by Rupert Christiansen
The death of conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan in the Dignitas clinic in Zurich is deeply sad news.
‘Ted’, as he was universally and affectionately known was 85 and had long suffered from poor eyesight and other health problems. But he was not one to complain: happy in his family life and dedicated to music, he was the staunchest of professionals and the nicest of men. I once asked him why he felt he had never reached the international front league: with a smile, he replied “I suppose because I wasn’t enough of a bastard. Solti, you see, he was a bastard – a marvellous man and a great conductor, but a complete bastard when he needed to be. That sort of ruthlessness just wasn’t in my nature.”
Born in Birmingham in 1924, he took conducting classes with the great German pedagogue Hermann Scherchen. Having begun his career with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, he joined the music staff of the Covent Garden Opera (as the Royal Opera was originally known) in 1951, and made his conducting debut there two years later, in a revival of La Boheme. Covent Garden remained the focus of his career for nearly half a century – in 1967, he became the first British conductor of the Ring cycle since Beecham and he later served as deputy to two music directors, Solti and Sir Colin Davis. He also had long associations with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and did an unhappy stint as Music Director of Australian Opera, opening the Sydney Opera House with Prokofiev’s War and Peace in 1973.
Downes was a workhorse - the sort of conductor who made a good job of whatever was thrown at him, often on very little rehearsal. But he excelled in two areas. One was the early work of Verdi, rediscovered and revalued after the war – in 1993, for example, he gave the the first professional British performance of Stiffelio, in an edition which he had himself prepared. In all, he conducted 25 of Verdi’s 28 operas and at the end of the 1990s, he was the driving force behind a scheme to perform Verdi’s complete operatic oeuvre to mark the centenary of his death. “I understand Verdi as a person” he said once. “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” - a remark which could be adapted to apply to Downes himself, whose bluff, kind and totally unpretentious personality made him thousands of friends and no enemies.
His other great expertise was Russian music, where he ranked as a considerable scholar as well as an interpreter. He conducted the first western performances of Shostakovich’s Katerina Ismailova, Prokofiev’s unfinished Maddalena and Tchaikovsky’s Vakula the Smith, as well as translating many Russian librettos.
Not being one to play political games or curry favour with the powerful, worldly honours and wider fame came to Downes slowly. He was delighted to receive a knighthood in 1991 but didn’t care much about recognition – what mattered to him was making music with good musicians. It may be a cliché to say that someone will be fondly remembered, but in Ted’s case, it’s blazingly true.