Her Last Festival Performances
A Tribute to Kathleen Ferrier

By Sir John Barbirolli

To me, fate has accorded the sombre privilege of conducting nearly all Katie's last performances in various works which became her own, including her last performances at the Edinburgh Festival. These were (if memory serves me right) the Chausson Poeme de l'amour et de la Mer, The Dream of Gerontius and Messiah - the last two with the Hallé Orchestra and Choir. It is, as the reader can understand, only with great diffidence and difficulty that one dares to commit any thoughts to paper on events of such sublime sadness. How glad I am now that I persuaded the Festival Authorities to include these works, and particularly The Dream and Messiah, neither of which, through the incredible short sightedness of some very culpable person or persons, she ever recorded! (Another monstrous omission comes to mind in connection with an Artist as beloved as Katie, though fortunately still with us, when one realises there is no recording of the Elgar Concerto by Kreisler for whom it was written, and who, with our own Albert Sammons, remained the supreme interpreter.)

I remember with vivid poignancy these particular performances, for she was not well, and her unflinching and unconquerable spirit, revealed itself in a mood of gentle resignation, which made her first words as the “Angel” - “My work is done, My task is o'er” almost unbearably prophetic. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to convey to future generations who never heard her sing the “Angel,” just what made it what it was, for it was a compound of all her great gifts as a singer, an Artist, and above all - as a woman. A moment of ineffable tenderness comes to mind when she spoke almost, rather than sang, the words, “but thou knowest not, my child, what thou dost ask”- an utterance of such simple warmth, that yet seemed to literally embrace all humanity.

You had also to see her sitting there waiting to sing, her grave loveliness completely absorbed in every note that was being sung and played. I remember her saying to me once, “ Tita, it would be wonderful singing with you, if only I didn't have to sing”- which was her way of confessing what a struggle it was sometimes to control her emotion in music which was particularly close to her.

Of the Messiah, two things linger in my memory. The Recit. “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,” in which the miracles were made manifest; and the searing beauty of “He was despised” - for she, too, had known sorrows and was acquainted with grief. The Chausson brings to mind a moment I have described elsewhere how, when lying in her cot not long before the end, she told me, still smiling, of the way she used to try to whileaway the long hours by trying to remember what she always called “me words.” At that moment, she sang me the opening phrase; the body ravaged, the voice divinely shielded. I sometimes wonder, was I the last to hear that wondrous sound.

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