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Sir Edward Downes

Sir Edward Downes, Britain’s leading conductor of Verdi and of other Russian and 20th-century operatic composers, died on 10 July 2009. He was 85.

The Independent describes his early years thus:

Edward Thomas Downes was born in Birmingham in 1924. Though his parents were musical and sang in the church choir, as did Ted, as he was always known, they did not approve of music as a career for their son. He left school at 14 and went to work for the Gas Board. In 1941 he secretly applied to Birmingham University for an open music scholarship, which was granted after an audition with the principal. Downes was far too short-sighted to be called up to war, but joined the fire service, which gave him a bed to sleep in, and he left home for good.

According to The Times, his parents only found out about the scholarship when they read about it in the Birmingham Mail.

Alan Blyth, writing in The Guardian (in one of those faintly macabre on-the-stocks obituaries from beyond the grave; he died in 2007), notes that even after leaving home the young Ted didn’t have it easy:

With little or no money, he left home for good, scraped together a living in odd wartime jobs – such as coal-heaving – and attended lectures during the week. Already suffering from the poor eyesight that was to afflict him all his life, he was declared unfit for National Service. On graduating in 1944, he went to the Royal College of Music, studying composition with Vaughan Williams and RO Morris, and the horn. As a freelance horn-player, he took part in the opening postwar performance, The Sleeping Beauty, at Covent Garden in 1946, and the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells in 1945.

(The Daily Telegraph has Downes as beginning on the cor anglais and makes no mention of him playing the French horn.)

However, even if he had to struggle at first, his talent was soon spotted – several times over, according to The Times:

He graduated at the early age of 19 and won another scholarship to the Royal College of Music. And yet a third, after he had been appointed to the University of Aberdeen as a lecturer in music, to study with Hermann Scherchen in Zurich. Scherchen had two advantages: he was an expert in contemporary music and he was one of the few distinguished musicians prepared to teach the art of conducting. He was also irascible and eccentric; Downes found himself forced to read the Berlin newspapers to Scherchen’s aged blind mother. At least he learnt German in the process.

After early work at Covent Garden as a repetiteur, his big break came in 1953, as the Telegraph explains:

Downes’s lifelong love affair with Verdi’s operas began later the same year [1953] when Kubelik called him in at a day’s notice to conduct a performance of Otello. “I’d never conducted any Verdi, and certainly not Otello, though I knew it because I’d coached the singers,” Downes recalled. “So that was the first Verdi I ever did, with no rehearsal whatever. And I immediately felt on home ground. I seemed to understand Verdi as a person. He was a peasant. He had one foot in heaven and one on the earth. And this is why he appeals to all classes of people.”

(Again, the Telegraph‘s account differs from those of the other newspapers, which place Otello in 1955 or 1956.)

The Times records that Downes built a strong working relationship with Covent Garden’s new music director in the 1960s, Georg Solti, despite initial disagreement:

The two men began with an argument: Solti wanted Downes to conduct Gluck, but Downes declared roundly that he had no sympathy with the 18th-century repertoire in general and that composer in particular. Once that argument was resolved Solti realised Downes’s value and treated him almost as a right-hand man — an approval he certainly did not accord to other staff conductors. Although Downes was never to conduct Mozart in the house, he was the first British musician to conduct a Ring cycle at Covent Garden since Beecham in 1939.

Despite the good relationship, though, Downes held firm views on Solti the man, quoted in the Telegraph:

When asked where the key to Sir Georg Solti’s success lay, Downes replied: “He was a bastard – a marvellous man and a great conductor, but a complete bastard when he needed to be. That sort of ruthlessness just wasn’t in my nature.”

Again in the early ’60s, Downes established himself as an expert on Russian opera (teaching himself Russian in the process) and modern composers, including Shostakovich, with whom he worked personally on one occasion (the Telegraph):

When Downes himself conducted the premiere of Katerina Ismailova in 1963, he had the opportunity of working closely with the composer. The experience led him to question the popular view that everything Shostakovich wrote had a dissident subtext. Shostakovich, he recalled, had “complained bitterly to me about people trying to put political agendas into his music. He said they were more interested in what was written about his music than in the music itself”.

Downes’s determination to emphasise the integrity of Shostakovich’s musical vision led him to focus on the grand design rather than milk every ironic nuance for hidden political meaning. As a result he established a reputation as one of the world’s most powerfully persuasive interpreters of the composer’s works.

After being passed over as Solti’s successor, Downes spent a spell abroad, but not a happy one, as The Times tells us:

…salvation appeared to be around the corner in the shape of the Australian Opera, which invited him to become music director and to open the Sydney Opera House. He accepted, but the career move was a false one. The inaugural opera, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, was very much to Downes’s taste but not to that of Sydney. He wanted to introduce Australia to works like Wozzeck, but Sydney preferred the glamour of Sutherland performances in Donizetti. That battle Downes lost and he left the company in 1975.

Nevertheless, better times lay ahead back in the UK. Here’s what The Independent has to say:

Downes was for many years involved with the BBC Northern, later the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester. In 1976 he prepared and conducted radio performances of Wagner’s first three operas, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi. Prokofiev’s early opera Maddalena existed in an unfinished state and he completed and scored the work, which was broadcast twice in 1979, first in Russian, then in his translation. In 1981 Downes became chief conductor of the orchestra, and he conducted three Russian operas, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh in 1986 and Christmas Eve in 1987, as well as Tchaikovsky’s Vakula the Smith in 1990. At Covent Garden he conducted Verdi’s Macbeth, Britten’s Billy Budd, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a particularly fine version of Wagner’s Lohengrin and, in 1990, Verdi’s Attila.

Even when approaching his seventies and in spite of increasing ill health, Downes remained active and ambitious, as we hear from The Guardian:

It was then [in 1993], in conjunction with the general director, Jeremy Isaacs, that the idea of a Verdi Festival was boldly announced. Only the financial stringencies of the time and the need to close the house for rebuilding prevented the vast project being completed, but Downes still managed to introduce, either under his own baton or that of others, most of the major works and many of the minor ones by the Italian master. The performances served only to confirm his ability to project his love for the music to his audiences, though along the way, in 1996, he did withdraw from a production of Nabucco that he disliked. By 1997-98, he had appeared in each of 46 seasons.

He was married to his wife Joan for 54 years. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the couple decided to die together at the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic in Zurich. Prokofiev’s biographer David Nice, writing in The Guardian (he offers more personal thoughts in his own blog), quotes a song recorded under Sir Edward’s own baton, commenting that nothing “could be more appropriate to the uncomplaining fortitude with which the couple faced their later tribulations and their dignified exit”:

Do not weep that I am going now.
Cheerfully let me kiss you.
If happiness doesn’t bloom nearby,
It will greet you more chastely from afar.

(Sir Edward Thomas Downes CBE, born 17 June 1924 in Birmingham, died 10 July 2009 in Zurich)

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