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Evelyn Barbirolli

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Evelyn Barbirolli (born Wallingford-on-Thames, Berkshire, 24 January 1911; died 25 January 2008) was a famous oboist. She was an honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Only 116 people have ever been made honorary members. She was the wife of the conductor Sir John Barbirolli. She was born Evelyn Rothwell, and was always known by that name until after the death of her husband, John Barbirolli, when she changed her professional name to “Evelyn Barbirolli”. She became famous at a time when there were very few women in orchestras.

Life[change | change source]

Early years[change | change source]

Evelyn Rothwell’s father was a tea dealer in the City of London. Her mother was related to Charles Reade, a 19th century novelist. She started to learn the oboe at her school, Downe House, near Newbury. Her father did not want her to study music, but in the end she was allowed to go to the Royal College of Music. She studied the oboe there, and the piano as a second instrument. She also played the cello and timpani. She was a student there at the same time as Benjamin Britten, who sometimes asked her to play some of the oboe music he had just written.

Evelyn started her professional career as an oboist in the Drury Lane orchestra. She soon got a job with the Royal Opera House touring company whose conductor was John Barbirolli. Barbirolli was married, but his marriage did not last long.

Barbirolli was then made conductor of the Scottish Orchestra (now called the Royal Scottish National Orchestra). He gave Evelyn the job of first oboe in this orchestra. He made an arrangement of a concerto by Handel for her to play. She played several other concertos with him conducting, and they made several recordings. Vaughan Williams was very pleased with their recording of his oboe concerto. Several composers wrote music especially for her. Henry Wood made her first oboist in the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

Years of marriage[change | change source]

Evelyn married Barbirolli in 1939, after he had divorced his first wife. By this time Barbirolli was conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He had taken this job after Toscanini had left. Barbirolli and his new wife lived in New York until 1943 when they returned to England so that Barbirolli could be the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. Sometimes she played in the orchestra, but not very often because she thought people might say that it was because her husband was the conductor. When the Hallé Orchestra went to Austria in 1948 she played Mozart’s oboe concerto with them. People at that time only knew this work in an arrangement for the flute.

In Manchester Evelyn helped her husband by being his secretary. She drove him everywhere, and was always by his side at rehearsals to help him. As Barbirolli gradually became ill she spent nearly all her time with him instead of playing the oboe. She travelled with him to America when he became conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Barbirolli kept working hard although he was not well. During his last years they had financial problems when Barbirolli’s manager caused them to lose a lot of money.

After Barbirolli’s death[change | change source]

After Barbirolli’s death in 1970 she started to play her oboe again. She taught at the Royal Academy of Music, and was always known as “Lady Barbirolli” (or “Lady B”). She often adjudicated at music competitions. Her pupils respected her for her honesty and kindness. She wrote a book about Oboe Technique and the Oboist’s Companion, a book in 3 volumes. She also wrote an autobiography called Living with Glorious John. She was made an OBE in 1984. She died the day after her 97th birthday.

References[change | change source]

  • Obituary: The Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2008.