Maria Bartha, 1897-1967
Portrait of Sir John Barbirolli 1899 – 1970
Portrait of Sir John Barbirolli
1st April 1955
Oil on Canvas
76 x 63.50 cm. (30 x 25 in.)


signed "M Bartha"


Barbirolli, Sir John [formerly Giovanni Battista] (1899–1970), conductor and cellist, was born Giovanni Battista at 12 Southampton Row, London, on 2 December 1899, the elder son and second of the three children of an émigré Italian violinist, Lorenzo Barbirolli (1864–1928), and his Parisian wife, Louise Marie Ribeyrol (1870–1962). He began to play the violin when he was four, but a year later changed to the cello. He was educated at St Clement Danes Grammar School and, at the same time, from 1910, was a scholar at Trinity College of Music. He made his public début in a cello concerto in the Queen's Hall in 1911. The following year he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, which he attended from 1912 to 1916. He was elected an associate of the academy at the age of thirteen. From 1916 to 1918 he was a freelance cellist in London, playing in the Queen's Hall Orchestra, in opera under Sir Thomas Beecham, and in theatre and cinema orchestras.

Barbirolli served in the Suffolk regiment (1918–19), and on demobilization resumed his orchestral career, although he was gifted enough to be soloist in Sir Edward Elgar's cello concerto at Bournemouth in 1921. In 1924 he became the cellist in both the Music Society and Samuel Kutcher string quartets. However, his ambition since childhood had been to conduct, and later that year he formed his own string orchestra. He gradually attracted attention and in 1925 was invited to conduct for the British National Opera Company (BNOC); he made his début in Gounod's Romeo and Juliet in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1926.

When the BNOC foundered financially in 1929 Barbirolli was appointed conductor of the Covent Garden touring company and also conducted regularly at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in the grand opera season. In 1933 he became conductor of the Scottish Orchestra, rejuvenating the playing and programmes and winning most favourable opinions. Even so, no one was prepared for the sensation in 1936 when the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York, having been forced by public protests to withdraw their invitation to Wilhelm Furtwängler to succeed Arturo Toscanini as its conductor, asked Barbirolli for the first ten weeks of the 1936–7 season. He conducted in Carnegie Hall for the first time on 5 November 1936 and a month later was offered a three-year contract.

The years in New York were both rewarding and scarring for Barbirolli. Working with a great orchestra, with whom he was always on excellent terms, and with the most talented of the world's soloists, matured him musically; but the handicap imposed upon him by having succeeded Toscanini, who was idolized in New York and for whom a rival orchestra was created, was almost insurmountable. The critics, whose power and influence in New York at that time were notorious, were savage in their attacks on Barbirolli's interpretations. Nevertheless, in 1940 his contract was renewed for a further two years. The issue by the Barbirolli Society since his death of transfers to CD of recordings he made in New York proves that the orchestra played superbly for him and that the criticism of him was largely unjustified.

When in April 1943 Barbirolli was invited to become permanent conductor of the Hallé Orchestra at a time of crisis in its history, he accepted without hesitation. He arrived in Manchester to find that he had a month in which to recruit forty players to add to the thirty-five under contract. He scoured the country for talent—no easy task in 1943—and launched a virtually new orchestra, which was soon acclaimed as the best in the country. This period, when he re-created the orchestra, bound him emotionally and indissolubly to the Hallé, so that despite lucrative offers from elsewhere, and despite his own exasperation with its post-war financial problems, he could not be lured away. He was knighted in 1949 and was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society's gold medal in 1950. In 1959 he accepted engagements in America and returned to a rapturous welcome from public and critics in New York. He was a regular guest conductor of most of the leading European orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, with whom he recorded the Brahms symphonies. In 1961 he began a decade of association with the Berlin Philharmonic, by which he was much admired, and from 1961 to 1967 was conductor-in-chief of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. But the Hallé was still his principal concern and, after twenty-five years with it, in 1968 he was appointed conductor laureate for life. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1969.

On 18 June 1932 Barbirolli married Marjorie Parry, a soprano. The marriage was not a success and they were divorced in 1939, when Barbirolli married (5 July) a celebrated oboist,Evelyn Alice Rothwell (1911–2008), the daughter of R. H. Rothwell, a tea dealer, of Wallingford, Berkshire. There were no children of either marriage. Barbirolli was a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music (1928) and an honorary freeman of Manchester, King's Lynn, and Houston, Texas. Honorary degrees were conferred on him by the universities of Manchester (1950), Dublin (1952), Sheffield (1957), London (1961), Leicester (1964), and Keele (1969). He received the Bruckner (1959) and Mahler (1965) medals and was decorated by the governments of Italy, Finland, and France. For some years Barbirolli suffered from heart disease, and he died at Huntsworth Mews, London, on 29 July 1970 after a day of rehearsal in preparation for concerts with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in Japan. His ashes were buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

Barbirolli was a complete musician. His magnetism as a conductor was exemplified by his ability to obtain quickly the special quality of sound which he liked from an orchestra. His aim was to lead players and listeners into the composer's world: this power of commitment was his strength, as his recordings testify. If concentration on broad lines and expressive phrasing meant some loss of rhythmical impulse, that was a weakness which was usually outweighed. In the music of Mahler, Elgar, Sibelius, Brahms, and Vaughan Williams he was at his greatest, combining power and poetry, but his excellent Haydn was underrated and it was most unfortunate that after 1936 he conducted comparatively little opera, although he returned to Covent Garden in the 1950s and was offered (but refused) the post of music director. He had a natural flair for opera, especially the works of Puccini and Verdi, and in the last years of his life recorded Madama Butterfly and Otello and conducted Aida in Rome to great acclaim. No one who saw him—dynamic, with a touch of arrogance in his demeanour on the rostrum, small of stature but big in every other way—would have guessed that after a concert he would often lapse into deep depression. He was prey to an insecurity which stemmed partly from experiences during his rise to fame, was partly the result of his years in New York, and was also due to his own genuine humility in the face of great music. But with his sardonic humour, his courage, and his gift for friendship he concealed these human failings from all but his intimates. His capacity for work was prodigious and he demanded most from himself.

Michael Kennedy  DNB