Edward Downes

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Edward Downes in the recording studio, 1971. Edward Downes.jpg
Edward Downes in the recording studio, 1971.

Sir Edward Thomas ("Ted") Downes, CBE (17 June 1924 – 10 July 2009) was an English conductor, specialising in opera.


He was associated with the Royal Opera House from 1952, and with Opera Australia from 1970. He was also well known for his long working relationship with the BBC Philharmonic and for working with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra. Within the field of opera, he was particularly known as a conductor of Verdi.

Royal Opera House opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London

The Royal Opera House (ROH) is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London. The large building is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", after a previous use of the site of the opera house's original construction in 1732. It is the home of The Royal Opera, The Royal Ballet, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Originally called the Theatre Royal, it served primarily as a playhouse for the first hundred years of its history. In 1734, the first ballet was presented. A year later, Handel's first season of operas began. Many of his operas and oratorios were specifically written for Covent Garden and had their premieres there.

Opera Australia principal opera company in Australia

Opera Australia is the principal opera company in Australia. Based in Sydney, its performance season at the Sydney Opera House accompanied by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra runs for approximately eight months of the year, with the remainder of its time spent in the Arts Centre Melbourne, where it is accompanied by Orchestra Victoria. In 2004, the company gave 226 performances in its subscription seasons in Sydney and Melbourne, attended by more than 294,000 people.

The BBC Philharmonic is a national British broadcasting symphony orchestra and is one of five radio orchestras maintained by the British Broadcasting Corporation and is a department of the BBC North Group division based at MediaCityUK, Salford. The orchestra's primary concert venue is the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

He and his wife, Lady (Joan) Downes, committed assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland on 10 July 2009, an event that received significant media coverage.

Assisted suicide is suicide undertaken with the aid of another person. The term refers to physician-assisted suicide (PAS), which is suicide that is assisted by a physician or other healthcare provider. Once it is determined that the person's situation qualifies under the assisted suicide laws for that place, the physician's assistance is usually limited to writing a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs.

Early life and education

Downes was born in Birmingham, England in 1924, the son of a bank teller. He began to learn the piano and violin at age five and was also a choirboy at King Edward's School, learning the organ and becoming choir master when his voice broke at 13. [1] He left school at the age of 14 to earn his living in a low-paid position at the City of Birmingham Gas Department. [2]

Birmingham City in the English Midlands, 2nd highest population of UK cities

Birmingham is the second-most populous city in the United Kingdom, after London, and the most populous city in the English Midlands. With an estimated population of 1,137,100 as of 2017, Birmingham is the cultural, social, financial and commercial centre of the Midlands. It is the main centre of the West Midlands conurbation, which is the third most populated urban area in the United Kingdom, with a population in 2011 of 2,440,986. The wider Birmingham metropolitan area is the second largest in the United Kingdom with a population of over 3.7 million. Birmingham is frequently referred to as the United Kingdom's "second city".

King Edwards School, Birmingham independent day school for boys in Birmingham, England

King Edward's School (KES) is an independent day school for boys in Edgbaston, an area of Birmingham, England. Founded by King Edward VI in 1552, it is part of the Foundation of the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham.

Having spent his lunch hours studying by himself in Birmingham Central Library, [1] he won a scholarship at the age of 16 to the University of Birmingham. Because his parents believed that a musical career was immoral, they made him leave home and he spent his university time as a fire watcher, living in the fire station, while he studied English literature and music. He began playing the horn. [1] A scholarship to the Royal College of Music to study composition (with Ralph Vaughan Williams and R. O. Morris) and horn (with Frank Probin) followed. Only weeks after starting the course, Probin sent Downes as his deputy on a tour with the London Symphony Orchestra, which continued over the years Downes spent at the College, but on leaving the Royal College he decided that orchestral playing would not be his career. [1] He played in the orchestra at Sadler's Wells in the opening performances of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes in 1945, and at Covent Garden in ballet performances ( The Sleeping Beauty ) in 1946, while still at the Royal College of Music. He also played for the orchestra of the San Carlo Opera Company. [3]

University of Birmingham university in Birmingham, England, United Kingdom

The University of Birmingham is a public research university located in Edgbaston, Birmingham, United Kingdom. It received its royal charter in 1900 as a successor to Queen's College, Birmingham and Mason Science College, making it the first English civic or 'red brick' university to receive its own royal charter. It is a founding member of both the Russell Group of British research universities and the international network of research universities, Universitas 21.

