OBITUARY:Winifred Ferrier

Elizabeth Forbes
Friday 10 November 1995 01:02

Much of Winifred Ferrier's long life was devoted to her sister Kathleen Ferrier and, after the great contralto's death in 1953, to her memory. In 1955 she published The Life of Kathleen Ferrier, an admirably objective account of the singer's career, and a fine evocation of her down-to-earth, humorous personality. Throughout the book "Win" is always mentioned in the third person but, despite this self-effacement, it is plain that Kathleen owed her sister in enormous debt of gratitude for her loving care and home-making skills. Winifred was also instrumental in setting up memorial funds for cancer research and scholarships for young singers in Kathleen's name after her death.

Winifred Ferrier was born in Higher Walton, near Preston, where her father, William, was head of All Saints' School. Kathleen, eight years younger, was born there in 1912, and the family moved early in 1914 to Blackburn, where William had been appointed head of St Paul's School, and where Win attended the Girls' High School. On leaving school she qualified as a teacher.

In 1928 Kathleen entered a national piano-playing competition organised by the Daily Express. She won the Northern region contest and was awarded an upright piano. The 72 finalists then competed for six grand pianos at the Wigmore Hall. As their mother was ill, Win escorted Kathleen to London. Kathleen was nervous, and did not play her best, so she was not among the winners. To console themselves the sisters went to see Showboat at Drury Lane Theatre, where Paul Robeson's singing impressed them greatly.

When war broke out Win was teaching in London; Kathleen, now married and living near Carlisle, was studying singing seriously and giving many concerts locally. When her husband was called up in 1940 Win obtained a teaching post in Carlisle in order to look after Kathleen and William, now a widower. Two years later the sisters once more travelled to London to the Wigmore Hall, where Kathleen auditioned for Ibbs and Tillett, the agents, who agreed to represent her. Win got back her former post in London, and she, Kathleen and William moved to a flat in Hampstead. Kathleen now had a great many engagements; clothes were rationed so Win, in addition to teaching and doing the housekeeping, made her sister's concert dresses; one that she remembered particularly was in peacock-green Liberty furnishing brocade.

After the war Kathleen (her marriage had been annulled), now among Britain's best-known singers, made long concert tours in Europe and America. Win, the head of a school in Chiswick, was too busy to accompany her sister very often, but in June 1949 she flew to Amsterdam - her first flight - to hear Kathleen sing Orfeo at a gala performance of Orfeo ed Euridice, conducted by Pierre Monteux and attended by Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Two months later the sisters had a 10-day holiday in Wengen, before going to Salzburg, where Kathleen was singing Das Lied von der Erde under Bruno Walter. Later they toured the Salzkammergut with Walter's daughter.

Early in 1951, William Ferrier died; Kathleen was in Rome and Win met her in Paris, where she was giving a concert, to escort her home. In March Kathleen was operated on for breast cancer. The operation was apparently a success and she was soon back at work, but in February 1953, after the second of four performances of Orfeo scheduled at Covent Garden, she collapsed. When Win asked: "What can I do for you, love?" Kathleen replied. "Get me a stretcher!" Eight months later she was dead; she was 41.

After her death, two annual Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarships for young singers were established, partly funded by the royalties of Kathleen Ferrier: a memoir, edited by Neville Cardus with contributions by John Barbirolli, Benjamin Britten, Cardus, Roy Henderson, Gerald Moore and Bruno Walter, which were donated by the publisher, Hamish Hamilton, as a result of Winifred's arm-twisting.

She herself was a founder trustee of the fund and took an enormous interest in the competitions, held every April in the Wigmore Hall, attending the entire week-long event, not just the finals, talking to the singers and often presenting the prizes, as she did in 1995 for the 40th competition.

Elizabeth Forbes

Winifred Margaret Ferrier, teacher: born Higher Walton, Lancashire 3 May 1904; died 1 November 1995.

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