Long before the Susan Boyle saga came to prominence, a woman of an earlier generation also broke into the professional music circuit by entering a contest. Kathleen Ferrier of Lancashire had trained as musician, but chose marriage instead. It was a disaster; though quite by accident her husband proved the impetus for her lucky break. He bet her a shilling she would not enter the Carlisle Festival as singer and she took up the challenge. “She sang Roger Quilter’s To Daisies and won … The Carlisle Journal recorded that she had ‘one of the finest voices’ they had heard. From then on, at the age of 25, Kathleen Ferrier became a professional singer, learning her trade by appearing virtually wherever she was asked.”
Ferrier’s subsequent career was a success, some calling her “the greatest lyric contralto Britain has ever produced”, but it was the dramatic turn which her life took which seized the public imagination. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1950 and met it with the kind of stoicism that people in that age without cures displayed that is now long forgotten. Ian Jack of the Guardian recalls:
Ferrier had feared cancer ever since childhood, when she saw a neighbour in Blackburn die slowly of it. Throughout the 1940s she’d worried about pains in her breasts. In July 1950, she went to a doctor and emerged shouting to her voice teacher, waiting outside, “Look, Prof! He’s given me a clean bill of health.” A wrong diagnosis, however. The next March she asked her assistant, who happened to be trained nurse, to have a look at a lump. A mastectomy followed. Ferrier wrote cheerfully to close friends about a “rather formidable op” to remove a “bump on mi busto”, but then heavy doses of radium therapy began to exhaust her and in any event the cancer had already metastasised.
When Queen Elizabeth learned that the famous and dying contralto was nearby, she asked her to visit. “The Queen sits next to her on a sofa and, in the words of Ferrier’s sister ‘knowing the true nature of her illness’, asks her how she is. ‘Just the odd ache, Ma’am’, is the reply. ‘You have to expect these things.’ Ferrier herself described her sickness as “rheumatics” and carried on. On her last performance in 1953, her femur, eaten away by the disease, snapped onstage. She came out for a curtain call. YouTube has a recording of her performance at Manchester, right after her mastectomy. Like the proverbial swan, you can singing her carol to the world. And if you listen to the chorus, in which the audience joined in, maybe the world was singing right back to her.