Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970)

Living in Bradford, West Yorkshire, in the early 1960’s, I was rarely able to attend concerts at St. George’s Hall, work and virtual poverty preventing it. We booked a ticket however for the Delius Centenary concerts (the composer was a – reluctant -native of the city), to be performed by Sir Thomas Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Sadly Beecham – Delius’ great advocate – had to withdraw, and the Austrian Rudolph Kemp replaced him. So I never saw this the most colourful of those three great contemporaries (and rivals) : Boult, Beecham and Barbirolli.

At least in that time I managed to attend a concert by Sir John Barbirolli and his beloved Halle Orchestra. The story has often been told of how this son of an Italian father and French mother, born a London cockney as he often boasted, built up the fragments of an orchestra so that it became one of Europe’s finest. He remained loyal to the Halle until his death, only in his later years building up a strong rapport with the Vienna and especially the Berlin Philharmonic orchestras, whilst maintaining a residency with the Houston Orchestra in the U.


Sadly I don’t remember the details of the concert in Bradford apart from the performance of an Oboe Concerto in which his wife, Evelyn Rothwell* was the soloist. He was a small man and she tall and imposing. I recall their entrance, he with a mincing walk and she a stately one. Once on the podium, Barbirolli was a joy to watch. Clearly he loved his art and lived every note, his eyes watchful of the players, and at moments that moved or delighted him, groaning in the gravely voice for which he was well known. He is fondly remembered for his total love for music, and he could be as happy with a Strauss waltz or a Mahler symphony, of which he became a prime exponent in his latter years.

I have become a great admirer of his music-making and have been a member of The Barbirolli Society (it has a website) for a few years now.

Together with Dutton Laboratories, they have reissued many of his recordings and some of his live performances, all digitally re-mastered, and at a very reasonable price. Some of these are from his years with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. There are divided opinions about his seven years with them. He followed Arturo Toscanini and had to contend with the maestro’s many followers in his audience.

There is no disagreement however about his achievements when he came back to England in 1943, and saved an orchestra from dying.


*Evelyn Barbirolli, nee Rothwell, died January 25th 2008 aged 97