John (Giovanni Battista) Barbirolli was born in Holborn, London on 2 December 1899. His father, Lorenzo and grandfather, Antonio, were distinguished Italian violinists and both were members of the La Scala Orchestra in Milan where, in February 1887, they played in the first performance of Verdi’s Otello. His mother, Louise Marie Ribeyrol, was born in Arcachon, on the south-west coast of France, close to the Pyrenees.
Barbirolli was taught to play the violin at an early age but changed to the ‘cello at the age of seven, entered London’s Trinity College of Music at ten and transferred to the Royal Academy of Music at twelve to continue his music studies. In 1916, he became the youngest member of Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra and in 1917 gave his first solo ‘cello recital in London. He joined the Army for a spell before the end of the First World War and during this time, had his first opportunity to conduct an orchestra. He returned to civilian life in 1919, playing in the London Symphony Orchestra and in Beecham’s Covent Garden Orchestra but he also played ‘cello in bands in dance-halls, cinemas and circuses, “everywhere except in the street”, as he was to proudly proclaim years later. He was the soloist in Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto at an early performance of the work in 1921. In early 1924, he joined two string quartets as ‘cellist but, later that year, realized his ambition to conduct by forming his own chamber orchestra in London.
In 1926, he was invited by Frederic Austin, then artistic director of the British National Opera Company, to conduct on one of its provincial tours and made his operatic début in Newcastle upon Tyne in September 1926, conducting Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. He also conducted performances of Madama Butterfly and Aida in that same week. During the next six years, he conducted both the BNOC and the Covent Garden Opera Company on provincial tours and also at the International Season at Covent Garden. To his repertoire were added: Aida, Falstaff, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Bohème, Tosca, Turandot, Madama Butterfly, Gianni Schicchi, The Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni, The Bartered Bride, Die Fledermaus, Die Miestersinger, Rosenkavalier, Tristan and Isolde and The Wreckers.
In 1933, Barbirolli was appointed conductor of the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow and began to develop an extensive symphonic repertoire including many major symphonic works which he had not previously conducted. He conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in December 1926 when he deputized at short notice for Beecham, who was indisposed, with a concert which included Elgar’s Second Symphony. He subsequently conducted a number of concerts in London with the LSO and the Royal Philharmonic Society but in 1936, though by now well established as permanent conductor of the Scottish Orchestra, he was still considered by the English music establishment to be ‘promising’. Thus, when he was invited by the New York Philharmonic to succeed Toscanini as permanent conductor, the world of music was rocked. His New York appointment was at least in part due to the reputation which had been carried abroad by a number of influential international soloists including Kreisler and Rubinstein with whom he had worked as an orchestral accompanist in recordings made for HMV since his first contract with them early in 1927. Thus began one of the toughest orchestral assignments in the world, for the NYPO was justly nicknamed “Murder Incorporated”.
Barbirolli spent a total of seven seasons in New York. He soon gained the admiration, respect and love of the orchestra and many of the members of his audiences, but some of the New York critics were against him from the start and he suffered from adverse criticism from them and from a section of the New York public who had idolized Toscanini. During his NYPO tenure, he conducted many works from the standard repertoire but he introduced many works by English composers as well as new works by American ones. He reached a vast listening public through the regular broadcast of his Sunday concert series on the NBC radio network. He took the NYPO on several major tours in the USA and he guest-conducted, to great acclaim, a number of other orchestras in the USA and Canada, including concerts at the famous Hollywood Bowl.
By 1942, tormented by what was happening at home in Britain in the War, he was very home sick and worried about his family. He made a hazardous return sea crossing to Britain and conducted concerts throughout Britain with several of the country’s leading orchestras. He had refused to take American citizenship in order to join the American Musicians’ Union and the 1941-42 season was his last one as permanent conductor, though he did conduct concerts in New York in the 1942-3 season. In February 1943, he received a telegram from Manchester, enquiring if he was interested in becoming permanent conductor of the Hallé Orchestra. “This is it”, he said to his wife, the oboist – Evelyn Rothwell, and within a matter of weeks, the appointment had been made.
Barbirolli’s arrival in Manchester on 2nd June 1943 and his virtual recreation of the Hallé Orchestra from a small residual nucleus of players who had refused to go over to a full-time contract with the BBC Northern Orchestra, became a legend in Barbirolli’s own life time. Three weeks of intensive auditioning in wartime Britain, including some very unlikely sources for orchestral players, produced enough people to recreate an orchestra which was already booked to give its first concert in Bradford on 5th July!
Barbirolli effectively stayed with the Hallé for the rest of his life – a period of 27 years. He was permanent conductor from 1943 to 1958, rehearsing and conducting the Hallé Orchestra in a punishing schedule of concerts throughout the length and breadth of Britain in addition to the Manchester concerts, and he made many recordings. He also took the Hallé on annual overseas visits. In 1958, after the orchestra’s highly successful centenary season, he reduced his commitments with the Hallé to about 70 concerts a year and became their Conductor-in-Chief to allow himself time to conduct abroad with the world’s leading orchestras. Despite failing health, he thus entered the busiest decade of his career. In 1961, he was also appointed Chief Conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra and stayed for several seasons. He visited Berlin regularly during the 1960’s to conduct the BPO with whom he developed a very special rapport. He returned to conducting opera in Britain and abroad and recorded Madam Butterfly in Rome and Otello in London for EMI. In 1968, he was appointed Conductor Laureate of the Hallé for life. He continued to conduct them in major concerts and he also made many important recordings with them and with other major orchestras. At his last EMI recording sessions, in July 1970, he recorded Delius’s Appalachia and Brigg Fair with the Hallé Orchestra. Barbirolli’s last public concert was also with the Hallé Orchestra at the King’s Lynn Festival on 25th July 1970. A few days later, he died of a heart attack, in London, on 29th July 1970. Only a few hours before, he had been busily rehearsing the Philharmonia Orchestra in preparation for his tour with them to Japan. As he would have wished, he died in harness. Work was his life.