Kathleen Ferrier sings 'The Flower Song' (The Rape of Lucretia)      <Back

In his obituary of Ferrier, Duncan tells the story of how flowers from the garden at Glyndebourne came to be used on stage during the première of Lucretia. Audrey Christie, wife of John Christie, the owner of the opera house, picked roses and other flowers to replace the "tawdry stage props". She did not know the theatre superstition that real flowers bring bad luck. 

To rescue an awkward situation, Kathleen agreed to use them for the wreath that she absentmindedly makes while singing The Flower Song. On the first night she Duncan notes she "suffered agonies with her fingers" trying to weave the roses into "a passable wreath", (722)

The Flower Song: No version by Ferrier is available online, but here is a version by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly – a different kind of singer from Ferrier – performing at Aldeburgh in 2001. (The song itself begins at 5:10.)

The Flower Song is sung on the morning after the rape, when Lucretia’s elderly nurse, Bianca, is as yet unaware of what has happened overnight. The script actually calls for orchids to be used:

Lucretia [she sits and makes a wreath with the orchids]:

Flowers bring to every year

the same perfection;

Even their root and leaf keep 

Solemn vow in pretty detail.

Flowers alone are chaste

For their beauty is so brief

Years are their love

and time’s their thief.

Women bring to every man 

the same defection

Even their love’s debauched 

By vanity or flattery.

Flowers alone are chaste.

Let their pureness show my grief

To hide my shame 

and be my wreath.

Bianca:  My child, you have made a wreath. 

Lucretia: That is how you taught me as a child

To weave the wild flowers together.

(Ronald Duncan, The Rape of Lucretia: Opera in Two Acts, London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1946, 47. Faber, 1953, 56-7)

Flowers bring “the same perfection”, whilst women bring "the same defection".

The second stanza of The Flower Song seems to mean that women inevitably fail men in love, and “bring . . . the same defection” – if “defection” means abandoning a man emotionally.

Flowers are always chaste, but the woman is always debauched, whether by Tarquinius in a rape, or through inevitable "vanity or flattery". 

This is perhaps a peculiar way of thinking: to draw a parallel between Tarquinius’s debauchery and the inevitable failure of love which is sometimes debauched”. There is more than a suggestion that the woman will always be at fault. Purity lies in the flowers themselves, which cover the shame of the rape. 

Whatever she may have felt about the meaning of the song, Kathleen began to sing it as a separate item in her recitals, beginning in June 1947. It stayed in her repertoire until 1951, when she sang it – apparently for the last time  – in Amsterdam on 18 March. 

This was shortly before her cancer was first diagnosed; she was first operated upon at University College Hospital on 10 April 1951. In May she cancelled three performances of The Rape of Lucretia, and never sang any part of it again. 

Author: Dr Alan Munton



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