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Pritchard, Sir John Michaelfree


Sir John Michael Pritchard (1918–1989)

by Derek Allen

© Derek Allen; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Pritchard, Sir John Michael (1918–1989), conductor, was born on 5 February 1918 at 17 Cromwell Road, Walthamstow, London, the younger son (there were no daughters) of Albert Edward Pritchard, violinist, and his wife, Amy Edith Shaylor. He was educated at Sir George Monoux School in London, and he studied privately with his father and other music teachers. In his teenage years he visited Italy to listen to opera. When the Second World War broke out Pritchard registered as a conscientious objector, to his father's dismay. He therefore underwent an army medical examination, but, because of an earlier attack of pleurisy, was registered unfit to serve. In 1943 he took over the Derby String Orchestra and was its principal conductor until 1951. Meanwhile he joined the music staff of Glyndebourne Opera (1947) and was appointed chorus master there (1949). He succeeded Reginald Jacques as conductor of the Jacques Orchestra (1950–52). By 1951 he was sharing with Fritz Busch major Mozart productions at Glyndebourne and at the Edinburgh Festival.

Important opportunities came Pritchard's way in 1952: at Edinburgh he appeared with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, replacing Ernest Ansermet, who was ill; and he made his débuts at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and at the Vienna State Opera. He appeared regularly with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1953–5). He continued to work at Glyndebourne, conducting their productions of Mozart's Idomeneo and Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Edinburgh festivals of 1953 and 1954. After the latter he conducted the Glyndebourne production of Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Berlin Festival. The performance was a triumph.

At home, Pritchard was appointed principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (1957–63) and within a year had launched the Musica Viva series at which contemporary music was introduced, illustrated, performed, and then discussed. During five seasons, unfamiliar music by many living composers was heard for the first time in Britain. Pritchard's success in Liverpool led to his appointment as musical director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1962–6). At Glyndebourne he became music counsellor (1963), principal conductor (1968), and musical director (1969–77). In 1969 he took the London Philharmonic to the Far East and made his American début, at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Appearances at the San Francisco Opera (1970) and the Metropolitan Opera (1971) followed. In 1973 he conducted the London Philharmonic in China—the first visit by a Western orchestra.

By 1980 Pritchard had conducted many of the world's greatest orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Dresden Staatskapelle, and the Philadelphia Orchestra; he had appeared at the Salzburg festival, the Maggio Musicale in Florence, and the Munich State Opera. In London he was a regular guest at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, at the Proms, and with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whose chief conductor he became in 1982. Overlapping posts included at that time the musical directorships of the Cologne Opera (1978), the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels (1981), and the San Francisco Opera (1986).

Pritchard's innate musicality, his quick grasp, his range of sympathies, and his gift for getting the best out of the musicians (with whom he was very popular) combined to bring him a career of astonishing concentration and variety. No conductor can have had a fuller diary. Although this sometimes led to a perfunctoriness bordering upon indolence, he was, at his best, an interpreter of lasting distinction. His Mozart and Strauss were superbly idiomatic, but he also excelled in nineteenth-century Italian opera. And he could surprise his public with, for example, some tough Shostakovich. He was not, however, a great star; he did not make enough recordings to achieve that status. But he was appointed CBE in 1962 and was knighted in 1983. The coveted Shakespeare prize (Hamburg) was awarded him in 1975.

Pritchard's much imitated manner of speech—bland, almost epicene—was an outward sign of his unabashed homosexuality, but there was nothing effeminate about his music-making. He had friends in every walk and style of life and was loyal and generous to them. Witty and well-informed, he lived in some style (in a number of homes, including an elegant house near Glyndebourne and a villa in the Alpes-Maritimes above Nice). Indeed his enjoyment of good food and wine became a problem when he needed to lose weight for a hip replacement operation not long before his death. It was a problem he observed with rueful detachment. Though already ill, with lung cancer, he conducted the last night of the Proms on 16 September 1989 and made a touchingly prescient and self-deprecating speech. He died on 5 December 1989 in Daly City, California. He left a large part of his estate to Terry MacInnes, his partner.


  • S. Hughes, Glyndebourne (1965)
  • N. Kenyon, The BBC Symphony Orchestra … 1930–1980 (1981)
  • J. Higgins, ed., Glyndebourne: a celebration (1984)
  • The Independent (6 Dec 1989)
  • The Times (6 Dec 1989)
  • b. cert.