Edward Downes, 1924-2009
July 2009 in People
One of the best-loved and most important British conductors, Sir Edward Downes decided to die alongside his terminally ill wife Joan at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich on July 10. Aged 85, he was almost blind and increasingly deaf, and had come to depend on his wife’s care. He was most closely associated with the Royal Opera House, where he conducted his final performances in summer 2005. We publish tributes from Sir John Tooley, who worked with Downes from his early Covent Garden days, and Elijah Moshinsky, who directed several Verdi productions close to the conductor’s heart, followed by an obituary by Rodney Milnes.
Edward Downes’s musical and literary interests were wide and all-embracing, stimulated by a probing mind and an intensive application to work. Renowned though he was as Britain’s foremost conductor of Verdi, this belies much else that occupied him and enabled him to make such an important contribution to the cultural life of this country.
Leaving school at 14, he was sent out to work by his father. In spite of this and the generally unsympathetic environment in which he grew up, he had managed to study the piano and violin and read scores and books in any spare time he had. Music was his passion. Nothing was going to deter him, not even poor eyesight, from becoming a professional musician, and ideally a conductor.
It was when Ted was working on Otello in 1956 that I first got to know him. Aware that he had always been an early riser and was usually up and about at 5am to study scores or read books, I suggested to him more than once that perhaps he should sleep longer and occasionally give himself more rest. Such an idea was immediately dismissed. He had to make good what he had lost through his deprived upbringing and to compensate for the ill effects of poor eyesight. This was typical of him. There were books to be read and music to be studied. Memorizing scores was essential because he could not rely on being able to read the printed page in performance.
Good rehearsal time also mattered to him. He wanted to be sure that everything was in place and that the players were clear about his intentions, thus enabling him, the players and the singers to build performances on good foundations. His experience as a horn player gave him insight into orchestral psychology.
Among the stimulating aspects of Ted’s personality was his passionate interest in such a broad range of music and literature, which he really knew, for he had read and studied widely, and in more than one language. No doubt his interest in translating opera texts stemmed from this. His love of Russian music and literature led him to take an external degree in Russian as a mature student at London University.
Music had no barriers for Ted. He rejoiced in conducting a wide-ranging repertoire, but if pressed he would probably have agreed that Verdi came top of his list of most cherished composers, with Wagner, Strauss, Prokofiev and other Russian composers coming closely behind. Let’s not forget the importance of his championing and performance of much contemporary music in the opera house and on the concert platform. In the case of the latter, his appointment to the BBC Philharmonic as principal conductor in 1980 gave him a wonderful opportunity to explore his limitless musical interests.
No article about or assessment of Ted can ever be complete without reference to Joan, his wife for 54 years and a devoted personal assistant, without whom Ted could not have achieved as much as he did. He relied increasingly on her to be his eyes as his own deteriorated. Together they made a formidable pair as an artistically motivated couple and, on a different note, in their knowledge of opera-house politics and the latest opera gossip, which they readily shared with visitors over meals at their house in Blackheath. They were generous hosts and were the source of much lively conversation.
Ted was a very private and modest man, dedicated to making music to the highest standards through hard work, and without fuss or extrovert behaviour. His integrity was profound, and in listening to his performances one could only be struck by this and moved by the quality of what one was hearing. I so well recall a conversation with him after we had both heard a portion of a rehearsal at Covent Garden taken by a relatively unknown foreign conductor. ‘John, I am not Toscanini, but I am a damn sight better than this fellow.’ The only time I ever heard Ted talking about himself in this way.
Ted Downes had a clear idea of what made a great opera performance. It was the coming together of the performers, the conductor and the producer. Unlike many conductors, he did not believe that the whole enterprise depended on his genius of musical divination. He first came across the ideal union in the collaboration between Visconti and Giulini. He always attempted to recreate that synthesis. He was a conductor who liked directors. From Franco Zeffirelli and Peter Hall to David McVicar, it would be true to say that he was turned on by the energy of a theatrical director.
