fine scena
for contralto and orchestra, The Enchantress: I needed
to find out what Kathleen Ferrier had said about the work. So
whilst the roast beef was in the oven, I checked out the dozen
or so references to this work indicated in the index. Naturally,
one’s eye caught a whole raft of other interesting bits and
pieces. So a happy hour was spent exploring her musings about,
and connections, with the music of Benjamin Britten, Charles
Villiers Stanford and Peter Warlock. However, what impressed
me most was the vast number of people, places and musical compositions
that had interacted with this marvellous lady. It is this treasury
of information that makes this book such a valuable piece of
scholarship. However, running virtually neck and neck is the
fact that this book is also a remarkable portrait of the life
and times, the moods and concerns, the fun and the pain of Kathleen
Ferrier. I must state that I did not read the first edition
(2003) of this book.
I guess that a biography of Kathleen Ferrier is not required
in this review. Save to say that she was, and remains, one of
the most iconic singers in the world of British music. The tragedy
of her early death has no doubt contributed to the sometimes
hagiographical view of her life. However, her illness and subsequent
death in 1953 must never detract from the fact that she was
a lady who had begun her career as a telephone operator and
had ended up performing on the great stages of the world. In
many ways it is a fairy-tale story that had a sad, but ultimately
positive ending. It is this sense of the affirmative that characterises
Christopher Fifield has many strings to his bow. He is a conductor,
a music historian, a lecturer and a broadcaster. The basic premise
of this volume is to present a large selection of Ferrier’s
letters and diaries. To this, is added the lightest possible,
but ultimately vital commentary. He has written what may be
regarded as an ideal model of this kind of book.
The Letters and Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier is to a
certain extent ‘technical’. It is unlikely to be through read.
Scholars and scribblers will find that it contains an enormous
amount of essential primary data for their explorations into
a vast array of topics. Musical historians will be first in
the queue: this will include those who specialise in opera,
folksong, Mahler, Brahms and British composers. Other students
will want to explore the letters and diaries from a social history
point of view. Here is a record of the work and travel arrangements
of a very busy lady. Even the train times and the hotels stayed
in are mentioned. Another group of interested people will relate
to the sad side of these letters and diaries – they will want
to understand how she coped with breast cancer. Certainly these
readers will find that through all the stress and pain she never
lost her wicked sense of humour.
The book takes its place as the latest in a small but select
group of volumes published since 1953. The earliest book was
a collection of six tributes written the year following her
death – Kathleen Ferrier –A Memoir. Contributions were
made by Sir John Barbirolli, Benjamin Britten, Neville Cardus,
Roy Henderson, Gerald Moore and Bruno Walter. The following
year, her sister, Winifred Ferrier published the first biography,
The Life of Kathleen Ferrier. This has always been
regarded as an excellent and objective account of her sister’s
life. An unauthorised biography by Charles Rigby, also published
in 1955 has been the subject of much controversy and is deemed
to be inaccurate in some ways. A third of a century later Maurice
Leonard’s Kathleen (1988) revealed some aspects of
the singer’s life and illness ‘that her sister had been reluctant
to focus on so soon after Kathleen's death’. It was written
with Winifred’s full cooperation. A second, revised edition
was released in 2008. One of the most recent contributions to
Ferrier scholarship has been Paul Campion’s Ferrier - A
Career Recorded (2005). This is an annotated discography
and filmography covering all the recordings known at the time
The present book is quite simply organised. After the usual
offices the letters are preceded by an introduction, setting
them in context. These letters are then presented by individual
year (except those from 1940-1947, which are grouped together)
preceded by a short historical and biographical note. The final
chapter in this section is a collection of letters defining
Ferrier’s relationship with the BBC spanning the years 1941-1943.
This is a new chapter added to the present edition of this book.
In all some 409 letters are published.
The second section consists of her diary entries from 1942 to
shortly before her death in 1953. There follows a selection
of tributes to the singer, a list of persons referred to in
the text, a bibliography and a suite of indices. There are some
sixteen photographic plates with a good selection of photographs
of Ferrier, some of which I believe are previously unpublished.
Possibly the most useful part of this book are the extensive
indices. I want to explore this in detail. The first section
is entitled ‘Kathleen Ferrier on Composers’. I am not too sure
what this achieves, as none of the references here I looked
up involve an extensive comment by Ferrier on the composer.
The same may be said about ‘Kathleen Ferrier on Conductors’.
However the section ‘Ferrier on Ferrier’ is excellent, although
lacking in page references. For example in 1949, she wrote,
‘Some of the audience were knitting!! I could have spat on them’.
And also ‘I will never pay my bill!’ The reader will have to
hunt through the letters and diaries to find the exact date
and context. The most important sections of the indices are
devoted to the [Musical] works, the places, venues and festivals
and finally a general index which is largely a list of people.
The listings of music are impressive. There are dozens of references
to works by Gluck, Britten, Schubert and Purcell. Less well-known
composers and music are also referenced in some detail. One
that caught my eye was Herbert Sumsion’s ‘Watts Cradle Song’.
There are some fifteen references to this lovely, but forgotten
song. Beware, these are mainly references and are typically
not comments on, or analysis of, the works listed. The index
of venues reveals just how far and wide Ferrier travelled: Holland,
USA, Switzerland, Italy and Cleethorpes.
The book is well-presented. The binding, although paperback,
is robust. The paper is good quality and the photographic plates
are clear and sharp. The price is hardly expensive by today’s
standards, so I believe that this represents excellent value
for money. I know that this book is on sale across a wide range
of outlets. Mine was bought in Forsyth’s Music Shop in Deansgate,
Manchester: I have seen it in Foyles and Waterstones.
I think it will be obvious to anyone who has followed me so
far in this review that I strongly recommend this book. I cannot
see for the life of me why I did not beg, steal or borrow the
first edition! The new edition contains some 90 newly published
letters, the above-mentioned chapter on the ‘Ferrier and the
BBC’ and some additional memoirs. The book was re-published
to mark the centenary of Ferrier’s birth in 1912. To quote the
publisher’s blurb for the book, it provides ‘a vivid picture
of a life which illuminated the war and post-war years of austerity
and hardship. Kathleen Ferrier was surely fun to know. Her personality
was a mix of extreme modesty and self-determined ambition, topped
with a mischievously blunt sense of earthy Lancastrian humour’.
The final word about Kathleen Ferrier can surely go to Bruno
Walter: ‘She should be remembered in a major key.’ Christopher
Fifield’s book has surely made a major contribution to achieving
this noble desideratum.