'Barbirolli's appointment was announced by the New York Philharmonic Society's directorial board on 7th April 1936. The musical world rubbed incredulous eyes. Barbirolli, said the announcement, was to open the forthcoming season, conducting twenty-six concerts out of a season's total of eighty-four. In much newspaper comment the following day surprise verged on perplexity. Nobody had heard of John Barbirolli. The official statement carried a hundred or two words of biographical matter which fed without satisfying. Not a line in the newspaper morgues. Not a word in the New York Times' elephantine index, a fact about which the New York Times did not omit to exclaim.
The New York Philharmonic was the greatest orchestra in the world. Every New Yorker knew that. There were people in Vienna, Berlin, London and Milan who knew it as well. What sense was there in giving the New York Philharmonic to a man who had never been on an American front page before or, so far as could be made out, on any front page of moment anywhere?' From John Barbirolli by Charles Read, published 1971
John Giovanni Batista Barbirolli was born in London in 1899 to a musical family. His father and grandfather were leading Italian violinists, and his mother was French. After studying at the Royal Academy of Music he started his career as a cellist with leading London orchestras, and was the soloist in an early performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto. He was also an acclaimed opera conductor who worked with the British National Opera and Covent Garden Companies. In 1933 he was appointed permanent conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra, and it was while holding this position that he received a cablegram from Arthur Judson, manager of the New York Philharmonic, inviting him to a ten week try out for the permanent conductor's position in succession to the legendary Toscanini.
Money was the main reason for Toscanini's departure from the Philharmonic, and his re-emergence in the same city with the reconstituted NBC Orchestra. The depression had hit America hard, and the New York Philharmonic had run up a quarter of a million dollar deficit in their 1935-36 season. They had been unable to reach an acceptable financial agreeement with Toscanini for 1936-37, so the search had started for an alternative. Stokowski was unwilling to make the time available, Fritz Busch had commitments in Denmark and London. Furtwängler was favoured, but made a politic withdrawal after his Nazi connections prompted major protests. Finding themselves between a rock and a hard place the board of the Philharmonic announced Barbirolli's probationary appointment in April 1936.
The programme for Barbirolli's first ever concert in New York on 5th November, 1936 was Berlioz, Bax (The Tale the Pines Knew - unknown in America), Mozart, and concluded with Brahms' Fourth Symphony. In his probationary season there were three works from American composers not previously performed by the Philharmonic, Charles Martin Loeffler's tonepoem Memories of my Childhood, a symphony by Anis Fuleihan, and Philip James' Bret Harte overture. He also performed Koussevitzky's Double Bass Concerto.
Barbirolli was an immediate success with both players and audience. Soon after an acclaimed Tchaikosky Fifth a deputation of players told the Philharmoic management that they would be happy for Barbirolli to be appointed to a permanent position. The outcome of this was an invitation to him to become Music Director and Permanent Conductor for three years starting with the 1937-38 season. In fact he spent a total of seven seasons in New York.
The early years were a honeymoon period. Barbirolli's main strength was in the romantic repertoire. In his first season he performed 183 works by seventy-five composers. Wagner was most frequent with sixty performances, Beethoven second with thirty-nine, followed by Brahms, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Weber and Mendelssohn. This programming did not please all his New York audiences, where for instance was crowd pleaser Tchaikovsky? Thus at this early stage were the small seeds of discontent sowed that were ultimately to cause his departure. But overall the early seasons were a triumph. The 1937-38 season was one of the most successful in the Philharmonic's history. Average attendances reached almost two and a half thousand, and critic Olin Downes, of whom we shall hear more later, wrote "Nearly every performance of the evening, good or bad, was applauded with practically equal fervour and tumult".
New music was a central feature of Barbirolli's New York programmes. During his first season he read through more than fifty new scores from American resident composer's. Subsequently he programmed works from Daniel Gregory Mason, Joseph Deems Taylor (excerpts from his comic opera Peter Ibbetson), Abram Chasins, Samuel Barber, Ernst Toch, Arkady Dubensky, Charles Wakefield Cadman, Quinto Maganini, Gardner Read, Charles Griffes and Quincy Porter. Among the works from American based composers that he premiered were Lucien Cailliet's fantasia and fugue on O Susanna, and Paul Creston's Threnody.
Barbirollis exploration of new music ranged wider than North America. His programmes also included Ibert's Chamber Concertino, Eugene Goosen's Concertina for double string orchestra, Bliss' Double Piano Concerto, and two important works from Britten, the Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem. But his championing of contemporary music again brought him into conflict with the all important subscribers. He was told by an associate manager of the orchestra that when first performances were announced many subscribers asked to swap their tickets for other concerts which did not feature contemporary works. The evangelical Barbirolli was shocked by this, and concluded that the subscribers were ... "prepared to damn a new work before hearing it... If a person hears such a work and doesn't like it he is entitled to his opinion. But just to stay away when one is programmed certainly does not help the Society or the conductor in their efforts to give new music a proper chance." But the approbium of subscribers was not reserved exclusively for contemporary works. An inspired performance by Sergei Rachmaninov, no less, as soloist in Beethoven's First Piano Concerto was followed by an audience walk-out after the first movement of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony.
Ultimately it was the combination of New York critics and audiences that were Barbirolli's undoing. By the 1939-40 season Arthur Judson was becoming concerned about subscription sales. The critics started to turn, and the glowing reviews from his early years with the orchestra turned into what contemporary writer David Ewen called 'a rain of critical denunciation'. This was led by Olin Downes writing for the New York Times and Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune. The quality and insight of this 'criticism' can be guaged by quoting a contemporary review by Virgil Thomson, not of a Barbirolli performance, but of the work being performed...."Elgar's Enigma Variations are an academic effort not at all lacking in musical charm. I call them academic because the composer's interet in the musical devices he was employing was greater than his effort towards a direct and forceful expression of anything in particular......Mr. Elgar's variations are mostly a pretext for orchestration, a pretty pretext and a graceful one, not without charm and a modicum of sincerity but a pretext for fancy work all the same, for that massively frivolous patchwork in pastel shades of which one sees such quantities in any intellectual British suburban dwelling".
John Barbirolli's last concert as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic was on 7th March 1943. In April he sailed for a war torn Britain via Lisbon, and the position of permanent conductor of the Hallé Orchestra where he excelled. New York's loss was Manchester's gain, and Barbirolli was to continue his association with the Hallé until his death in 1970 (when he had the last laugh on Virgil Thomson by instructing that Nimrod from the Enigma Variations should be played at his funeral). From 1960-67 he was conductor-in-chief at the Houston Symphony. It is appropriate that when he first returned to guest conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1959 his opening concert included Vaughan Williams' Eighth Symphony which he had premiered in Manchester just three years earlier. This symphony is dedicated by the composer 'For glorious John, with love and admiration from Ralph'.
The New York critics played a major part in Glorious John's premature departure from the city. So it is fitting to give the last words to Harold C. Schonberg: - 'Barbirolli . . illuminated for us, incandescently the meaning of the notes that great men put on paper'.
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Furtwangler and the forgotten new music
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