Sir John Pritchard, C.B.E.
A conversation with Bruce Duffie
Sir John Prichard is one of the world’s leading
conductors, and has led Orchestras and Opera
Companies in acclaimed performances and recordings. The range of
his work is very large, spanning the styles of the Baroque masters,
through Mozart (which is a specialty), and on to the romantics Verdi
and Wagner, culminating with new works by Britten and Tippett. In
addition to his musical activities, Sir John has held administrative
posts in various cities, including his newest – that of Music Director
of the San Francisco Opera, the first person to hold that position with
Born in 1921, Sir John joined the staff of
Glyndebourne in 1947 and became a protégé of Fritz
Busch. Named Chorus Master in 1949, he then conducted his first
operas at the 1951 festival. That same year he made his debut
with the Vienna State Opera. The following two seasons at Covent
Garden had Pritchard on the podium for 80 performances of 11 different
works, including the opening of the 1953-54 season. Since that
time he has appeared there nearly every year, while adding to his vast
array of guest engagements and directorships.
This interview with Maestro Sir John Pritchard was
done in Chicago during his performances of Arabella by Richard Strauss
with Kiri Te Kanawa at Lyric Opera in the fall of 1984. [Note:
The conductor and soprano would return three years later for Così Fan Tutte. To
read the interview I had with the two of them at that time, click here. A
few photos of the conductor have been placed there.]
This 1984 meeting was the second time I had
enjoyed the privilege of discussing musical matters with Pritchard, and
our chat centered on Wagner. [To read the first interview, dating
from 1980, click
Here is much of what was said
that afternoon . . . . . . .
You’ve conducted so many different styles –
Baroque, Mozart, Romantic, Contemporary. How is Wagner similar or
different from them?
Well, one the reasons I gave up the directorship
of Glyndebourne – that very beautiful theater – was to broaden my
repertory as an artist. Although in Covent Garden years ago I’d
conducted Lohengrin, and I’ve
always been a Wagner student (from early
days when I went to Bayreuth), I’ve not had much opportunity. It
was pretty clear that at Covent Garden, where I conducted so often,
that I was unlikely to have been asked to be in charge of one of the
major Wagner works. Those were always given to one of the great
German conductors who were there. In that company, an English
conductor, however distinguished in his own way, was unlikely to get
the plums of Wagner. I therefore decided that I must work at a
continental opera house – Cologne. There, the situation was very
different. The Germans, sated as it were with a purely Germanic
approach to Strauss and Wagner, were completely interested in what a
British – or international – conductor would make of the scores which
they knew so well. Of course it was a frightening assignment when
I did my first Meistersinger.
You can only use your own
expertise, your own aesthetic approach to things whatever the composer,
and therefore it must be recognizable as part of your output. I
was delighted that the Wagner Society – your equivalent in Frankfurt
and in Cologne – said, “John Pritchard as a Wagner conductor must be
taken very seriously.” This, coming from the lovers of Wagner,
was a much better accolade than just reading good reviews in the press.
BD: Didn’t the
founder of Glyndebourne, John Christie, originally
want it to be a Wagner house?
JP: Yes, he
did. In his eccentric innocence, he thought
that he could have a pretty good string-band, and the hundreds of wind
parts could be played on the organ. His wife, who had operatic
know-how, soon put him right about that. He was a pronounced
Wagnerite, old John Christie, but he accepted the physical realities of
it. Strauss had always been a special love of mine, and I’d done
several of his operas in that theater.
BD: So where was
your first Wagner – the Lohengrin
That’s in the dark ages, but Lohengrin
totally different kettle of fish from the other Wagner operas.
It’s much more Italianate in shape and much more concise.
BD: Is that the
only one of the ten which can be set apart?
JP: I think
so. Maybe Rienzi, but
that would be the
eleventh. The Dutchman
is in between somewhere. But I had
always studied these pieces. When I travelled I’d gone to Wagner
performances, so when I came to the first Meistersinger in Cologne,
I didn’t feel I was going into an impenetrable jungle that was totally
unknown. I knew where I wanted to be even if I had difficulty
getting there. We had a very good
BD: I would think
that in Meistersinger
problems of the large chorus would be especially complex.
JP: Yes, it’s very
difficult. But those difficulties fade
in the course of doing the complicated Italian things, to say nothing
of contemporary opera. I think what struck me most in that opera
was how Wagner set the text. That’s an understatement to say the
least, but since I knew German, I studied the libretto and got more out
of it than I did as a boy seeing it in English translation. By
studying the libretto, you learn very much the approach to the
music. The verbal rhythms were very important to Wagner, and
however good the translation is, he is a composer one must hear in the
BD: Would you then
turn down an offer to conduct if it were to be
done in English?
