Obituary: Sir Edward Downes (1924-2009)

A tribute

14 July 2009

Sir Edward Downes Legendary conductor Sir Edward Downes, CBE, and his wife Joan ended their lives at the assisted suicide clinic Dignitas in Switzerland last Friday.

Their son and daughter released a statement referring to their parents' painful physical condition:

'It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our parents Edward and Joan Downes on Friday 10 July. After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems.

They died peacefully, and under circumstances of their own choosing, with the help of the Swiss organization Dignitas, in Zurich.

Our father, who was 85 years old, almost blind and increasingly deaf, had a long, vigorous and distinguished career as a conductor.

Our mother, who was 74, started her career as a ballet dancer and subsequently worked as a choreographer and TV producer, before dedicating the last years of her life to working as our father's personal assistant.

They both lived life to the full and considered themselves to be extremely lucky to have lived such rewarding lives, both professionally and personally'.

With the death of Sir Edward, the world has lost one of the finest Verdian interpreters and most beloved artists of the last sixty years. His collaboration with the Royal Opera House was perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of his career: he conducted at least 950 performances of 49 operas in Covent Garden. The musicians who worked with him remember him with huge affection, as do the music lovers who had the chance to approach his work, either through live performance or through recording.

Sir Edward started his professional conducting career at the Carl Rosa Company in the UK and in 1952, joined the Royal Opera, at that time still called Covent Garden Opera. His first job was prompting Maria Callas in Norma but just one year later he debuted as a conductor with the Company on tour in Bulawayo for La bohème.

His successes are innumerable. He remained a company member of the Royal Opera for seventeen years, returning annually as guest conductor until he took up the post of Associate Music Director in 1991. He continued to conduct a wide and diverse repertoire for over fifty consecutive seasons.

His prestigious worldwide posts took him from Sydney, where he inaugurated the Opera House in 1970 conducting War and Peace by Prokofiev, to the BBC Philharmonic (formerly the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), where started as a Chief Guest Conductor to become eventually Principal Conductor and finally Conductor Emeritus in 1991.

During his school years in Birmingham, he grew fond of Russian literature; later, as a musician, he ended up falling in love with the Russian repertoire as well. He had such passion for this genre, that after a lifetime of achievements he celebrated his 80th birthday at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall with the BBC Philharmonic conducting Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony.

His intellectual commitment went beyond his activity as a conductor. He was a distinguished musicologist and opera translator, and also a promoter of new and neglected music. He first reconstructed and performed Wagner's Rienzi and brought to life further obscure Wagner's works such as Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot. In 1993 he conducted the first professional UK staging of Verdi's Stiffelio, whose performance, featuring José Carreras in the title role, was based on his own edition (you can watch the opening Sinfonia from the 1993 Covent Garden production here). He was also the first to conduct Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin.

His understanding of Russian music was incommensurable. But it was with Verdi that Sir Edward gave his best. Famously, his regret was to have never conducted Alzira, Un giorno di regno and especially Les vêpres siciliennes. Yet, his reading of the other 25 of Verdi's 28 operas will remain immortal.

Downes has always talked with affection of his special relationship to the Italian composer, which started in the most unusual and possibly daunting way. Acting as assistant to Rafael Kubelik at the Royal Opera in 1953, he was asked to take over the conducting of Otello without having done a single rehearsal.

Downes fondly recalled the Kubelik episode in a 2004 interview with Martin Kettle of The Guardian: 'He'd done about four performances of a new staging of Otello in 1953, and I suddenly got a phone call to say I was to take over the next evening. I'd never conducted any Verdi, and certainly not Otello, though I knew it because I'd coached the singers. 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, from those who know everything about music to those who are hearing it for the first time'.

It is also significant to mention that up until then Verdi had not received any special treatment from the majority of conductors, who considered him as a 'a chap who wrote a few good tunes, but otherwise just as an Italian bandmaster', as Downes put it. He himself was then an active part of the rediscovery of the Italian genius, and the passion and discipline he placed in his studies and performances remains unmatched.

His final work at the Royal Opera was a memorable Rigoletto in 2005. This was a stunning production by David McVicar which has already become a classic at Covent Garden since its first staging in 2001; Downes inaugurated it himself.

In an interview about the 2007 revival, Paolo Gavanelli, who created the role of Rigoletto when the production was new, could not conceal his wonder at Sir Edward's unique take on the opera. Referring to his collaboration with the conductor in 2001 and 2005, he had nothing but words of admiration: 'It was fantastic. I don't know anyone in the world today who knows as much about Verdi as he does; he knows every point in Verdi'.

The legacy that Sir Edward leaves is enormous and inestimable. His enthusiasm and passion lead him to concentrate his energies on the activities he loved the most, and it is thanks to his constant intellectual drive that he became one of the finest and most respected musicians of the last sixty years.

By Marina Romani

Photo Credits:AP Photo/Bill Cooper/PA Wire

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