British conductor Sir John Barbirolli (1899–1970) led the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester, England, from 1943 to 1968 and was one of classical music's most compelling figures of his era. His London Times obituary termed him "a virtuoso conductor in the tradition of those spellbinding artists who made the conductor the centre of popular devotion for concertgoers in the twentieth century."
Child Prodigy on Cello
Of Italian and French parentage, Barbirolli was baptized with the name Giovanni Battista Barbirolli after his birth in London on December 2, 1899. The family lived above a baker's shop in a south London neighborhood. His father, Filippo Lorenzo Barbirolli, an orchestra violinist, had met his wife, Louise Ribèyrol, in Paris while working as a musician and brought her to London when he and his father settled in the city in the 1890s. Both men were musicians who had played in the orchestra pit for the world premiere of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello at the La Scala opera house in Milan in 1887.
Young Barbirolli's musically inclined home was also a crowded one. In addition to his parents and older sister, his paternal grandparents and an aunt lived in the flat. From a young age, Barbirolli accompanied his father when he went to rehearsals, and Barbirolli loved watching the conductor. He began imitating the time-keeping movements at home, even donning white gloves like conductors wore in those days. Though his family hoped that he would become a doctor, his parents allowed him to learn the violin. But when he wandered from room to room in the apartment while practicing, it irked the rest of the household. His father bought him a cello instead, so that he would have to sit in one place to play music.
As a cellist, Barbirolli became a child prodigy. At the age of 11 he won a scholarship to Trinity College of Music in London. The following year he made his public debut on December 16, 1911, at Trinity College's annual concert at Queen's Hall, playing a Saint-Saëns solo. Soon after he won a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, where he studied from 1912 to 1917. He made a series of recordings with his sister Rosa accompanying him on piano. Because World War I led to a shortage of musicians, he won a permanent slot with the Queen's Hall Orchestra in 1916, and the following July delivered his first solo performance at Aeolian Hall, one of London's main recital venues, launching his professional career as a concert cellist.
In 1917 Barbirolli played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra before entering the British Army to serve in the Suffolks Regiment as an instructor on defending against gas attacks. The unit was stationed on the Isle of Grain, a parcel of land at the mouth of the Thames River that housed a military base. Once the armistice was signed there was little to do, so he and some other musicians formed a small orchestra. His got his first chance to conduct when the superior officer who served as bandmaster fell ill before a performance.
An Egalitarian Career
Decommissioned from the army in 1919, Barbirolli took work where he could find it over the next few years. He played with small opera companies and even in the theater, a venue that some working classical musicians disdained as popular entertainment beneath their training. "In fact I scorned no avenue that would teach me something about my job," Barbirolli wrote in the October 1936 issue of Gramophone. "In those days mechanical music was unknown in the theatre; wherever plays were performed there would be a small theatre orchestra. I played in one of these. There was not much to do, incidental music to plays had fallen into disuse.… In the long waits between the act intervals I studied scores."
In 1924, Barbirolli founded a Chelsea chamber orchestra with members of the Guild of Singers and Players and served as its conductor. It quickly garnered acclaim, and the group made some recordings for the National Gramophonic Society. In 1926, the British National Opera Company invited him to conduct its orchestra on a provincial tour. He would remain with the company off and on until 1929, gaining experience with such classics as Madama Butterfly, Aïda, and Romeo et Juliette. In a 1947 article titled "The Art of Conducting" that reappeared in the Barbirolli Society Journal, the conductor noted that opera performances, though somewhat nerve-wracking, provided the best training for a would-be orchestra leader. "The number of little things that can happen for which the conductor is technically responsible are, I am sure, not realised by the audience. For instance, a character has to rush in and sing something and the door sticks—a little delay ensues, and yet all must be made to seem as if everything is proceeding smoothly."
Barbirolli's star rose on one fortuitous night in December 1927 when he stepped in for the famed Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He had just two days to rehearse a concert program that included Edward Elgar's Second Symphony, and the renowned cellist Pablo Casals was present at one of the rehearsals. After Barbiroll, then 28 years old, made some comments, Casals leaned in his chair and enjoined his fellow musicians, "Listen to him. He knows," Barbirolli recalled in the 1936 Gramophone article. "I was only a boy, and those few words coming from such a great artist touched me deeply. It was a wonderful thing for a man of his greatness to do: I shall never forget it."
