John Barbirolli

John Barbirolli

Sir John Giovanni Battista Barbirolli, CH (2 December, 1899 - 29 July, 1970), was a British conductor and cellist. Barbirolli was particularly associated with The Hallé, Manchester, which he conducted for nearly three decades. He was also music director of the New York Philharmonic and the Houston Symphony, and conducted many other orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Vienna Philharmonic. He was particularly associated with the music of English composers such as Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. He also developed a strong reputation as a conductor of the music of Gustav Mahler.


Early years 1899-1937

Barbirolli was a Londoner, from a musical family. His father and uncle were violinists in London theatre orchestras, notably the Leicester Square Empire, though they had also played at La Scala, Milan, under Arturo Toscanini. Thus the young John was destined to be a string player, a specialist in British music, and to have a love of Italian opera.

Barbirolli won a scholarship to study at Trinity College of Music, and later studied at the Royal Academy of Music where the "Sir John Barbirolli Collection" of photographs and memorabilia is now archived. As a young cellist he made some acoustic records, played in the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), notably at the first performance of Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, and was soon after the soloist in the second performance of the work. In the 1920s he turned to conducting and formed a chamber orchestra which recorded new works for the National Gramophonic Society, notably Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro", which may have been responsible for His Master's Voice avoiding the work until after Elgar's death.

Between 1929 and 1933 he conducted opera at Covent Garden. From 1933 to 1936 he conducted the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow.

Barbirolli became known for his ability to secure effective performances at short notice, and in the 1930s made many recordings with the LSO and London Philharmonic, accompanying concerti with leading soloists such as Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, most of which remain classics today.

Conductor of New York Philharmonic 1937-1942

In 1937, Barbirolli achieved a coup when he was invited to succeed Arturo Toscanini as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, a tremendously prestigious post. Although his five seasons there were a musical triumph, as surviving recordings show, he was under constant attack from the hostile New York press, notably the critic Olin Downes, who was a strong champion of Toscanini. Barbirolli also had to cope with rivalry from the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra, which was also based in New York, was conducted by Toscanini, and paid higher salaries.

Work in later years 1942-1970

In 1942 Barbirolli was invited to renew his contract but to do so would have to become a US citizen, which he was unwilling to do. At this point, an invitation to take up the post of chief conductor of The Hallé transformed his career.

The increase in scope for concerts had prompted the Hallé to end the increasingly unsatisfactory arrangement of sharing half their players with the BBC, which had saved them in the slump years, and to engage a top-rank conductor. Only four of the shared players chose to join the Hallé, so when Barbirolli arrived he had to rebuild the orchestra in weeks, a task he fell to with enthusiasm. His "new Hallé" can be heard today in recordings of symphonies by Arnold Bax and Vaughan Williams, made in wartime Manchester. There was also a series of highly-acclaimed stereo recordings with the orchestra, released by Pye in the United Kingdom. and by Vanguard Records and Angel Records in the United States.

Barbirolli conducted the orchestra for twenty-five years, in many cities including the Cheltenham Festival, where he premiered many new works. He also conducted the BBC and other London orchestras in concert and on records, and towards the end of his life renewed his association with EMI which produced a legacy of fine recorded performances, many of which have been available continuously.

Sir John's last two concerts were held in the St Nicholas Chapel, King's Lynn, as part of the 1970 Festival there. Despite collapsing from ill-health during the Friday afternoon, he produced magnificent renderings of Elgar's "Symphony No. 1" and "Sea Pictures". His very last item conducted was Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7" the Saturday before his death.

Barbirolli is remembered as an interpreter of Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Mahler, as well as Franz Schubert, Beethoven, Jean Sibelius, Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, and as a staunch supporter of new works by British composers, in which his advocacy rivaled those of conductors Adrian Boult and Henry Wood. In fact, Vaughan Williams bestowed the nickname "Glorious John" on Barbirolli as a sign of esteem. He was a mentor to the extraordinarily gifted cellist Jacqueline Du Pre.

He was knighted in 1949 and made a Companion of Honour in 1969.


His first marriage was to singer Marjorie Parry. His second marriage from 1939 to his death was to the British oboist Evelyn Rothwell, born 1911, Wallingford, England, who became Lady Barbirolli. She died, at the age of 97, in January 2008.

Notable premieres

*Benjamin Britten, "Violin concerto" with Antonio Brosa as soloist, New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, New York, 28 March 1940
*Benjamin Britten, "Sinfonia da Requiem", New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, New York, 30 March 1941
*Vaughan Williams, "Sinfonia antartica", Hallé Orchestra, Manchester, 1953
*Vaughan Williams, "Symphony No. 8", 1956


Barbirolli Square in Manchester, England is named in his honour. The square includes the modern concert venue the Bridgewater Hall.

Barbirolli Hall is the main hall in St Clement Danes School in Chorleywood, formerly St. Clement Danes Grammar School, of which Barbirolli was a student when it was in Houghton Street, London. [ [http://www. History] , St Clement Danes School.]

There is a statue of Barbirolli in Barbirolli Square, Lower Mosley Street, Manchester, by Byron Howard (2000).

A commemorative blue plaque was placed on the wall in Southampton Row, Holborn, London (which is now the Bloomsbury Park Hotel) in May 1993 to mark Barbirolli’s birthplace.


*cite book | last=Reid | first=Charles | coauthors= | title=John Barbirolli: a biography | location=New York | publisher=Taplinger Publishing | year=1971 | isbn=0800844084
*cite book | last=Columbia University | title=The Columbia Encyclopedia | url= | location=New York | publisher=Columbia University Press | edition=Sixth Edition | year=2007 | oclc=56753471

External references

External links

* [ Sir John Barbirolli Memorial Foundation]
* [ Barbirolli Society]
* [ Portraits of Barbirolli at the National Portrait Gallery, London]

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