JP: No, in fact
recently the English National Opera – where I’ve
not conducted before – tried to tempt me with Meistersinger, and
they have a very good translation. It’s Andrew Porter’s, and his
works very well. [See my Interview with Andrew
Porter.] I was not free at the time, but certainly I
would not refuse any on that principle. These supertitles would
be helpful particularly in the extraordinary philosophical
ramifications of the Ring.
I think that the complexities that
Wagner saw in the Ring and
the way he set the words are always
absolutely fundamental to his way of working. Of course one can
become very attached to a phrase that is sung without really knowing
what it means. I remember for years hearing Sachs’ monologue
(“Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!”)
delivered in concert without knowing its exact meaning. Then I
saw it translated as “Craze! Craze! Everywhere craze!” and I thought I
was no wiser than I had been with the original text.
BD: It needed to
be the single syllable. “Craziness” might
be closer to the mark. Had you conducted the overture
in concert before coming to the complete work in the theater?
JP: Yes, many
times, and the various orchestral sections.
BD: Were you
surprised how they work when they were
dropped into the total picture?
JP: I think I
disrespected the use of the overture purely
for a concert items when I saw its place in the architecture of the
whole act. That whole lecture of David in the First Act
is such a masterpiece of writing. A lot of my early
performances of Meistersinger
must be molded in my mind because I heard
Sir Thomas Beecham conduct it very often. His approach was
electric but very brilliant, and he took advantage of the many
chamber-music aspects of the score which are not always brought
out. In a way I tried to do that, so there was a great deal of
tonal variety in the treatment.
articulating the chamber-music portions make the
loud passages even more spectacular?
JP: Yes! If
there’s one expression mark I hate, it’s mf
half-loud) because it’s nothing. Nobody
can even describe it. It is less than this or more than
that? What is it? It’s what people play when they should be
playing p (piano, softly). I think a
marvelous pianissimo in the
concert hall is just as marvelous as the great blazing
fortissimos. I think
that with Wagner you must do that. You
don’t actually subordinate the orchestra to the voice, but it’s as if
it was a great rolling river of sound, and very clearly floating above
it is the human voice. That must the feeling one has.
BD: How do you
make sure the voice always
floats and is never swamped by the sound of the orchestra?
JP: That’s your
craft. You have to do that and it’s very
important. The whole question of Wagner comes under one’s
appreciation of German music. You have to go back to the
appreciation of Schumann. Then you’re on a path that will lead
to the expression of a Wagnerian line.
BD: Is that
something that goes back even to Bach and Heinrich
JP: I would say
so. Probably Bach used the human voice more
as an expressive instrument, and if you bring it right up to date,
Wagner used the human voice as an expressive instrument of text.
As I said before, he shaped the music according to the demands of the
BD: Was he too
concerned with the text?
JP: I don’t think
so. I think that the sonorities of his
music must have appealed to him preeminently. The blaze of
orchestral sound and the wonderful key changes brings a sort of
block-concept to the music of a modern composer. He was a modern
BD: Are his operas
JP: When I was
young and irresponsible, I used to say I was going
to be the first one to make cuts to Wagner. Now I’m much more
experienced, and I can’t. I sometimes think that the unfolding of
an idea in our twentieth century is taking as unconscionable time, but
that would be the same as if I read a book of the same
period of philosophy. It’s a philosophical concept of the meaning
of music – what music does, what it means to
us. I often
wonder if Wagner cared in the least what you and I thought about it.
BD: Do you think
JP: I don’t think
he did. He was writing for himself and he
thought the world should recognize the genius of that approach – as
some of them did.
BD: So we should
come up to him, rather than he to us?
right. Now to take another genius, I’m sure that
Mozart had a totally different approach because he knew which side his
bread was buttered on. Wagner didn’t care as long as the butter
was liberally supplied by someone. Mozart had to please people.
BD: Would Mozart
have written any differently if he had been
JP: I think he
would have. That’s an
important point you have there. Mozart didn’t have a
compulsion to write. He wrote because he had to. It was
his profession. He knew instinctively that he could do it better
than anyone else alive. I think your question is very
interesting. If he had been born wealthy, I doubt if we would
have more than a few works. He might have proved that he
could do something at an expensive function.
BD: He might have
written something like Idomeneo
but never a Don
I’m not sure about it, but it’s a
thought. Whereas Wagner writes for himself, for the pleasure of
the development of his grand idea. You get the feeling that if
don’t appreciate the genius of it, that’s your fault.
BD: Similarly, did
Wagner ignore vocal practicalities when
writing the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde?
JP: Yes, I think
so. On the other hand, he laid the
foundation for later composers like Strauss to make even greater and
impossible demands. It’s only on the grounds of stamina and the
length of his utterance that you could say he wrote unreasonably for
the voice. He wrote for an ideal condition which was later
created in Bayreuth. He saw no reason that the orchestra
shouldn’t be numerous, and yet play softly. For that I commend
him very much. I think it’s a good idea.
BD: Are opera
houses all over the world coming closer to what he
wanted by dropping the pit little by little each year?
JP: Yes. In
Cologne, we have a movable pit which can be
taken all the way down for Wagner and Strauss, and all the way up for
Mozart. It makes a wonderful difference.
BD: Let’s come
back to the orchestral textures in Meistersinger.
JP: It’s very
interesting when you approach any opera and have
the orchestral rehearsals. You are really in the factory as it
were. That’s where it all comes from, that’s where the eventual
life-blood of this construction will flow from. With a German
orchestra – and this is still true – no amount of trouble
and no amount of time is too much when it comes to rehearsing
Wagner. The orchestra musicians will ask to finish working even
it if means going an extra five or six more minutes. That’s
unheard of in the US and in Britain and in France and Italy. In
Germany, the respect given to this is enormous.
BD: Is there
anyone else who gets that kind of respect – Strauss,
JP: No, only
Wagner. For the German musicians,
there’s a kind of “Holy Attitude” toward some of their music, and some
of it causes resentment because they will adopt Mozart. I feel
Mozart is a far too international figure for any one country. But
when it comes to Wagner, that’s indubitably their composer. There
will be fewer absentees; they will come even with headaches or
influenza. They never tire of rehearsing Wagner operas.
Therefore, I felt under a magnifying glass when I first did Meistersinger, but I was
determined, above all else, to play it very lyrically. This was
not an approach they’d always had.
BD: In the end did
they buy it?
JP: They bought
it. They were interested in it. Many
of the older players – and some of the Bayreuth players – said, “We
don’t play it that way at Bayreuth.” Of course now it’s getting
more experimental – scenically, but so much musically.
BD: Was that Ring we saw on television a mistake?
JP: I don’t think
that was a mistake because I think Chereau is a
genius. I’ve met him and expect to work with him. I didn’t
see the whole of the production, but whatever he did will be
interesting and challenging. I can’t say if it would be a typical
Ring. But going back to
my first Meistersinger, I was
the fact that the director had enormous timing and pacing
to face. In Parsifal,
suddenly there’s a flurry of excitement
as a dead swan falls to the stage. The music is turbulent,
enormously vivacious and vivid. The chorus is crying out, and
then comes the long and interminable inquiry into this scene. You
could say interminable if the music wasn’t so evocative, but for
the stage director it’s easy to stage the business. It’s not
easy to have the swan falling in the right spot, but that’s the only
technical thing. But imagine the long sections of Tristan.
BD: Let me ask
about the respect for Wagner. Does it carry over
from the orchestral musicians to the singers also?
JP: No, but it’s
rare to have a purely German
cast. You have Hungarians and Americans and English, all sorts
of people. So you get a variety of responses
to it. Nowadays we depend on top voices and not on
nationality. You’ve got to have the caliber of voice no matter
who it is. In my Meistersinger,
I had a Hungarian who was very
Italianate – Robert Ilosfalvy. He did a marvelous
Stoltzing. He studied it intensely with Jeffrey Tate, a marvelous
coach who was my
assistant. He’s worked in Bayreuth with Boulez, and has also been
with Solti. [See my Interviews with Sir Georg
Solti.] Tate taught Ilosfalvy the whole role, and how
brilliant his Italianate-type of vocal utterance was. He could
speak German very well, so that
helped, but we are dependent on various nationalities for the
casting of very difficult roles in Wagner.
BD: I wonder if
because of this, the orchestra feels it is the
keeper of the tradition?
JP: I think
there’s something of that in it. It’s not of
the same intensity, but I suppose it might be like an English orchestra
trying to explain to people abroad how to play Edward Elgar.
When Leonard Bernstein conducted my own orchestra – the BBC Symphony –
in a program that included music of Elgar, there was almost a battle of
ethnic cultures. Of course everything Bernstein did was
interesting and highly musical and passionate and everything
else. I’ve found that often a foreign conductor can get the
peculiar idiom, but a foreign orchestra can’t. I’m only giving a
slight comparison there, but their devotion struck me very
forcibly. Musicians are the same all over the world – slightly
cynical. They’ve seen a lot and they want to be sure that they’re
not wasting their time.
BD: Are Wagner’s
works “operas” or “music dramas?”
JP: I think they
are music dramas. From the very beginning
he was working toward music drama, and we have to define it.
Would you be satisfied if I said it was a musical treatment of the text
which heightens the importance of the actual words and the drama of the
situation, rather than just reflecting like a mirror a situation laid
down – such as jealousy or love or torment or anguish? These
emotions, represented by a dramatic story are made into an organic
whole by the admixture of the music. It’s a roundabout way of
saying it, but one cannot be without the other. The words and the
expression of the words are of equal importance. They are
absolutely on equal partnership.
BD: Is there
anyone else who gets balance?
JP: That’s what
I’m trying to bring out in this
conversation. I think that Wagner is the only one, and I think
that the importance of it is very great because, as we saw, Strauss
messed around with the idea in his opera Capriccio. In that piece, we
kind of think that she prefers the musician over the poet, but there is
nothing that she herself says. So it leaves the whole opera with
question mark. Wagner, with his colossal energy, his marvelous,
all-embracing musical intellect, saw no
reason why these things shouldn’t go by like two horses in a chariot
that are stepping perfectly in rhythm.
BD: Is Parsifal special, or just another
in the series?
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle did the work, as you might expect
he didn’t treat it with a very religioso attitude at all. It was
set in an opera country that could be turned by Klingsor’s magic wand
into a church or into the magic region. All of this was done by
massive central columns which had many sides. The magic garden at
the end was meant to show the very beautiful space. It was the
space which was beautified by the things Wagner had laid
BD: How did he
handle the throwing of the spear?
It’s really such an impossible thing to do and
you’d think that with modern technology it would be very easy. It
was attached to a rope in case it should go into the orchestra pit, but
it was thrown directly in the direction of the conductor, so it was one
exciting moment! But we were speaking of the religious aspect and
whether it disrupts the nature of the music drama. Wherever
Wagner’s thought takes us, it’s always inspired by the primal
urge of his intention. It happens to be a religious subject, and
it is based on the Arthurian legend. There have been many
treatments of that, so it’s a story which, while focusing on Parsifal
himself, had many roots in mythology to get a hold
of. Whereas in the Ring,
Wagner had taken traditional myths and made
them as an extraordinary series of fantasies of relationships between
characters built on these things. Parsifal is the telling of a
story, a long, rather mythical story, a mystical progress and the
extraordinary character of Kundry.
BD: Is Gurnemanz
really Wagner himself telling the tale?
JP: That was
always my view. When he draws the young
knights around him and tells them the story at the beginning, I could
always picture Wagner in his beret. It would make a very good
costume, really. But I think that when Wagner took this story, he
was determined to set the pace of it according to what he wanted.
It is as though we are making this slow, wearisome pilgrimage. In
the last act when we see Parsifal after the endless wanderings, we
should feel – and sometimes we do feel – that we
have made these wearying
journeys with him. Therefore it’s a dramatic piece in every way,
just like the other operas. It’s not Wagner saying, “This is the
story of the Grail, and it’s Holy,” but rather, “This is how I intend
to treat it.” It’s the paternal figure of Gurnemanz as
teacher, whether it’s Gurnemanz through Wagner through Gurnemanz
teaching the spirit of Parsifal.
BD: Should there
be applause after Act One?
JP: I think the
old Bayreuth tradition was very good in Bayreuth
because you couldn’t see the orchestra. On the other hand, I have
a very human shrinking from the shuffling that goes on when people come
out of church. I don’t like that either. It doesn’t worry
me, though, as an artist. It’s a little self-conscious.
When one is subjected to the concert conditions or applause traditions,
one must do the natural thing.
BD: Getting back
to Wagner speaking through one of his
characters, in Meistersinger,
is Wagner Walther or is he Hans Sachs?
JP: I think he’s
Hans Sachs. Wagner liked to improve the
knowledge of his fellow men. The more they would listen to him,
the better. Walther was a volatile figure in a way.
BD: Wasn’t Wagner
JP: Yes, he was,
but the public image – what we see on the giant
screen of Wagner – is not particularly
volatile. He’s a man of
great wisdom, of love of beauty, etc. There’s always some
character in most of the operas which seems to embody the teaching
principles of Wagner.
BD: Early in his
life, did he feel he was the Dutchman – sort of lost?
Absolutely. Sometimes, though, there are several
characters who might embody Wagner.
BD: That’s the
reason behind my question – in Meistersinger
there are times when I feel Wagner is the Walther character.
JP: I daresay he
was sufficient as a dramatist to imagine himself
in several roles. It is the same way that Mozart probably
himself as Cherubino as well as the Count, any maybe even as Figaro.
BD: How much does
the prose writing of Wagner influence you as a
JP: I’m not a
bookish musician. My reactions come first
from the score, then I will read what I should read about it.
There’s so much literature about Wagner. I was brought up on the
writings of Ernest Newman and George Bernard Shaw. I don’t think
that one needs the guidance of the written word. One can see it
as an interesting aspect of musical history, but I can’t say that I’ve
ever seen it necessary to model ones’ actions or performances on
it. One takes the truth where one
finds it, and often one finds it intrinsic in the music, in the style,
and style exists in everything. I find sometimes the details of
Wagner’s life a distraction. His life was such a tangle of not
always admirable motives – same as for all of us. I don’t feel I
need to study those to any great degree.
BD: Do you enjoy
conducting the Wagner works?
JP: Yes I do, very
much. Parsifal, to me,
is one of the
instrumental joys of all music. The sheer instrumentation of
Parsifal is one of the great
achievements of all art because it’s done
with such a wonderfully unerring touch. I would set it aside from
Meistersinger. Meistersinger is structural and
planned, exciting, greatly developing, quickly developing, dramatically
developing. Parsifal is
like a monolith which is being sculpted
from all time, but which all corridors you enter and see endless
BD: Are you
constantly discovering new things in Wagner?
JP: I am
constantly discovering new things. One discovers
new things in all big scores of music, but I think Parsifal is
rewarding in that way for a conductor or somebody who has an
understanding of instruments. To take a one little example, the
use of the oboe is like an expressionist painting.
BD: Is there any
connections between Parsifal
beside the textual reference?
JP: No, I don’t
think there’s a single look-back to Lohengrin
Parsifal. It was an
enormous musical shock to my system after
Meistersinger to come to Parsifal. I can’t explain it,
still feel it. Meistersinger
I’d known intimately from
studying. As a young conductor, you pour over the score.
Parsifal was much less
accessible, to me at least, living in
England. Performances were few and far between. I had to
save up as a student to go to my first Parsifal under Knappertsbusch at
Bayreuth. Then it came to Covent Garden and I heard it, then I
heard it around the world. But I didn’t have the disciplined
preparation for it that I’d had with Meistersinger.
I wasn’t so familiar with it. But
it’s been a long time since I’d been so completely absorbed in a score
as I was with Parsifal.
I was surprised and amazed. It’s supposed to be a slow-moving
work, and I was amazed at how
quickly one is carried along by the piece. To me, it’s a slow
movement on such a vast scale, on such a vast landscape that you seem
to be borne swiftly along.
surprised to see the curtain coming down?
JP: Yes. I
never found any of the acts of Parsifal
conduct. Perhaps the audience did, I don’t know, but I
BD: After Wagner,
it is a straight line to Richard Strauss?
JP: I think the
line is a little divergent, shall we say, but that’s the next major
figure. We have more of a Mozartian
attitude of somebody who wants to entertain the people. Strauss
was not above trying to repeat the successful formula of Rosenkavalier
in Arabella. He knew he
had to write attractive
BD: Is opera “art”
or is it “entertainment?”
JP: I think opera
should be entertainment. It’s such a
flawed art. I don’t think that a totally Wagnerian concept would
be good for anybody. If Wagner lived to be 200 years old and had
influence all the time, I don’t think we’d be in an admirable
situation. We might feel we’re walking in a great museum. I
don’t know. I feel that if Mozart had lived to twice his age, the
whole of music would have been changed because the
impact of Beethoven would have been considerably less. I wouldn’t
be so bold as to say that if Mozart had lived we wouldn’t have needed
Beethoven, but I’m approaching that thought. I think that Mozart
would have burst the bounds of music altogether. I don’t
feel that with Wagner, iconoclast and revolutionary and innovator as he
was. I feel he would have cast something for us all to admire for
all time – like a great cathedral – and there we would have stayed with
BD: Are there any
composers today who approach Wagner’s level?
JP: I don’t think
we’re far enough removed to tell, but I don’t
think so. Even when talking about such composers as Bartók
Britten, I don’t think we’re talking on the same level
somehow. I think we’ve found great increase of technology.
I think we’ve found marvelous experimental ways to continue the lyrical
art of opera, but many times I’m quietly despairing of the future of
art because I think it becomes more and more expensive, and more and
competitive. We’re having the greatest difficulty in casting the
major roles in Wagnerian operas and in Mozart operas. Taking
these two giant figures that I’ve repeatedly compared – or
but set them one against the other both on a technical level of
Mozartian perfection, and on a physical level of vocal stamina and
flexibility – I think we’re in great
difficulty. We find one
singer or another and go on a little longer, but I don’t find the
vocal schools are likely to help us to perform these works. I’m
not speaking of my lifetime or your lifetime, but a hundred years hence.
BD: So are we
charged with setting down as many things possible
on audio and video tapes so that they will be there when it’s lost
JP: I hope
so. Something else may come along – we may find
a foolproof way of breeding heldentenors, but I doubt it.
BD: I wonder if
there would be a way of using electronic
enhancement – a throat microphone or some such device to take a light
voice and make it stronger and weightier.
JP: I should think
that would be rather horrible.
BD: Would you
rather that or not have Wagner at all?
JP: I sometimes
think that Wagner performances now are a bit of
an approximation. One’s memory gives you a sort of prejudiced
view of things. Perhaps we produce some, but we produce few
now. Here’s the question – do the
composers write and expect
singers to be found who can handle what is written, or do they write
for the voices that exist? Mozart wrote for his vocalists.
Wagner expected the singers to cope with his scores.
BD: It’s been
fascinating speaking with you again. Thank you very much for
time with me.
JP: I’ve enjoyed
In addition to his regular duties as Announcer/Producer with WNIB,
Bruce Duffie is a regular contributor to several magazines – including
Wagner News. In the next issue, a conversation with Martha
on the occasion of her 75th birthday. To read that interview, click here.
John Pritchard, Music Director, Is Dead at 68
The New York Times
December 6, 1989
Sir John Pritchard, the music director of the San Francisco Opera and,
until early this year, of the BBC Symphony and the Cologne Opera, died
of lung cancer yesterday at the Seton Medical Center in Daly City,
Calif. He was 68 years old.
An expert in the music of Mozart and Rossini as well as of contemporary
composers, Sir John made his last public appearances in October in six
performances of Mozart's ''Idomeneo'' in San Francisco. He was to have
conducted Handel's ''Orlando Furioso'' there starting Nov. 19, but was
unable to do so.
John Michael Pritchard was born in London in 1921. He was taught music
by his father, a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra, and later
studied viola and piano in Italy and conducting with Sir Henry Wood.
In 1947 he joined the staff of the Glyndebourne Festival, becoming an
assistant to Fritz Busch, and stepped in during a 1949 performance of
Mozart's ''Don Giovanni'' when Busch fell ill. He made his formal
conducting debut there in 1951, and his longtime association with the
festival continued as a conductor, adviser and music director
(1969-78). He is to be buried near the site of the festival.
In an interview, he once recalled Busch telling him:
''John, you have a natural sense of tempo. You were born with it. It's
the most priceless gift for conductors.''
Sir John's career was divided between concerts and opera. He made his
debut with the Vienna State Opera and with the Royal Opera, Covent
Garden, in 1952 and his American debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony in
1953. Although he freelanced throughout his life, his permanent
engagements included music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
(1957-63), the London Philharmonic (1962-66), the Theatre de la Monnaie
in Brussels (1981-86), the Cologne Opera (1978 until this summer) and
the BBC Symphony (1982 until October). In Liverpool, he was active in
the Musica Viva concerts, subsequently repeated in London.
He was knighted in 1983 for his service to English contemporary music.
Among his important operatic premieres were Britten's ''Gloriana'' and
Sir Michael Tippett's ''Midsummer Marriage'' and ''King Priam.''
In September he realized a longtime ambition by leading the final night
of the Proms, the BBC's popular summer concert series at the Royal
Albert Hall in London, although illness forced him to sit while
Sir John's longtime companion was Terrence MacInnes. No family members
survive. The funeral is to be in London late next week. The San
Francisco Opera is to hold a memorial service on Monday at 11 A.M. at
Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
© 1984 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on
September 29, 1984. A transcript was published in Wagner News in Feburary,
It was re-edited and posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.