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Edited by Christopher Fifield

The Boydell Press, 2003:xii, 333pp, inc. Bibliography, Personalia, three indices.

16 Plates.

ISBN 1-84383-012-4

25 hardback


The close of 1953 witnessed the tragic deaths, in sad succession, of three young performing artists of rising international stature. Two of these, the pianists William Kapell and Noel Mewton-Wood, were each only thirty-one years old, barely begun on the road to fame and greatness; the third, the incomparable contralto Kathleen Ferrier, while ten years older, enjoyed a professional career of only similar length: a mere decade or so.

The fiftieth anniversary of Ferrier's death from cancer is being commemorated in this country by, among other events, both the recent first release of an off-air performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde given with Barbirolli and the tenor Richard Lewis in 1952 (APR5579) review, and the first publication, in the volume under review, of her letters and diaries covering the years from 1940 until her death.

There are just over 300 letters, many hitherto unpublished and deriving from a cache of correspondence discovered by editor Christopher Fifield in the offices of music agents Ibbs and Tillett, for whom Ferrier was one of their sole artists. They are divided into eight chapters, the first given over to the years 1940-47, the others having each a year to itself until 1953. Each chapter is headed by a vital and informative biographical introduction provided by the editor. As well as the letters to Ibbs and Tillett, those most prominent here are to Ferrier's sister Winifred, her favoured Canadian accompanist John Newmark, her American friends Benita and Bill Cress, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (whose creativity joined hands with hers in a number of collaborative artistic endeavours, notably The Rape of Lucretia, the Spring Symphony and the canticle Abraham and Isaac), and her beloved conductors John Barbirolli and Bruno Walter.

In all, this correspondence delivers on reading, in its present format an impact far exceeding the often mundane nature of its content, which on thr surface is largely concerned with the daily minutiae oif a touring artist's life. What emerges is a vivid self-portrait of a brave, secure woman in love with life and music, whose joie de vivre was palpable and supported both by a notable lack of inflated egoism and a singular sense of humour which rarely faltered, even towards the end.

Here is a short example, taken from a letter to Winifred written from New York during her second trip to America in 1949, shortly after confronting her agent there and successfully negotiating a rise in fee for the following year:

To give me courage I bought a new hat, bag, shoes, stockings and summer nylon pantie girdle, and could have coped with a whole blinking board of directors. I have only sagged a little now, having discovered that the tab on my dress had been sticking out at the back of my neck all the time. I thought people were looking at me, but I thought it was admiration!! That'll larn me! (Letter No.112)

I was personally pleased to discover in these pages, for the first time anywhere, some indication of Ferrier's involvement with E.J.Moeran's last solo song Rahoon, a bleak masterpiece which he wrote for her in 1947. Although I had hitherto assumed, having found no reference at all to the matter elsewhere, that Ferrier may not actually have performed the song, it is now clear that she sang it regularly during the years 1948-50, in tandem with another, very different Joyce setting, The Merry Green Wood. She even writes out the poem in Letter No.84, though without prior knowledge one would not know she was referring to a song by Moeran. This is one instance among others where I felt the need for an in-text editorial annotation, of which there are none in the volume. Moeran's name is in fact only included in the Index of Works: it appears in neither the Personalia nor General Index.) If only Ferrier had recorded Rahoon!

The Diary section is perhaps of rather less immediate interest, being simply a daily listing of social appointments, meetings and concert dates, with occasional personal comments attached, but never a whisper of self exploration.

It is perhaps best read as an amplification of the context in which the letters were written, and reveals Ferrier as far more extravert a person than her recordings lead one to imagine. As such it helps act as a welcome antidote to the death-surrounded image so often attached to this artist because of what she sang (Kindertotenlieder, Das Lied von der Erde, The Dream of Gerontius for instance) and the way she died.

Anyone interested in Kathleen Ferrier's life and art and the milieu of the Second World War years and their aftermath by which they were embraced, will find this welcome book required reading. It is above all, and despite the final descent, a celebration of living.

© John Talbot


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