Kathleen Ferrier - an ending     <Back 

Ronald Duncan describes her final illness in images taken from the theatre, or opera:

It was as if she had been cast for sorrow and rehearsed for sorrow. (724)

This emphasis is slightly unusual, since all who knew her remember Kathleen’s “captivating charisma” (LDKF, 23), humour and friendliness. Yet Duncan may have identified an aspect of her temperament that was present but kept under control. Her attitude to her cancer was in some ways fatalistic and throughout her adult life “she had a neurotic horror of contracting cancer”, according to Maurice Leonard, her biographer who writes that when her cancer was first discovered in 1951, “The worst fears she had harboured since childhood were now realised”. (Leonard, 179)

Her final performance was in Orfeo at Covent Garden on 6 February 1953. It was the second night, and she felt a sense of foreboding before it. As she sang, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting, “a bone in her left thigh disintegrated and the leg gave way” (LDKF 227), yet she courageously completed the performance

She had many projected future engagements, even as she lay ill. This was because considerable efforts were made to disguise the extent of her illness. The public knew nothing, and only an inner circle of musicians and performers – such as Barbirolli – understood how seriously ill she was. 

Strangely the list of performance entries in her diary end in the very week she died, showing "almost uncanny prescience", as Christopher Fifield puts it. 

She died on the morning of 8 October 1953, on a day when she might have performed Frederick Delius’s A Mass of Life. It was a final irony.


Author: Dr Alan Munton



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