EDWARD DOWNES (b 1924 )
Born in Birmingham, Edward Downes started to learn the piano and violin when he was five and sang as a boy chorister. At the age of sixteen he won a scholarship to Birmingham University where he studied English and music, and took up the horn. Having graduated at the early age of nineteen, he went on to postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music in London, where his professor helped him gain professional experience as a horn player, sending him to perform with the London Symphony Orchestra and other major London orchestras. He thus acquired valuable first-hand experience of orchestral music, and also started a lifelong involvement with opera. As Downes recalls, ‘In 1945, I played in the first performance of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells Theatre and in 1946, in the opening performance of the Royal Opera House after the war. But I soon decided that playing the horn was not enough for me, as I wanted to be a composer and a conductor. At that time there were no conducting courses at all in Britain, so I left London.’
After a short period as a music lecturer at Aberdeen University, where he conducted his first opera, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Downes secured a scholarship to study conducting with Hermann Scherchen, not only a brilliant conductor himself but then the foremost teacher of conducting in Europe. ‘Although Scherchen was based in Zürich, he travelled all over the world and for two years, I accompanied him everywhere as his assistant and répétiteur.’ When Edward Downes returned to England in 1950, he was determined to become a conductor. He first worked as a répétiteur with the Carl Rosa Opera, the touring opera company, and soon after, in 1952, opportunity came his way in the form of Maria Callas who was coming to Covent Garden for the first time, and who insisted on having an Italian prompter. At that time there was no prompter at the Royal Opera House but, knowing that Edward Downes had worked in Rome with Scherchen, Covent Garden engaged him. ‘I joined on the same day as Joan Sutherland and at the end of my first season, I was asked to conduct. My first opera was La Bohème, and I have conducted every season since that occasion, which was forty-nine years ago.’
Downes proved to be a most valuable member of the music staff, attracting attention in 1954 with his conducting of a new production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, and thereafter conducting virtually the complete operatic repertoire. In 1963 he led the first Western production of Shostakovich’s Katerina Izmailova, also translating the libretto into English. Having been appointed assistant to the music director of the Royal Opera Company, Georg Solti, in 1969, he became the first English conductor to direct a complete performance of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at Covent Garden. During this period Downes became closely associated with contemporary operas as well as the Russian, German and Italian repertoire, conducting the first performances of Humphrey Searle’s Hamlet (1969), Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (1970), and Peter Maxwell Davies’s Taverner (1972).
In 1972 Downes began a four-year term as musical director of the Australian Opera, opening the new Sydney Opera House in 1973 with Prokofiev’s War and Peace. This epic production, directed by Sam Wanamaker, was televised and broadcast all over the world. Throughout the 1970s Downes conducted both at home and abroad, notably as chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra as well as in France, and North and South America. During this decade he led an important series of broadcast performances of operas with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in Manchester, including Wagner’s Die Feen, Richard Strauss’s Friedenstag, and Prokofiev’s Maddalena. In 1980 he was appointed as chief conductor of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, a post which he held until 1991, overseeing its transformation to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; with the orchestra he continued his work of broadcasting both little-known operas, notably several by Rimsky-Korsakov, and contemporary music, such as the first performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No. 3 (1985). He became associate music director of the Royal Opera Company in 1991, the year in which he was knighted, leading memorable productions of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel and Verdi’s Stiffelio. In addition he continued to conduct internationally, despite the constraints placed upon him by limited vision resulting from persistent eye problems. A highlight of 1994 was the first performance of the music that Prokofiev wrote in 1936 to accompany a stage production, eventually abandoned, of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
Downes is a technically highly proficient conductor, able to turn his hand to virtually any aspect of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century concert and operatic repertoires. In performance he tends to be undemonstrative, maintaining clear direction at all times. He has been a consistent recording artist since the mid 1960s, excelling as an accompanist in opera recital discs, for instance with singers such as Amy Shuard, Gwyneth Jones, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, and in discs of operatic orchestral excerpts, many of which were made for the American company based in Hamburg, Miller International. He soon made a name for conducting less well-known aspects of the repertoire, his discography including the first recording of Bax’s Symphony No. 3, strong accounts of Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher and the Walton Viola Concerto with Paul Doktor, and Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Gershwin Piano Concerto with Roberto Szidon.
This trend of recording less familiar repertoire has continued throughout his career, assisted by his close association with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. This has led to recordings of the complete symphonies of Rheinhold Glière, several of Respighi’s most ambitious orchestral works, and the Symphony in F sharp by Korngold. The BBC has issued live recordings of Downes conducting the Symphonies Nos 2 and 3 of Rutland Boughton, and unofficial publishers have issued the 1976 broadcast of Die Feen. That Downes is also an accomplished interpreter of the mainstream repertoire is fully demonstrated by his account of Elgar’s Symphony No. 2, the Enigma Variations and the Cello Concerto, with Alexander Baillie. His contribution to England’s musical life in the half century following World War II has been considerable, if not always immediately apparent.
Downes died in Switzerland on 10 July 2009.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).