90th anniversary interviews: Sir John Barbirolli

Sir John BarbirolliSir John Barbirolli

To celebrate Gramophone's 90th anniversary this month we are reprinting a series of classic interviews from the Gramophone archive. We continue with Sir John Barbirolli, who spoke to Alan Blyth for Gramophone in December 1969...

Sir John and I are both lucky to be alive – for the same reason. We both travelled on the same Portuguese ship from America during the war (1943) and we were both nearly on the plane from Lisbon that was shot down by the Germans and had Leslie Howard on board. 'As a matter of fact, I gave up my place to Howard', Sir John recalls as though it all happened yesterday. Indeed his memory is so sharp for those days that he quoted the name of the Portuguese ship – the Serpa Pinto – to me before I had time to mention it to him. For me, as a schoolboy returning from three years' evacuation to the US, the recollection of motherly kindness from Lady Barbirolli (Evelyn Rothwell) remain uppermost – and of the small, erect, determined figure of Barbirolli himself stalking the deck on his unfailing daily constitutional. 

He remembers even more vividly his previous Atlantic crossings the year before and their prelude. 'Of course, I was in America when the war broke out as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, AV Alexander, who was First Sea Lord, wrote to me to say that, contrary to expectations, music was flourishing and would I come back as I was missed. I was longing to return and it was just a question of how it was to be managed. AV went to Churchill, who apparently said, 'If he's fool enough to come, let him come'. It took us 23 days to cross on a fruit trader and, of our convoy of 75, only 32 ships arrived in Liverpool. I played here for 10 weeks with the LSO and LPO for the benefit of the musicians, and then went back on a Fyffe banana boat of 5000 tons. We were spotted by U-boats the moment we left Northern Ireland but that kind of thing never worries me as I'm something of a fatalist. It had been wonderful anyhow to be back, to see England at its greatest, and to visit my old mother.' 

He stayed in America only another year to complete his contract with the New York Philharmonic. 'The Musicians Union there, controlled by the militant Petrillo, brought out a new regulation saying that everyone, even soloists and conductors. must become members. Horowitz, Heifetz and the rest were shocked by this but there was little they could do about it. They also said that conductors must become American citizens. I couldn't do that during the war, or at any time for that matter, so I was delighted when, out of the blue, I was asked by the Hallé to take over the orchestra and reorganize it. Of course, it was an act of God that I was not on that plane. The Germans thought Churchill was on it as someone who looked like him was seen getting on board.' 

Looking back even further into the past, Sir John talked of his early days. 'I left school at l4 – an excellent finishing age, I think, unless you're going into medicine, the Law or the Church. If there's anything decent in you, you'll make your own way. I studied at the Royal Academy but I was already playing the cello in a theatre orchestra – at the Duke of York's – when I was 14. There, I heard all the great actors and actresses of the day and I think the great love I then had for the theatre helped me to become an operatic conductor later. 

'My first orchestral engagement was with the Queen's Hall Orchestra – I was probably the youngest orchestral musician ever, joining them in 1916. We had an enormous repertory – six concerts a week, three hours or more rehearsal a day. In those days we were happy if we began and finished together. During the first world war, I had the great experience of playing with Beccham at Drury Lane. I remember that twice we had to shelter, during air raids, in the cellar of the theatre after abandoning performances of Tristan and Aida, both with that colourful tenor Frank Mullings. Shortly after, I enlisted and it was during my time in the army that I first conducted. 

'This is how it happened. I was stationed on the Isle of Grain – a ghastly place but the first line of defence against invasion – and in our battalion of the Suffolks we had a number of professional musicians. So we formed an orchestra and played in the equivalent of the NAAFI during our spare time. I was the principal cello and we were conducted by the bandmaster, one Lieutenant Bonham. The other boys knew that I was longing to conduct and one day when Bonham fell ill with flu, they thought "old Barby" – as I was known – should have a go. It was really rather romantic – I was scrubbing the floor in the Officers' Mess when they came and invited me to take over. We did the Light Cavalry overture and Coleridge-Taylor's Petite Suite de Concert but I can't say I recall the rest of the programme. 

