John Barbirolli

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The announcement that the directors of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra have engaged John Barbirolli to conduct ten concerts in New York next season is a feather in his cap which he will proudly wear: it will also stimulate and encourage the group of young English conductors. I can offer no opinion as to which orchestra in America bears the blue ribbon, but certainly the Boston and Philadelphia Orchestras both became famous under permanent conductors, while the New York Orchestra attained eminence under the direction of conductors of international reputation. Since Toscanini led the New York Orchestra even greater heights have been reached: and now his resignation gives Barbirolli the chance of a lifetime1.

The competition among concert agents for the services of wellknown conductors has made then the cynosure of all eyes: but. as the spirit of music enters so little into this commercial rivalry, one may doubt the number worthy to follow where Richter and Nikisch have trod, or at least not to be counted their equal. Yet the money-value of a popular conductor today is far greater than it was thirty years ago, when Richter was passing rich on a tenth of what has been paid to Toscanini. Modern publicity methods alone can account for a difference in personal rewards that can only be regarded as anti-social.

As a conductor, Toscanini stands alone; he has attained all the breadth and majesty and loyalty known to Richter, and even more, being markedly eclectic. In recent years the art of the orchestral conductor had risen in this and other countries, though here opportunities are few in comparison. In England, the young conductor has had to create his own opportunity, finding no carpet spread for his reception. That English conductors have attained virtuoso standard is admitted by the welcome recently given by American orchestras to Beecham, Boult, Harty and Wood, and to the permanent positions occupied by Cameron and Goossens2. From what I know of social life in America, and the rivalry for race recognition existing there, one can well believe that an English conductor has no initial advantage to help him in the race3.

Barbirolli is the youngest Englishman to conduct a first-class orchestra in America, for, as we know, he was born in London as recently as 1900. I met him first in 1929, and afterwards wrote of the rapidity of his advance during the interval from his student days: from the cello desk in the orchestra to the desk more prominently placed in front. I said then that he might well set up a new standard among English orchestral conductors4. Since that time his work at Covent Garden, Queen’s Hall, and more recently as conductor of the Scottish Orchestra, have given point to what was then expressed. Doubtless this young conductor of thirty six will make great conquests in the land of hero-worshippers.

  1. Barbirolli’s appointment to succeed Toscanini caused a sensation: he remained with the NYPO until 1943, when he returned to England to take the Hallé in hand. ↩︎

  2. Goossens was then conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: Basil Cameron had been co-conductor of the San Francisco SO during 1932-34, before becoming conductor of the Seattle SO. ↩︎

  3. A typical Brianic wordplay! ↩︎

  4. These remarks confirm than an unsigned article on Barbirolli in the October 1929 Musical Opinion (p26) is Brian’s work. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, May 1936, p. 667