He had a wonderful sense of the structure and dramatic purpose of the score. He especially was able find a dramatic path through odd twists and coincidences of Verdi’s plots. When we were preparing a production of Attila, I was worried by the apparent banality of some of the situations and the thinness of the music. Ted sat at the piano and showed me that I was not listening to the music correctly. What appeared banal on the page became, when he played it, epic, exciting, propulsive and grand. He saw the scale of the opera in terms of the new vitality of Italian history. Defiance of authority, the voice of popular melody, scorn, anger and aggression were prodded into life by his grip on the music.
The stage action would always be supported by a firm dramatic hold. Attending each staging rehearsal, he reinforced the production so that each gesture and thought was firmly committed to by both the singer and the orchestra. It meant that scenes seemed to develop as a unity, and no gestures were out of focus with the music. Everything emerged simple, inevitable and without strain. Even when there was little movement on stage, it never felt like a concert in costume. This was, I believe, because his involvement was total and he identified himself emotionally as he was conducting with the feelings of every character.
For many years, he told me, he didn’t like La traviata. He loathed the pompous moralizing of Germont and his fake sentimentality. Later in his life he became an expert interpreter of that opera. What had happened? ‘Well,’ said Ted, ‘I came to the conclusion that Germont was set up by Verdi in order to knock him down and create a moral reversal. He’s rather like Nabucco in trousers.’
Edward Thomas Downes was born in Birmingham on 17 June 1924 to musical parents, but they were opposed to music as a career for their son, and he was on his own from the beginning. Ted, as he was known throughout the musical world, found work with the gas board and was awarded a music scholarship to Birmingham University, where he studied the piano, organ and composition. After graduating in 1944 (his poor eyesight had restricted his war service to being a fire warden), he won a further scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied the horn as well as composition (with Vaughan Williams)—he was already proficient on violin and cor anglais.
He then spent some time as a freelance horn player: he was in the pit at Sadler’s Wells for the premiere of Peter Grimes (1945) and at Covent Garden for the opening Sleeping Beauty the following year. In 1947 he became a music lecturer at Aberdeen University, and conducted his first opera, The Marriage of Figaro. Believing that that was where his future lay, in 1949 he studied conducting on a Carnegie Scholarship with Hermann Scherchen in Zurich, as well as assisting his teacher for 18 months on the road in Europe. Back in the UK he worked as a répétiteur for the Carl Rosa Opera before successfully applying to the Covent Garden Opera Company for a similar post. He liked to remember that he joined the company in 1952 on the same day as Joan Sutherland, and that among his first jobs was prompting Callas in Norma.
His operatic life was centred on Covent Garden. He made his company debut with La Bohème on the Royal Opera’s visit to Bulawayo in August 1953, and conducted two further performances of Puccini’s opera back at Covent Garden that December.
The following year he was in charge of a new production of Der Freischütz (with Sutherland), and in the same year he took over at the last moment a new Hoffmann (with Patzak) from an ailing French conductor. At the same time, the new music director, Rafael Kubelík, gave him an Otello (with Vinay) at 24 hours’ notice, a pointer to the future. Thereafter he demonstrated his extraordinary versatility over 46 seasons, conducting an estimated 950 performances of 49 different operas—the 18th and 17th centuries were the only periods with which he acknowledged he was not in complete sympathy. In earlier years he was lucky to assist such masters as Erich Kleiber, Barbirolli, Kempe and Giulini, with whom he shared performances of Don Carlos. He respected Solti, who returned the compliment by giving him many performances in his, Solti’s, own special repertory, Wagner and Strauss. Downes was the first Briton to conduct a Ring at Covent Garden since Beecham.
