The Letters and Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier, edited by Christopher Fifield (revised and enlarged edition)
The Boydell Press, Suffolk, soft covers, 489 pages
ISBN 9781843830917 £14:99
I 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’ 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 this book.
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 Cards, 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 of writing.
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 entitle ‘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 mi [sic] 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. But 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. But 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 Kathleen Ferrier travelled: Holland, the 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.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.