See also: British literature

French horn type of brass instrument

The French horn is a brass instrument made of tubing wrapped into a coil with a flared bell. The double horn in F/B is the horn most often used by players in professional orchestras and bands. A musician who plays a French horn is known as a horn player or hornist.

After some time on the staff at the University of Aberdeen, where he conducted his first opera, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro , Downes' pursuit of conducting was aided by a two-year Carnegie scholarship which allowed him to study with Hermann Scherchen in Zurich. [4]

University of Aberdeen university in Aberdeen, Scotland

The University of Aberdeen is a public research university in Aberdeen, Scotland. It is an ancient university founded in 1495 when William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen and Chancellor of Scotland, petitioned Pope Alexander VI on behalf of James IV, King of Scots to establish King's College, making it Scotland's third-oldest university and the fifth-oldest in the English-speaking world. Today, Aberdeen is consistently ranked among the top 200 universities in the world and is ranked within the top 30 universities in the United Kingdom. Aberdeen was also named the 2019 Scottish University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Austrian composer of the Classical period

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, baptised as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, was a prolific and influential composer of the classical era.

<i>The Marriage of Figaro</i> opera by Mozart with a libretto in Italian by Lorenzo Da Ponte

The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492, is an opera buffa in four acts composed in 1786 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with an Italian libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte. It premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 1 May 1786. The opera's libretto is based on a stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, which was first performed in 1784. It tells how the servants Figaro and Susanna succeed in getting married, foiling the efforts of their philandering employer Count Almaviva to seduce Susanna and teaching him a lesson in fidelity.

In 1955 he married Joan Weston, a dancer with the Royal Ballet. She later became a choreographer and television producer. They had two children, a son, Caractacus (born December 1967), a musician and recording engineer, and a daughter, Boudicca (born 1970), a video producer.

Conducting career

After nearly two years with Scherchen, Downes returned to England and joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company as a répétiteur. [1] After the company's temporary closure in 1951, Downes began a long and fruitful association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1952 with his appointment as an assistant to Rafael Kubelík. [4] He started work as repetiteur and prompter on the same day that Joan Sutherland began with the company, his first assignment being a new Günther Rennert production of Un ballo in maschera , shortly followed as prompter for Maria Callas in her house debut in Norma with Vittorio Gui conducting. His next job was singing the role of Tristan in stage rehearsals under Barbirolli, pending the arrival Ludwig Suthaus, then teaching the local singers in Elektra . [3]

His first conducting assignment was taking over from John Barbirolli in La bohème in Bulawayo, while at Covent Garden, it was in 1954 for Der Freischütz . [1] Downes's first experience of conducting a new production came about by accident when the eminent elderly French conductor Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht proved unable to hold the ensemble together, so that after the general rehearsal David Webster and the French ambassador in London persuaded Inghelbrecht to withdraw, and Downes took over from the opening night. [3]

Downes remained a company member for 17 years, returning annually thereafter as a guest conductor before assuming the post of Associate Music Director in 1991. Downes conducted at least 950 performances of 49 operas at Covent Garden, [5] including a Ring Cycle in 1971. [3]

Elsewhere, he became the Australian Opera's Music Director in 1970, conducting the first operatic performance in the Sydney Opera House in 1973, [4] the Australian premiere of War and Peace by Sergei Prokofiev. He was Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Orchestra until 1983. While Downes worked with many of the world's symphony orchestras, he enjoyed a particularly long relationship with the BBC Philharmonic (formerly the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), serving as its Chief Guest Conductor, then Principal Conductor, [6] and finally as Conductor Emeritus.


Downes was noted for his championing of British music, and especially for Prokofiev and Verdi. He advocated the symphonies of George Lloyd (also conducting a radio performance of John Socman ) and premiered works by Alan Bush, Peter Maxwell Davies and Malcolm Arnold. His passion for Prokofiev was felt in performances of both major and lesser-known Prokofiev scores throughout the world. He also conducted the UK première of War and Peace at a concert performance at Leeds Town Hall in 1967. In 1979 he completed the orchestration of a one-act Prokofiev opera, Maddalena ; he conducted its first recording in 1979 and its world premiere staging in 1981.

