Sir Edward Downes's assisted suicide beside his wife has all but eclipsed the career of a man of quiet diligence who specialised in Verdi and Russian operas, from Covent Garden to the Sydney Opera House
British conductor who bowed out on his terms
The circumstances of Sir Edward Downes's death at age 85 have almost overshadowed a lifetime of achievement as one of the world's leading conductors. On July 10 he and his wife of 54 years, lying side by side and holding hands, ended their lives in an assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich. Sir Edward was the pre-eminent British conductor of Verdi, having worked through 25 of the Italian composer's 28 operas. He was also one of the greatest Shostakovich interpreters, conducting premier performances of work by Richard Rodney Bennett and Peter Maxwell Davies, as well as being the first British conductor since Beecham to perform Wagner's Ring Cycle.
Although he was taught piano and violin from the age of five, his religious but intolerant parents were horrified at the prospect of their son being a musician. His father, an occasionally unemployed bank clerk, sent young Ted, at 14, to work in a local gas store in Birmingham for 17 shillings, the equivalent of five dirhams, a week. In 1941, having submitted some compositions, he gained a scholarship to Birmingham University. In 1944 he attended the Royal College of Music, studying composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams.
In 1952 Sir Edward joined Covent Garden where his first job was to prompt Maria Callas as Norma. His first performance as conductor was Puccini's La Bohème for the company on tour in Bulawayo the following year. His first break came in 1953, when he was called in to conduct Verdi's Otello at a moment's notice. It was a decisive experience and led to a lifetime's affinity and facility for the work of the composer whom some dismissed as an Italian bandmaster. Sir Edward said at the time, "I immediately felt on home ground. I seem to understand Verdi as a person. He was a peasant. He had one foot in heaven and one on the earth." Another formative experience came in 1958 when Covent Garden's director sent Sir Edward to learn Russian so he could instruct the chorus for Mussorgky's Boris Godunov.
This led to a mastery of the Russian masters, especially Shostakovich, whom he even physically resembled. After he was passed over for the directorship of Covent Garden, he accepted the position at the new Sydney Opera House, where he conducted his own English translation of Prokofiev's War and Peace on its historic opening night in September 1973. Even while based in Sydney Sir Edward continued to perform in the United Kingdom and Europe. In 1980 he became conductor of what became the BBC Philharmonic; in 1991 conductor emeritus. That year - surprisingly for one known as Red Ted - he accepted a knighthood and returned to Covent Garden. To mark the centenary of Verdi's death he hoped to perform all of his operas and managed all but three, due to financial restraints and closure of the House for refurbishment.
It was estimated that he conducted 950 performances of 49 operas at Covent Garden. His recordings were relatively few - Strauss's Salome and Verdi's Rigoletto and Stiffelio - but they did include recitals by some of the best, including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Birgit Nilsson and Leontyne Price. Sir Edward did not enjoy, nor did he seek, the superstar status of other conductors of his ability. Hunched over the music in the pit, his gestures were few but the sublime sound was a result of deep study of the score and intense rehearsal. Near blindness and increasingly deaf, he was cared for by his wife, Joan, a former ballet dancer. When she was diagnosed with cancer and told she had weeks to live, the couple decided to die together.
Sir Edward Downes was born on June 17, 1924. He died on July 10. A son and daughter survive him. * The National