Barbirolli spent several years working in opera. He debuted at Covent Garden in 1928, working regularly with the Royal Opera until 1933, when he became the regular conductor of the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow. There he started to tackle the canon of major symphonic works, from Beethoven to Stravinsky and began to display great flair at the podium. A recording contract helped launch his career across the Atlantic, and in November 1936 he was invited to make his American debut with the New York Philharmonic. Its esteemed leader, Arturo Toscanini, had recently retired, and Philharmonic management decided to offer Barbirolli a three-year contract. The announcement caused a stir in New York classical music circles, for Barbirolli was just 36 and critics and Toscanini-lovers contended he was too inexperienced for the post. The music writer for the New York Times, Olin Downes, observed that "Barbirolli may conceivably reveal unexpected and phenomenal capacities, but there is nothing in the available records to indicate such a likelihood," according to John Barbirolli: A Musical Biography by John Reid.
Homesick for England
Over the next few years, Downs occasionally granted Barbirolli a grudgingly favorable comment, but rival music journalist Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald Tribune was usually brutal. One example of his vitriol came after the opening night of the 1940 Philharmonic season, in which Barbirolli led the group in a program that included Beethoven and Elgar. "The concert as a whole, both as to programme and as to playing, was anything but a memorable experience," Thomson asserted, according to the Reid biography. "The music itself was soggy, the playing dull and brutal." Other writers judged Barbirolli less harshly. A New York Times profile by S. J. Woolf noted: "One instinctively knows as the maestro leans over his stand and asks for more volume, as he crouches low with bent knees in subdued passages, as he shifts his baton to his left hand and with his right wheedles greater feeling into the music, that he is working harder than any member of his orchestra."
Barbirolli was under contract to the New York Philharmonic when Britain and Germany went to war in 1939, the year he wed Evelyn Rothwell, a renowned oboist in her own right. He was still with them when the United States entered World War II in 1941. The American Musicians' Union urged him to take U.S. citizenship, but he was homesick for England, which was being attacked regularly by German bombers. Despite his Italian and French heritage, Barbirolli considered himself thoroughly English and was a follower of cricket. He went back for a ten-week tour in 1942, making a perilous Atlantic crossing, and decided to return permanently when the Hallé Society of Manchester, a northern industrial city, asked him to become its permanent conductor.
The Hallé Orchestra had lost many players to the British Broadcasting Corporation's Northern Orchestra and was in dire financial trouble. Some members had joined the armed forces, and there was a shortage of skilled musicians. Arriving in mid-1943, Barbirolli found a bare minimum of players, as he recollected in an interview from 1963 reprinted in the Barbirolli Society Journal. "I had been led to believe I would find an orchestra of 70 or so and I found 26," he said. "I arrived on 2nd June, the first concert was booked for 5th July, so I had a month to find and train players at a time when many of the best were in the Services." He went to work immediately, and the result was impressive, asserted his Times of London obituary. "The story of how, in a couple of months of endless auditions, he rebuilt the Hallé, accepting any good player whatever his musical background—he found himself with a schoolboy first flute, a school mistress hornist, and various brass players recruited from brass and military bands in the Manchester area—deservedly ranks as a wartime epic," the paper noted.
Barbirolli gained a reputation for taking the Hallé group through the paces of the Romantic canon with his typical verve and along the way helped it become a respected, income-producing orchestra. He championed works by British composers like Elgar and Benjamin Britten as well. Regularly offered more prestigious posts elsewhere, he turned them down, remaining conductor of the Manchester cultural institution on a full-time schedule until 1958, when he became its conductor-in-chief. His schedule after that required just 70 concerts a year, and he began to take more international work. From 1961 to 1967 he was the conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and he spent twelve weeks of the year in Texas. He also appeared with the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics and at Austria's prestigious Salzburg Festival.
Barbirolli retired from Hallé in 1968, though he was given the title of Conductor Laureate for Life. Knighted in 1949, he was elevated to Companion of Honour in 1969. His retirement from Hallé did not bring a less taxing schedule, however. He conducted at the King's Lynn Festival on July 25, 1970, and four days later rehearsed with the Philharmonia Orchestra in preparation for a planned tour of Japan. He died of a heart attack later that day, on July 29, 1970, in London.
Reid, John, John Barbirolli: A Musical Biography, Taplinger Publishing, 1971.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor emeritus, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial Edition, Schirmer, 2001.
Barbirolli Society Journal, February 1997.
Gramophon, October 1936.
New York Times, December 27, 1936.
Observer (London), July 6, 1947.
Times (London, England), May 20, 1960; July 30, 1970.