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Sir John Barbirolli

Music Director, 1936–41


b. London, England, December 2, 1899
d. London, July 29, 1970

Born Giovanni Batista Barbirolli, John Barbirolli began his conducting career in the British army during World War I. Serving as a lance-corporal in a regiment with many professional musicians, he and his fellow soldiers formed an orchestra. When their conductor fell ill, the others suggested that “old Barby” try his hand at conducting. Following his discharge, he pursued his conducting ambitions, guest conducting at the British National Opera Company, the Royal Opera House, and acting as musical director and conductor for a touring opera company established by Covent Garden.

Barbirolli’s New York Philharmonic debut, on November 5, 1936, featured a program of works by Berlioz, Arnold Bax, Mozart, and Brahms. His colorful and poetic interpretations earned the respect of musicians and connoisseurs. He suffered, however, from constant comparison to Toscanini, whose flamboyant virtuosity attracted a much wider audience. Furthermore, the circumstances of his engagement as Music Director — Wilhelm Furtwängler had been offered the post, then withdrew after protests against his associations with the Nazi regime in Germany — caused Barbirolli to begin his tenure under the cloud of being “second choice.” Barbirolli introduced Philharmonic audiences to new music by British and American composers, including the World Premieres of Britten’s Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem. His core repertoire, however, featured the late-Romantic symphonists of northern Europe, notably Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and Sibelius.

In April 1943, Barbirolli returned to Manchester, England to become permanent conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, a venerable ensemble that had fallen on hard times during World War II. Barbirolli, who remained closely associated with the group for the rest of his life, hired dozens of new players and rebuilt the Hallé into an orchestra of international reputation. From 1960 to 1967, Barbirolli served as music director of the Houston Symphony. He was warmly welcomed back to the Philharmonic podium on return engagements in 1959 and 1962. His final performance with the Philharmonic, on April 8, 1968, showcased works by Alan Rawsthorne.

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