Friday 24 November 2017

All-too-brief career of star who became a singer for a bet

Kathleen Ferrier was (and still is) one of the world's great singers. That's how she's introduced on the website of the appreciation society set up in her honour. Those fans are absolutely right.

For just over a decade in the 1940s and into the 1950s, she was a star, a contralto with a range that stretched from opera to folk song. "That's Kathleen Ferrier, I'd know her voice anywhere," was a regular reaction when she'd come on the radio.

Although her career was brief, cut short by illness, her impact was immense and for lovers of song, the name Kathleen Ferrier is revered.

She only became a singer for a bet. She'd entered the piano competition at her local festival, in the English Lake District, with high hopes of winning. Her husband suggested she could take the singing prize as well, and put his money where his mouth was.

Kathleen swept the board, and never looked back. She sang the great set pieces by Bach, Brahms, and Elgar, the big oratorios and the song cycles, and made a huge impact touring in Europe and the United States.

At the height of her fame, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and died within a couple of years, at the age of 41.

Casual listeners probably know her best from her recordings of British folk songs, and one in particular, 'Blow the Wind Southerly', preserved for posterity in a stunning unaccompanied version, which is widely available.

That song connects her with another major figure in 20th Century English music. WG Whittaker went to Durham University to study science but his passion took over and he ended up with a qualification in music and a place on the teaching staff. He would ultimately become professor of music at the University of Glasgow.

Bach was his great love, and this, together with his enthusiasm for choral singing led him to set up a group, the Newcastle Bach Choir, which quickly built up a reputation throughout the country.

As well as his teaching and conducting, he was a well regarded composer in his own right, and was a great friend of Gustav Holst, he of The Planets. They'd send each other snippets of what they were working on for comment and advice.

Whittaker's other big interest was the folk songs of his native north-east of England. He was an avid collector and he'd give these songs distinctive arrangements. 'Blow the Wind Southerly' was one of them, the one that became Kathleen Ferrier's signature tune.

William Gillies Whittaker -- teacher, composer, choirmaster -- may now be less familiar than he was in his day. But check on the credits for that Kathleen Ferrier song. "Trad., arr: Whittaker" it will say. There's more than one way to make your mark.

RTÉ lyric fm features The Hamilton Scores from 9.30 each Saturday morning, and George Hamilton's Full Score on Sunday afternoons at 3.00.

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