Kathleen Ferrier – a talent taken by Breast Cancer

Today I want to remember the fantastic voice of an earlier time, who sang about the tragedy of losing someone you love. What is life, What is life when you are dead?  These are the sentiments which drive hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to run and walk together, light candles, post remarks on social media sites, take up fresh sporting challenges, dress in pink for a day, drink varied quality and quanitities of coffee at a Macmillan coffee morning, but most of all to find themselves crying as they remember the loss of a woman who was precious to them, lost through Breast Cancer.

And today (the 8th October)  is the anniversary 57 years ago of the loss of Kathleen Ferrier, a great contralto voice, who was plucked from the work of a telephone receptionist at the age of 25 – through entering a regional music competition in Carlisle whose numbers were less than our present day X factor but whose impact on her life was nonetheless life changing. She was hailed as one of the finest voices that the Carlisle Journal had ever heard and she was soon to be recognised as a powerful talent by Conducter Sir Malcolm Sergeant who sent her to London to study under the baritone Roy Henderson. She was within the year singing the Messiah in Westminster Abbey and by 1946 making her debut on the operatic equivalent of the 02 stadium, Glyndebourne amd selling out Carnegie Hall in the states.

Kathleen Ferrier was my first female music hero. I remember playing her album of British folk songs endlessly on my single box hi fi, the diamond needle etching its way through the grooves which brought her spirit and vibrattoed emotion into my bedroom and life.  Blow the Wind Southerly is her eponymous theme tune for many, along with Drink to me only with thine eyes. I was 16 years old when I stood before my first audience at school and sang the melody informed as much as Lady Ga Ga or Madonna serves for contemporary x factor wannabes. She had been dead for two decades – but her sound was one that informed my musical soundscape with passion, yearning for an enduring relationship and emotional connection.

Like Kylie Minogue and Olivia Newton John,  Breast cancer struck early the Lancashire born Kathleen who had become by her mid thirties the From Lancashire to Londoncontralto muse for several British composers including Lennox Berkely, Arthur Bliss and Edmund Rubbra. Benjamim Britten wrote for her the part of Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia,  and a key role in Abraham and Isaac as well as a key section of  the Spring Symphony.

Breast Cancer in the nineteen fifties was hugely under-resourced in the field of early identification  and intervention and the prognosis for a cancerous tumour emerging in someone under 40 was very poor indeed. In 1953 Kathleen Ferrier appeared on stage with a new production at Covent Garden of Gluck’s powerful Orfeo ed Euridice. Sung in English the production was renamed Orpheus.  The opera included the haunting aria What is life to me without thee? – which has emerged as a staple for funerals, memorial services, and a soundscape for people to enter to remember those they love and death has separated from them. Ferrier’s rendition of the aria even without digital remastering makes the hairs of my nape stand to attention. Do take a listen.

During the second performance of this production Kathleen collapsed with a fractured thighbone undermined by the presence of a secondary tumour in her bones. Eight months later, this song would be held in her considerable fan base’s memory as she was cremated in Golders Green Crematorium – a long way from her natal Lancashire. At 41 a talent and spirit lost for those who loved her, and those who were enriched by her performances and the beauty of her voice.

The lyrics for the English production of Orpheus conducted by Sir John Barbirolli and sung on two occassions at Covent Garden are below and captured on utube in the following link What is Life recording

What is life to me without thee?
What is left if thou art dead?
What is life; life without thee?
What is life without my love?
What is left if thou art dead?

Eurydice! Eurydice!
Ah, hear me. Oh, answer! Oh answer!
Thy dear lord am I so faithful,
My dear lord am I, who loves thee,
Who doth love thee!

What is life to me without thee?
What is left if thou art dead?
What is life; life without thee?
What is life without my love?
What is left if thou art dead?

Eurydice! Eurydice!
In my dread anguish nought can aid me,
None can comfort.
Earth is cruel, heav’n is cold!

What is life to me without thee?
What is left if thou art dead?
What is life; life without thee?
What is left if thou art dead?
If thou art dead?
If thou art dead?”

I am left wondering firstly what are the songs which you remember if you are of the age where Kathleen’s songs were played on the radio, or the family Hi Fi or hummed by your mother when you were younger – and whether there is any energy out there to gather some of the British Isles folk songs first recorded by her before her brave trend was established of a ‘high art’ treatment of our folk heritage became more mainstreamed.

