Edward Downes and Sir Edward Downes

"I suppose the earliest memory I have of the Metropolitan in New York was Rosa Ponselle singing in the 1927 revival of Norma."(Photo: NBC Radio)
"I suppose the earliest memory I have of the Metropolitan in New York was Rosa Ponselle singing in the 1927 revival of Norma."(Photo: NBC Radio)

The British conductor Sir Edward Downes has been in the news this week. Long associated with the BBC and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Sir Edward and his wife traveled to a clinic in Switzerland a few days ago, and under medical supervision took their own lives.

Sir Edward was blind and going deaf, and increasingly immobilized by old age. Lady Downes had terminal cancer. They died quietly, together. I applaud them.

But I’ve been getting sympathy e-mail! I wrote my doctoral thesis on the American broadcaster, critic and musicologist Edward Downes (1911-2001), no relation to Sir Edward, although on-line searches will naturally confuse the two. Both lived long lives serving music and other people. God bless them.

Not the ‘Sir’ Edward Downes

MY Edward Downes, over a long career, spent three years in the late 1930s as Music Critic of the Boston Evening Transcript. The paper went out of business in 1956.

I spent many hours with Edward at his home in New York in the mid-1990s as he dictated to me his memoirs on tape. I went through all of his scrapbooks. I was able to learn one informed person’s view of musical life in Europe and America over a seventy-year period, going back to 1925.

Here’s Edward Downes on tape, speaking of one his earliest memories of music in performance:

“I suppose the earliest memory I have of the Metropolitan in New York was Rosa Ponselle singing in the 1927 revival of Norma. I was lucky in being able to attend the dress rehearsal.  People who have recordings know that P0nselle was a very great Norma, but that dress rehearsal, the first time anyone heard that splendid voice in Bellini’s opera, was unique. I knew I would not hear the like of it again, and I tried to attend every performance of Norma that season.

I knew absolutely from the “Casta diva,” which she sang in F instead of G, that this was extraordinary singing…At the end of the first part of “Casta diva,” in the descending chromatic scale coming down an octave and a half, every note was perfectly articulated and had a sense of flow of this gorgeous sounding voice.  It was the kind of sound that hits you in the midriff.”

Here’s Edward Downes writing in The Boston Evening Transcript

On William Schuman:
Frigidly, politely and firmly, a Boston Symphony audience revolted yesterday afternoon at the beginning of the regular Friday matinee concert.  All through the opening number, “An American Overture” by 29 year old William Schuman, there had been dubious shaking of heads. But when Dr. Koussevitsky finished his exhilarating performance of the overture on a particularly strong discord, a shudder of disapproval ran through the hall, and the applause that followed was so weak that it constituted a negative demonstration. One felt that only  impeccable manners and a certain instinctive restraint stood in the way of more positive expressions of annoyances. (November 18, 1939)

On Lotte Lehman:
It is only artists of the stature of Lehmann who are able to supply that something new we demand simply by giving a great performance of a simple composition.  And she does it, not by making poor defenseless Schubert stand on his head, nor by doing something startling and sensational with Brahms.

She does it be penetrating to the very core of the composer’s thought.  What stands revealed to us then is not a clever idea that Lehmann had, but Schubert, or Brahms himself in all the freshness of primal inspiration. (October 20, 1939)

On Nelson Eddy:
Nelson Eddy, famous all American baritone of stage, screen and ether waves, gave a recital last night in Symphony Hall which began with Albert Hay Lamotte’s setting of Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark and ended with The Lord’s Prayer set to music by the same intrepid composer. The program informed us, “Of all vocal compositions, this setting of The Lord’s Prayer is requested most often, a significant indication of the reverence of a people who know how to turn to God.”

This last confused us considerably. Does it mean the real way to turn to God is to write a fan letter to Nelson Eddy asking him to sing The Lord’s Prayer? Or does it mean that the number of requests Mr. Eddy receives for this kind of vocal composition is a kind of barometer of the devoutness of the American public? (April 3, 1940)

On DIE WALKURE
Our mind still ringing with the magic of Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music”, and our heart full of thanksgiving to Erich Leinsdorf for having given us and integral and uncut Die Walkure, we were progressing slowly towards an exit of the Boston Opera House last Saturday afternoon when a loud and obviously bored voice exclaimed behind us to her matinee companion: “Did you EVER hear such a long opera in your LIFE?! Really, you know I don’t mind so much at night, but in the afternoon it all seems to take so much TIME!”  Which of course IS pretty dreadful, ISN’T it?

Unfortunately, Die Walkure just is long, even if we were to slash it as mercilessly as does the Paris Opera, the good lady would still have to miss her tea. (April 1, 1940)

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