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Sir  Edward Thomas Downes (1924–2009), by Nigel Luckhurst, 1985Sir Edward Thomas Downes (1924–2009), by Nigel Luckhurst, 1985
Downes, Sir Edward Thomas [Ted] (1924–2009), conductor, was born at 23 John Street, Aston, Birmingham, on 17 June 1924, the third and youngest child of Alfred Downes, shipping clerk, and his wife, Amy Ethel, née Hayward. Ted (as he was always known to family, friends, and colleagues) attended a modest local school where his gifts soon became apparent. From the age of five he studied violin and piano, and sang with his father in the local church choir; but an atmosphere of religious intolerance combined with parental horror at the idea that their son might become a professional musician (‘My mother would have regarded Debussy as pornographic’, he later said (The Times, 15 July 2009) meant that his childhood was far from happy. His father was not always in work, and Downes left school at the age of fourteen to work for the gas board. In 1941 he secretly applied to the University of Birmingham's professor, Victor Hely-Hutchinson, for an open scholarship in English and music, and was successful—an award which his parents discovered when reading about it in the Birmingham Mail.

Owing to extremely poor eyesight Downes was exempt from military service in the Second World War, joining instead the fire service for night duties, which enabled him to leave home for good. While at Birmingham he took up the French horn, and won a postgraduate scholarship in 1944 to attend the Royal College of Music. He found himself in the pit for the historic first night of Britten's Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells in June 1945. Yet he found orchestral session work unfulfilling, and on graduation in 1947 accepted a lecturing post at the University of Aberdeen. There he conducted his first opera, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and felt he had found his vocation. Work with the baton proved hard to come by until a Carnegie scholarship from Aberdeen enabled him to develop his craft with Hermann Scherchen in Zürich, in 1949–50. Scherchen was both irascible and eccentric, but his expertise in contemporary music and ability to pass on his rock-solid conducting technique were to stand his pupil in good stead, as would a growing proficiency in German and Italian.

Two seasons as a music coach with the touring Carl Rosa Opera Company (1950–52) included work on George Lloyd's Festival of Britain commission John Socman; but when that company was temporarily disbanded, Downes accepted an appointment which was to define the course of his career. In 1952 he joined Covent Garden Opera, becoming a répétiteur under his mentor and champion, the incoming music director Rafael Kubelik. His first job was to prompt Maria Callas in Norma, but he was soon given the opportunity to conduct La Bohème (1953, on tour in Bulawayo) before making his inhouse debut with Carmen later that year. A new production of Der Freischütz with the young Joan Sutherland as Agathe followed swiftly. When early in 1954 the veteran conductor Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht had to be tactfully eased out after the dress rehearsal of a new production of Tales of Hoffmann, Downes stepped into the breach and conducted the first night without extra rehearsal: his crystal-clear beat and calm authority were always great assets in an emergency.

On 21 September 1953 Downes married Anne Finley Thompson, a 28-year-old singer and daughter of Peter Thompson, master builder, but the marriage was soon dissolved. On 11 January 1964 he married Joan Frances Weston (b. 1935), a dancer with the Royal Ballet whom he had first met in 1955. She was the daughter of Fred Weston, electrical contractor. They had two children, Richard David Caractacus (Crac) (b. 1968), and Boudicca Gwyneth (b. 1970).

Meanwhile at Covent Garden Downes took charge of numerous revivals and some new productions, honing his skills every succeeding season under a succession of luminaries including Rudolf Kempe, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Georg Solti as well as Kubelik—who in 1957 paid to send his protégé to a specialist who saved Downes's sight after he suffered a haemorrhage. His wide linguistic capabilities fitted him to work in every part of the repertoire with equal effectiveness. In particular, the thoroughness of his preparation and ability to get fast results in intensive rehearsals made him a natural choice for contemporary scores, among which his handling of Peter Maxwell Davies's Taverner (1972) notably enhanced his reputation as an advocate of new music. When Solti left the company in 1970 Downes was disappointed that it was not he but Colin Davis who was made music director; and though he returned every season as a guest conductor, it was to be 1991 before he ‘came home’ on a full-time contract, as associate music director to Bernard Haitink. London's loss was Sydney's gain. In 1972 Downes took charge of the fledgling Australian Opera, opening the Sydney Opera House with an epic production of Prokofiev's War and Peace the following year and remaining at the helm until 1975, when a rift with the board over adventurous repertoire led to his resignation.

In 1980 Downes began a congenial eleven years as principal conductor of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, renamed in 1982 at his insistence as the BBC Philharmonic to avoid any imputation of parochialism. He greatly increased the standing of his orchestra, being particularly proud of the luminous, full string tone he nurtured, and becoming one of the most sought-after interpreters of late romantic music in the concert hall. His affinity for the symphonic works of Elgar, Bax, and the Russian composers was especially strong, and—as his all too few commercial recordings show—he was adept at conveying his deep understanding of their scores to his Manchester players, not to mention those of the Netherlands Radio Orchestra with which he also worked closely in the mid-1980s.