'I'd always wanted to be a conductor since I was four or five, when I was taken to the Empire Theatre and watched the Music Hall conductor and was fascinated by his white gloves. After the war, I was for a while the cellist in Andre Mangeot's International String Quartet, then I formed the Barbirolli Chamber Orchestra and we made some very interesting records with Christopher Stone for Gramophone. When the Chenil Galleries opened in Chelsea, Arthur Newstead and Augustus John founded the Chenil Chamber Orchestra and I was invited to be the conductor. One day, Frederick Austin of the BNOC came along and he seemed to be impressed as he asked me to conduct some performances with the company. Although I'd never conducted a large orchestra, I knew I could cope physically. That was in 1926. Two years later I was engaged for the Grand Opera Season at Covent Garden.' 

Sir john recalled some of the outstanding performances and performers during the next six years while he was conducting there – Zanelli and Inghilleri in Otello, Schumann, Stabile and Heddle Nash (his Covent Garden debut, 1929) in Don Giovanni, Pacetti and Pertile in Madama Butterfly. Of course, he conducted many 78s of opera at that time, among them the famous Quintet from Die Meistersinger (another opera he conducted at the Royal Opera House) with Schumann, Melchior and Schorr. 'If I had three months free, I would love to sit down and write about those days, not about myself, but portraits of those artists who are only names to most people today.' 

In 1936, he was appointed conductor of the New York Philharmonic in succession to Toscanini. After conducting Turandot (with Turner and Martinelli) and Tosca at The Royal Opera House during the 1937 Coronation Season, he was lost to British opera until after the war. In 1951-2 he returned to Covent Garden to conduct Turandot and Aida, and continued with the company for the next two seasons for Orfeo with Ferrier, among other operas. This was the time of the interregnum between the Rankl and Kubelík eras and Barbirolli was often mentioned as a possible musical director but sadly the idea came to nothing. Even more sadly, he has conducted no performances there since, although he will at last return for Otello in the 1970-71 season. He would very much like to do Meistersinger too, if that can be arranged. 

His marvellous Madama Butterfly recording has been the spark that has set off the new interest in him as an opera conductor. He directed Aida in Rome last spring and will appear at the Met, West Berlin, and Cologne before long. More records, too. 'I take this attitude – I will do opera recordings when I have a first-class staff round me, as for Butterfly and Otello, who can produce the particular sound I want in certain works. It's not enough just to assemble a good cast and then record them. You must work hard to make the performance sound like a "live" one. For instance, for the entry of Butterfly, we made Scotto walk in from a distance with her maidens, but that didn't work because the old walls muffled it, so we had to find part of the Rome opera house where the effect was right. Similarly in the third act of Otello, we went to great trouble at Walthamstow Town Hall to get the various trumpet calls to sound as though they were coming from different directions. We try to get results not by turning knobs but by crucifying ourselves until we get it right.' 

Sir John spoke glowingly of his collaboration with Fischer-Dieskau as Iago, how they had talked over the interpretation of the role at least a year before the recording was made and how beautifully he sang Iago's Dream. Then he turned to his views on orchestral playing. 'The standard has improved beyond recognition during my time. In my early days string playing was at a very low ebb. I heard some Nikisch records the other day. The playing was beyond belief – in the wrong direction – although, of course, the interpretations were fascinating. Strangely enough, the oldest members of the Berlin Philharmonic – when I first conducted the orchestra 15 years ago – said I reminded them of Nikisch – my looks, the way I obtained what I wanted, my style. As a matter of fact, I just missed hearing him conduct and that's one of my greatest disappointments.' 

His car arrived and, sadly, the reminiscences had to stop. Donning his Verdi-style hat – 'made specially for me by Borsalino, who made them for Verdi' – he bade kind farewells to me and the EMI staff, and was gone into the night, walking a little slower, but just as determinedly as all those years ago on the Portuguese ship.

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