Naturally Downes was disappointed not to succeed to the musical directorship when Solti left (maybe he was too outspoken for the sensibilities of the powers that be), but he returned each season as guest under Colin Davis’s directorship. Comparative freedom meant that in 1972 he was able to accept the musical directorship of the Australian Opera, and the following year he conducted the opening performance (War and Peace) in the Sydney Opera House (among his assistants was the young Mark Elder). But he and the company did not see eye to eye on repertoire, and he left in 1976, not before giving the first Australian Wozzeck and Jenufa, and much-admired readings of Salome and Rosenkavalier in Sydney.
His other main out-of-London post was as artistic director and principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, with which he conducted memorable performances of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and probably the most complete Rienzi since the premiere, in addition to an equally memorable complete Kitezh (1986), Christmas Eve (1987) and Tchaikovsky’s Vakula the Smith (1990). He returned full time to Covent Garden in 1991 as associate music director—to Haitink—and principal conductor.
Downes could, and did, conduct anything—even Fedora—but there were two specialities: Verdi and the Russian repertoire. Boris with Christoff was an early assignment, followed by Khovanshchina and the first British Katerina Ismailova (1963), both of which he translated. Shostakovich attended the latter and, looking like father and son, they struck up a close friendship. Downes later conducted the first British The Nose for the New Opera Company (1973). He was all his life involved with Prokofiev: he conducted (and translated) the first British Fiery Angel (also for the NOC, 1965) and later was in charge of the Kirov-Royal Opera staging. He translated War and Peace, conducted the first UK performance in concert in Leeds (1967), and reconstructed the ‘lost’ one-act Maddalena (1979) and the incidental music for the melodrama-cum-poetry-reading of Prokofiev’s Yevgeny Onegin, which he also recorded.
He was of course central to the Royal Opera’s projected Verdi cycle leading up to the centenary year of 2001, which almost came to completion—the only major work that escaped him was Vêpres siciliennes. But that cycle included thrilling performances of Attila, I masnadieri and of course Stiffelio, which he reconstructed and edited. He was respected as a Verdi scholar, knowing the early works, especially, from the inside with an intimacy desk-bound experts could scarcely command. Verdi was central to his work at Covent Garden over all the years he was there, and the last performances he conducted there were of Rigoletto in 2005. Before this, failing eyesight already meant he could conduct only works he knew by heart, including many Traviatas.
He was invaluable as a conductor of new works: his premieres included Bennett’s Victory (1970), Maxwell Davies’s Taverner (1972), and Tavener’s Thérèse (1979). Among his first British performances in addition to those already mentioned was Humphrey Searle’s Hamlet. His other translations included Zemlinsky’s Florentine Tragedy and Birthday of the Infanta, Jenufa (with Otakar Kraus), The Nose and The Stone Guest. He published Everyman’s Guide to Orchestral Music in 1976.
Too little of his work was recorded, but there are fine DVDs of Rigoletto (David McVicar), Salome (Peter Hall) and Stiffelio (Elijah Moshinsky). On CD there is a memorable Korngold Symphony and the Prokofiev Onegin. His BBC Philharmonic concert broadcasts turn up on CD every now and then. He was appointed CBE in 1986, and knighted in 1991.
Some of the broadsheet obituaries characterized Ted as a private person who seldom gave interviews, in which case I must have been singularly privileged to have interviewed him several times in newspapers and for the BBC, and indeed to have made radio programmes with him. To listen to him for an hour talking about Verdi’s galley-years operas was an education in itself: in each one, he insisted, the composer was trying out something new, and he demonstrated how. You could describe Ted’s enthusiasm for Verdi as ‘boyish’ were it not so mature, so supremely well-informed. In later years Joan always came with him, and conversation when the tapes were off was a special pleasure: they shared a salty sense of humour, were great gossips, and relished that sense of the ridiculous without which no one in the operatic world can stay sane. The manner of their passing was indescribably sad, but you had to respect their decision: the idea of either being able to live without the other was unthinkable. Everyone who knew them, even one as marginally as I, will feel a great sense of personal loss. They were truly lovely people.