John Barbirolli

British conductor and cellist (1899-1970)

Sir John Barbirolli CH, (born London, 2 December, 1899 ; died London 29 July 1970), was a English conductor and cellist. Barbirolli was particularly remembered as the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, Manchester, which he conducted for nearly thirty years, turning it into a world famous orchestra. He was conductor of other great orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Houston Symphony, and also conducted orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Vienna Philharmonic. He often played the music of English composers such as Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Early years


Barbirolli was born into a musical family. His father and grandfather had come from Italy and moved to London. His mother was French. His father and uncle were violinists.

Barbirolli won a scholarship to study at Trinity College of Music, and later studied at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1916 he joined the Queen’s Hall Orchestra where he was the youngest member. The next year he gave his first solo recital. He spent two years in the army where he got conducting experience with a voluntary orchestra. In 1919 he was again playing in orchestras and twice appeared as soloist with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra.

Between 1929 and 1933 he conducted opera at Covent Garden. From 1933 to 1936 he conducted the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow.

In 1927 he took over a concert that Thomas Beecham would have conducted with the London Symphony Orchestra. He conducted other English orchestras including the Hallé Orchestra and was becoming very well known. He could learn music very quickly. In the 1930s he made many recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic, accompanying concertos with famous soloists such as Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein.

International career


In 1937 Barbirolli was invited to take over from Arturo Toscanini as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. To follow such a great conductor was a very great honour. He conducted there for five years with great success, although there were some critics who supported Toscanini and were always criticizing Barbirolli. It was a difficult time for him as a new orchestra had just been formed in New York, the NBC Symphony Orchestra which was conducted by Toscanini and they paid their musicians more money. When he was invited, in 1942, to stay on with the New York Philharmonic he decided not to, partly because he would have to become a US citizen.

Hallé Orchestra


The Hallé Orchestra, based in Manchester, England, had been famous under the conductor Hamilton Harty. However, in recent years they had been sharing half their players with the BBC. This had saved the orchestra in the difficult years when the economy was bad and during the early war years, but the orchestra was not as good as it had been. Barbirolli was invited to become the conductor of the orchestra, so he moved back to England in 1943.

The first thing he had to do was to rebuild the orchestra. It had not had a permanent conductor since 1933 when Hamilton Harty left. Only four of the shared players with the BBC chose to join the Hallé in Manchester, so Barbirolli auditioned many musicians. The “new Hallé” made several recordings including symphonies by Arnold Bax and Vaughan Williams.

Barbirolli conducted the orchestra for 25 years. In 1958 he became “conductor-in-chief”, so that he could share the work with others. In 1968 he was given the title “conductor laureate” for the rest of his life.

As well as his work with the Hallé he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and other London orchestras, and made many recordings. From 1961 to 1967 he was also principal conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in Texas. He was also made guest conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

During his last years he had serious health problems His last two concerts were held in the St Nicholas Chapel, King's Lynn, as part of its 1970 Festival. Although he collapsed during the Friday afternoon, he managed to conduct Elgar's Symphony No 1 and Sea Pictures. The last piece he conducted was Beethoven's Symphony No 7 on the Saturday before his death.

His reputation


Barbirolli is remembered for his great interpretations of Romantic music and of early 20th century English music. He was not interested in very modern music although he did conduct Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem in New York. He is remembered for his performances of Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Mahler, as well as Franz Schubert, Beethoven, Jean Sibelius, Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini. Vaughan Williams gave him the nickname “Glorious John”. He was a great supporter and friend of the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

He was knighted in 1949 and made a Companion of Honour in 1969.



His first marriage was to singer Marjorie Parry. His second marriage from 1939 to his death was to the British oboist Evelyn Rothwell who died at the age of 97 in January 2008.


  • Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited Stanley Sadie, 1980; ISBN 1-56159-174-2