Perhaps Downes's advocacy of the Russian operatic repertoire over five decades was his greatest achievement: he taught himself Russian and at one time or another conducted (often also translating) all the most important operas of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1963 he worked harmoniously with Shostakovich at Covent Garden on the Western premiere of Katerina Ismailova, later introducing The Nose to English National Opera. With his notoriously thick pebble-glasses, broad shoulders, and square jaw he bore a striking personal resemblance to the composer. Downes's association with Prokofiev was even stronger. He pieced together and completed the score of the early Maddalena, giving the world premiere with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in 1979; his first, magnificent War and Peace (1972) was a milestone in the history of English National Opera; and a long fight to stage The Fiery Angel at Covent Garden culminated in his volcanic conducting of the 1992 production.

Downes returned to Covent Garden as associate music director and principal conductor in 1991. In this ‘late period’ he was able to pursue another, special enthusiasm: the operas of Verdi, which had always appealed to him for their visceral rhythmic drive and theatrical energy. His revival—effectively a modern premiere—in 1993 of the early Stiffelio (perhaps significantly for Downes, a parable on religious intolerance) proved a springboard for the vast project of a Verdi festival; and although fiscal stringencies and the closure of the Royal Opera House for redevelopment prevented production of the full quota, he managed to programme all bar three of Verdi's stage works over the following twelve years. Failing sight and growing physical fragility eventually took their toll, but in 2001 Downes conjured a performance run of La Traviata which surprised even close working colleagues by its lovingly moulded warmth and humanity. He left the Royal Opera the following year after a run of performances of Rigoletto.

An old-style, leftist intellectual with an unquenchably strong work ethic, Downes combined personal warmth and racy humour with considerable astuteness at dealing with the subtleties of institutional politics. This was bolstered by the fearless ability to speak his mind clearly to orchestras and administrators alike. The universal respect in which he was held was key to his success, coupled with rigorous preparation, technical security, and a liberal dose of theatrical pragmatism which enabled him to go with the flow of whatever was happening on stage. Downes was an inspiring presence for audiences and critics as well as colleagues. His work was placed squarely at the service of the music, rather than himself: unfailing professionalism was his watchword, in pit and concert hall alike. He was made a fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1984, appointed CBE in 1986, and knighted for services to music in 1991.

Even in retirement Downes retained his keen mental edge, taking two degrees in Russian and involving himself actively with the Prokofiev Association alongside his wife and assistant (as well as constant chauffeur) Joan. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the couple decided with their family's support to travel to the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, where they ended their lives together on 10 July 2009. Though bodily frail and heavily reliant on his wife's eyes and ears, Downes himself was not terminally ill, and the poignant details of their demise aroused headlines and comment throughout the British media.

Christopher Webber

Sources  

N. Mann, ‘Sir Edward Downes: a life in music’, 30 May 2000, www.sprkfv.net/journal/three01/downesjrn.html, accessed on 24 April 2012 · The Guardian (14 June 2004); (15 July 2009); (20 March 2010) · Daily Telegraph (14 July 2009); (14 Nov 2009) · The Times (15 July 2009); (16 July 2009); (20 July 2009); (22 July 2009); (28 July 2009) · Daily Mail (15 July 2009) · The Independent (16 July 2009) · The Observer (19 July 2009) · www.opera.co.uk/view-review.php?reviewID=29&PHPSESSID=eb537dd15d533dd1b212dd885e73e85e, accessed on 24 April 2012 · www.rohcollections.org.uk/performances.aspx, accessed on 24 April 2012 · www.carlrosaopera.co.uk/history/opera-company.asp, accessed on 25 April 212 · Burke, Peerage · WW (2009) · private information (2013) [M. Packwood, G. Parlett] · b. cert. · m. cert. [1953]

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFI NFTVA, performance footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, light entertainment recordings · BL NSA, performance recordings


Likenesses  

S. & G. Barratts, group portrait, photograph, 1954 (with wife Joan), PA Images, London · group portrait, photograph, 1967 (with wife Joan and new baby son), PA Images, London · group portrait, photograph, 1973 (with Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich), Getty Images, London · N. Luckhurst, photograph, 1985, Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library [see illus.] · D. Sillitoe, photograph, 2004, Camera Press, London · B. Cooper, photograph, PA Images, London · Ingpen and Williams, group portrait, photograph (with wife Joan), PA Images, London · photographs, ArenaPal

Wealth at death  

£965,538: probate, 14 Dec 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales