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 the company.

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.] 

Here is much of what was said that afternoon . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’ve conducted so many different styles – Baroque, Mozart, Romantic, Contemporary.  How is Wagner similar or different from them?

John Pritchard:    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 at Covent Garden?

JP:    Yes.  That’s in the dark ages, but Lohengrin is a 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 cast.       

BD:    I would think that in Meistersinger particularly, the 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 original.

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.

BD:    Does 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 (mezzo-forte, literally 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 you directly to the expression of a Wagnerian line.

BD:    Is that something that goes back even to Bach and Heinrich Schütz?

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 text.

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 composer.

BD:    Are his operas too long?

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 he cared?

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?

JP:    That’s 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 independently wealthy?

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 Giovanni

JP:    Exactly.  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 you 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, for instance?

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 struck by 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 a 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?

JP:    When 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 down.  

BD:    How did he handle the throwing of the spear?

JP:    Badly.  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 volatile?

JP:    Yes, he was, but the public image
what we see on the giant screen of Wagneris 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?

JP:    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 imagined 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 conductor?

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 MeistersingerMeistersinger is structural and wonderfully 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 beauties.   

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 and Lohengrin beside the textual reference?

JP:    No, I don’t think there’s a single look-back to Lohengrin in Parsifal.  It was an enormous musical shock to my system after Meistersinger to come to Parsifal.  I can’t explain it, but I 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.

BD:    You’re surprised to see the curtain coming down?

JP:    Yes.  I never found any of the acts of Parsifal long to conduct.  Perhaps the audience did, I don’t know, but I didn’t.

*     *     *     *     *

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 music.    

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 opera.

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 and 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 more 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 not compared, but set them one against the other both on a technical level of Mozartian perfection, and on a physical level of vocal stamina and flexibilityI 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 forever?

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 spending the time with me.

JP:    I’ve enjoyed it.

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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 Mödl on the occasion of her 75th birthday.  To read that interview, click here.

Sir John Pritchard, Music Director, Is Dead at 68

John Rockwell
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.''

Lifelong Freelancer

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 conducting.

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, 1987.  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.

Award - winning 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 like 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.