Sir Edward Downes (1924-2009)

Leading British conductor dies in suicide clinic in Switzerland


Tributes have been paid to British conductor Sir Edward Downes, who died on Friday. Sir Edward, who had been suffering increasing health problems, and his wife, Lady Joan Downes, who had cancer, ended their life together by assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.


‘After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems,’ say the couple’s children Caractacus and Boudicca in a statement. ‘They both lived life to the full and considered themselves to be extremely lucky to have lived such rewarding lives, both professionally and personally.’

The Birmingham-born conductor began his professional career at the Royal Opera House in 1952, initially as assistant to music director Rafael Kubelik. It was here that he got his first big breaks as a conductor, when Kubelik allowed him to step in at short notice when others cancelled.

In this capacity, he enjoyed early success in Verdi’s Otello, and it was the Italian composer with whom Sir Edward was to become most closely associated – over his career, he conducted 25 of Verdi’s 28 operas.

That career took him to Sydney in 1970 where, as the music director of the Australian Opera, he was the first person to conduct a production at the Sydney Opera House. He also enjoyed a long association with the BBC Philharmonic, serving as its principal conductor from 1980 to 1991, after which he continued as conductor emeritus.

At no point, however, did he stray too far from the Covent Garden where, in 1991, he became associate music director. In all, he conducted 49 productions and nearly 1,000 performances at the London opera house.

Nor should his work as a music scholar be overlooked. Instructed by Kubelik to learn the Russian language, he played a major role in preparing singers to performers operas by the likes of Musorgsky and Shostakovich, the latter of whom he got to know personally.

He was a great champion of Prokofiev’s, and even did some musicological restoration: he finished the orchestration (the last three scenes) of Prokofiev’s early opera Maddalena and reconstructed the score of Prokofiev’s incidental music for Eugene Onegin, rescuing some missing pages at auction.


He was knighted in 1991.