Kathleen Ferrier was one of the oneinninewomen who lost the fight. Thanks to the lobbying of some of our senior research campaign groups, and the increasing realisation of the health, social and emotional costs which the presence of invasive cancers in our population makes on all of our lives the rates of early detection and the treatment packages have improved beyond recognition. But there is still a long way to go. Blow the wind southerly, wearing Pink for rememberance and change, and lets keep our Bonny ones close and safe.


About oneinninewomen

The founder and the managers of this site are all survivors of breast cancer, or have lost someone close to them through the disease. One in nine women is a growing network of women seeking to raise awareness on early detection thus enhancing survival rates on cancers in general, transform the regimes of treatment to something somewhat less barbaric and industrial and enhance full recovery and uptake of the gift of life which remains the other side of cancer attack! - we all play a part in enhanced understanding, empathetic support of those suffering and pro-activity for a world eventually cancer free.
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9 Responses to Kathleen Ferrier – a talent taken by Breast Cancer

  1. Shelly says:

    Thank u So much 4 the Evocative lyrics of this Haunting song. And the interesting info. My mother Loved Kathleen Ferrier and I was brought up listening toher beautiful voice. I knew she died young but not how. Cancer wasnt spoken about in those days. 2 scary as usually a death sentence. Thanx Again so much.

  2. Aongus Mac Cana says:

    My wife has just died from metastatic breast cancer. I was inspired to seek out Kathleen Ferriers “what is life to me without thee” without having any idea that Kathleen Ferrier herself had died from breast cancer at an early age.I hope to have the melody played at my wife Ursula’s funeral service on June 4 2012. Kathleen Ferrier’s singing of the song brings tears to my eyes at this difficult time.

    • Thank you to all who have posted comments here about their loss of loved ones to Cancer – and how much Kathleen Ferriers gift of song has meant to them over the years. I am presently developing a small awareness raising product on the impacts of Breast Cancer and early awareness raising for those who at present do not feel confident in checking or testing their breasts for early signs of the onset of a tumour. If you would like to have part of a loved one’s memory brought into active play against breast cancer and support in some way this project do please be in touch. Carrie@ibixproductions.co.uk

  3. My mother was also a great fan of Kathleen Ferrier’s in the 1950s and her singing was an inspiration to me too. My mother died of liver cancer in 1964 and, like Kathleen Ferrier, was cremated at Golders Green. Thank you for the information about her cremation – I did not know. I have written a memoir in which my memories of Ferrier’s songs appear.

  4. Clive Parsons says:

    Now in my 70s I grew up listening to and loving Kathleen Ferrier’s haunting songs on the (then called) wireless sets in the 1940s and remember being devastated when news came of her death although at the time I was too young to really understand it. I lost my first wife to heart problems 20 years ago and my second wife is just now at the end of her five years since her mastectomy – chemo-radiation and hormone treatment so I guess I have seen both sides of the spectrum regarding “What is life” As has been said above the hairs on the nape of my neck still stand to attention whenever my CD of Kathleen Ferrier is played.

  5. Thanks for another informative site. The place else
    may just I am getting that kind of information written in such a perfect
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  6. Deana says:

    My husband and I always adored Kathleen…we started our married life with her recordings. Now, after 55 years of marriage I plan to have What is Life played at his funeral, since he now has metastatic lung cancer. We are emotional people anyway, but always shed a tear with that particular song when Kathleen sang it. How can one singer play such a huge part in people’s lives for so long? Her heart and soul were mirrored in her voice. Add her wonderful sense of humour and you have an historic treasure. The world will never see her like again.

  7. Thank you so much for this wonderful tribute. We’re hosting a musical celebration of the life and career of Kathleen Ferrier at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall, London this Saturday 21st March 2015, and we’d love it if you could spread the word to her admirers. Full details are available at http://www.teahousetheatre.co.uk/whats-on.

    • let us know if you hold another one of these celebrations – we have a new trainer to encourage regular breast health checking – which we are looking for beta funding for so do please put us in touch with any you think may be interested to assist in funding – we could as we develop this product tie in a special edition with KF music – wouldn’t that be fabulous!

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