Edward Downes

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Sir Edward Downes, (born Birmingham, England, 17 June 1924; died Switzerland, 10 July 2009) was an English conductor. He was famous for conducting opera, but also conducted orchestral concerts. He worked a lot with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House as well as Opera Australia.

When he was old he was almost totally blind and deaf and his wife was dying of cancer, so they both decided that they wanted to die together. They went to Switzerland where they were allowed to commit assisted suicide.

Early years[change | change source]

Downes was born in Birmingham, England. His father worked in a bank. He left school when he was 14 and got a simple job in a gas store where he earned 16s 10d (16 shillings and 10 pence, which is 84p in modern British money) a week.

He had been playing the piano and violin since he was five. When he was 16 he got a scholarship to the University of Birmingham where he studied English literature and music, and began playing the cor anglais. He then got a scholarship to study conducting at the University of Aberdeen.

Marriage[change | change source]

In the 1960s, he married Joan, a dancer with the Royal Ballet. She later became a choreographer and television producer. They had two children: a son, Caractacus (born December 1967), who became a musician and recording engineer, and a daughter, Boudicca, who became a video producer.

Conducting career[change | change source]

In 1952 he started his work in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden where he was assistant to Rafael Kubelík. He worked for the ROH for 17 years, becoming Associate Music Director in 1991.

From 1970 he was Music Director of Australian Opera. He conducted the first performance in the new Sydney Opera House in 1973 conducting Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace. He was Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic.

Downes was remembered in particular for conducting music by British composers. He was also especially fond of the operas by Verdi as well as the symphonies of Shostakovich. People often thought he looked like Shostakovich, especially when he wore his glasses.

He received the honour of CBE.

In his last years he could hardly see and so he could only conduct music that he knew from memory.

Death[change | change source]

When he was 85 he had become almost totally blind and deaf. His wife was dying of cancer and was in a lot of pain. They both wanted to die together, but in Britain it is against the law to help someone to die, so they decided to go to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. There, surrounded by members of their family, they drank a fatal dose of barbiturates and died on 10 July 2009.

Some people who support the idea of assisted suicide are hoping that this case may lead to more discussion which could bring about a change in the law in Britain and other countries.[1]

References[change | change source]

  1. ”After 54 years together, they decided to die together”, The Independent, 15 July 2009, p.4-5