Downes' first experience of conducting the music of Verdi came when Rafael Kubelík withdrew from a Covent Garden Otello and Downes led the opera with no rehearsal. He felt on home ground, and then championed Verdi revivals in England. He conducted 25 of Verdi's 28 operas, and devised the idea to perform all of them in time for the 2001 centenary of the composer's death. [2] With Paul Findlay, Downes planned a Verdi festival for the Royal Opera House which would cover all Verdi's operas from 1995 to 2001, performing four each year, starting each five-week festival with a large, grand work, then a revival of a repertoire piece then rarities. The plans included using variant arias and ballets. [3] However, the full plans were not completed and Downes expressed regret that he had never conducted Alzira , Un giorno di regno or, especially, Les vêpres siciliennes . The conductor said: "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." [7]

At the BBC Proms he shared the platform with Pierre Boulez for the Proms premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen in 1967, and conducted the Proms premieres of Die Jakobsleiter in 1968, Boris Godunov in 1971 and The Fiery Angel in 1991, as well as public premieres of George Lloyd's Symphony No. 6 and works by Roger Smalley, Elizabeth Maconchy and Jonathan Elias.


Downes was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1986 New Year Honours, [8] and was knighted in the 1991 Queen's Birthday Honours. [9]


Although not terminally ill, Downes had been coping with increasing deafness and near total blindness for many years. He had become almost totally dependent on his wife after his health declined following a hip replacement. Lady Downes was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer that metastasised to her liver, and given only weeks to live. [10]

Lady Downes wrote a letter to family explaining that she had decided against treatment and that:

"All the plans that need to be made had been.
Now, I must tell you that even though I had hoped to be around a bit longer, death doesn’t worry me at all.
I have no religion and, as far as I am concerned, it will be an "offswitch" so after you have thought about it a bit don’t worry.
It has been a happy and interesting life and I have no regrets. I have no idea how long I will last but I send love to you all and your extensive families.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
With love to you all, Joan." [11]

Sir Edward, aged 85, and Lady Downes, aged 74, ended their lives by assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Zürich, Switzerland, on 10 July 2009. [10] Although Joan did not want the children present, Dignitas encouraged it and "Ted and Joanie" were reported to be pleased when the time came. Their children issued a statement speaking of "serious health problems" suffered by the couple. [12] [13] A statement issued by the couple's children said that while Downes could have gone on living with his deafness and blindness, he did not want to do so after his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. [4]

In March 2010, Keir Starmer (director of public prosecutions) stated that Caractacus Downes would not be prosecuted for his involvement with his parents' assisted suicide because it was not in the public interest. [14]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Interview with Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs , BBC radio, 1969. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  2. 1 2 Alan Blyth and David Nice,"Obituary—Sir Edward Downes—Leading conductor of Verdi at Covent Garden and a stalwart champion of Prokofiev", The Guardian (London), 14 July 2009. Retrieved 15 July 2009
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Downes, Edward, and Loppert, Max, "The product of experience", Opera , January 1993, Vol 44 No 1, pp. 26—39.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Jill Lawless, "Conductor Downes, wife die in Swiss suicide clinic" Associated Press 14 July 2009)
  5. Sir Edward Downes at the Royal Opera House, partial search. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  6. Keith Potter, "Opera and Concert Reports" (Proms). The Musical Times, 130(1760), pp. 621–35 (October 1989)
  7. Martin Kettle, "Interview: conductor Edward Downes", The Guardian , 14 June 2004
  8. "No. 50361". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1985. p. 7.
  9. "No. 52563". The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 June 1991. p. 2.
  10. 1 2 Appel, Jacob M., "Assisted Suicide for Healthy People?" 16 July 2009
  11. " 'They held hands as they lay down and waited for death': Son tells how he watched his parents die at Swiss suicide clinic" Daily Mail (London), 15 July 2009
  12. BBC "Conductor dies in suicide centre" 14 July 2009
  13. "Conductor Sir Edward Downes and wife end lives at Dignitas clinic", The Daily Telegraph (London), 14 July 2009
  14. "No assisted suicide charge for son of Sir Edward Downes", on BBC.co.uk. 19 March 2010
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Preceded by
Raymond Leppard
Principal Conductor, BBC Philharmonic
Succeeded by
Yan Pascal Tortelier