Lucretia not Written for Kathleen Ferrier?        <Back

An anonymous reporter from the Preston Guardian is one of the first journalists to write that the title role of Lucretia was 'specially written for her'. Ronald Duncan’s description (in his 'Obituary' of Ferrier) of her being given Britten’s "pencilled scribble of Act II, Scene 1 [i.e. 2]', which "lay on the piano" (721) means that this cannot be true. 

It’s untrue that Britten wrote The Rape of Lucretia for her. Indeed I can remember the feeling of apprehension as the part of Lucretia took shape, and whenever we thought of the problem of casting it.

Britten’s memory of events went back another three years. He'd heard Ferrier sing in Handel’s Messiah at Westminster Abbey on 17 May 1943. Of this occasion, she wrote in her diary, "All sorts of folk there" – though since Peter Pears was one of the soloists, it is hardly surprising that Britten was present (LDKF, 301)

Duncan wrote: "There is only one word to describe the effect of that voice. It melted me with the tenderness of its tone. Britten smiled. Another of his hunches had come off." (722)

Duncan may be slightly wrong about this: in the Letters and Diaries Christopher Fifield writes that it was Peter Pears who urged Britten 'to recognise that he had found his Lucretia when he heard [Ferrier] sing Messiah in Westminster Abbey'. (LDKF, 23) That was in 1943, long before Lucretia was conceived, so both men must have been impressed, with Pears perhaps taking the lead. 

In the centenary year of 2012 it was nevertheless possible for several journalists to write that Lucretia was "written for" Ferrier. These included Tom Service in the Guardian on 12 April, Michael Kennedy in the Spectator on 14 April and Jessica Duchen in the Independent on 28 April. Even the Kathleen Ferrier Society website says that Britten had her "in mind".

In a rare mistake, Christopher Fifield – relying on a misleading Times obituary of Ferrier – writes in the 'Introduction' to his edition of the Letters and Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier  that the pianist Daphne Ibbott "played at Kathleen’s audition with Britten for the role of Lucretia". (LDKF, 17) But Ronald Duncan specifies that:

as she was still too shy for conversation, Britten handed her the manuscript. She sat on the piano stool, and without any accompaniment began to sing the Flower Song.

As for the last scene (when Lucretia “confesses” and then stabs herself), Duncan says that Britten proposed

I should "make it a dramatic piece, to stand almost wholly on its own, with the minimum help of noises from me" [Britten]. And that’s what we did, knowing that Kathleen had never sung in opera before, relying     confidently on her simplicity and dignity, which was the precise quality we wanted. (722)

Author: Dr Alan Munton

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