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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

A Musician's Musician: A Tribute to Sir Charles Mackerras

The following article is based on a Keys To Music program which originally went to air in 2010 in response to the death of Sir Charles Mackerras in July of that year. A revised version of this tribute went to air in 2015. At the time of writing, my primary source was the 1987 Nancy Phelan biography mentioned below. In 2015 a new biography by Nigel Simeone and John Tyrrell appeared, with the narrative enhanced by personal reminiscences of many musicians who worked with Mackerras, but I did not have access to this book at the time of making the revised version of this script. I have since read it and can recommend it without reservation.

One of the most interesting things I experienced on both occasions this program went to air was the negative response I received from a number of Australian musicians who - and I don't think this is too harsh a word - hated Mackerras. As the title implies, this program/article is a tribute to the conductor's achievements, which are many and incredibly varied. But it is true that many musicians (not only in Australia) found Mackerras abrupt, unsubtle and impatient. So be it. The single occasion on which we met I found him polite and business-like. But regardless of the ways in which he may have rubbed some people up the wrong way, the dogged determination and scholarly obsession he displayed with the regard to the four composers I focus on here cannot be denied.


In July 2010 the musical world, especially in Australia and Britain, was saddened by the death of the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras at the age of 84. He was a figure whose name was synonymous with wonderful music making for so long, and the breadth and depth of that music making is astonishing to recall. For us in Australia, we had always felt some parochial pride with the fact that he was Australian, and even though he lived most of his life overseas, his visits back here reminded us of how special he was.

This article will not attempt to tell Sir Charles's life story. That would be impossible, as his life was so full, so busy, so varied, and so unique. The 1987 biography written by his cousin, Nancy Phelan, tells the story of his first 60 years wonderfully and its title has been appropriated for this tribute. Sir Charles Mackerras was indeed a "musician's musician".

The great mezzo Dame Janet Baker, who worked with Mackerras countless times, put it this way: our profession, you have "musicians' musicians" and you have the "stars" for the public at large...the ultimate, for a musician, is to be appreciated by one's own kind. Charlie is. In my opinion, he is one of the very best.

I want to share here some of Sir Charles Mackerras's recorded legacy, focusing in particular on the four composers with whom his name is most commonly connected. To simply mention these four composers is to give an indication of the breadth of his interests: Handel, Mozart, Sullivan and Janáček. I mean who else would feel totally at home conducting Julius Caesar, Cosí fan tutte, The Mikado and From the House of the Dead? That gives you an idea of how special he was.

Mackerras said that he was very lucky that his career coincided with the rise to the mainstream of the period instrument movement. The efforts of performers to bring alive early music in a historically appropriate manner really took off in the 50s and 60s when Mackerras was making his name and Handel was a big part of Mackerras's life.

Denner: George Frideric Handel (c. 1727)

The most famous example of this occurred early in his career. 1959 was a "Handel year", the 200th anniversary of the composer's death. To mark the occasion, Mackerras conducted a recording of the Music for the Royal Fireworks which was unlike any other. This famous work was best known in those days in Hamilton Harty's arrangement for modern orchestra; Handel's own concert version for winds, brass and strings was less-often played. But Mackerras went one better. He recreated, as best he could, the ensemble which Handel used at the outdoor premiere in 1749: a massive wind and brass orchestra of 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, contrabassoon, serpent, 9 horns, 9 trumpets and multiple percussion. In order to do this, the recording session had to be held in the middle of the night, the only time 24 professional oboists and all the rest could be assembled in one place in London in 1959.

Performers showed up in tails or pit wear, having left performances, to come to the church in North London for the session which went from 11 pm till 2 am. It was a staggering achievement for which Mackerras had edited the parts to conform to his views on Baroque performance practice. Even more appropriate was the fact that the early morning on which they finished was 14 April, the actual anniversary of Handel's death. [listen]

Mackerras performed and recorded many Handel works throughout his career. He made a point of making the music accessible to mainstream, modern instrument orchestras but contrary to popular opinion, he was not shunned by the period instrument ensembles. Late in his life he had a close connection with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and like all thinking musicians, his views on performance practice developed and sometimes changed over his career.

One of his most notable achievements was the English-language production of Julius Caesar which he mounted at the English National Opera (ENO). Adored by the public and pooh-poohed by some of the critics, it featured Janet Baker in the title role and sought to make Handel's massive work accessible for an audience who might have only known Messiah. It was filmed and recorded in 1984 and it contains some stunning moments with a cast which included some of the finest British singers of any era: Sarah Walker, Della Jones, Valerie Masterson, James Bowman and John Tomlinson. You can watch the entire television staging here.

Janet Baker

Focusing on Sir Charles Mackerras's reputation in Handel, Mozart, Sullivan and Janáček is appropriate but also perhaps unfair, as his expertise went far wider. He was in his day regarded as one of the finest Verdi conductors in the world, and his opera performances of composers as diverse as Gluck, Puccini and Richard Strauss were all highly praised. It's also forgotten that his first opera for the Royal Opera Covent Garden was Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova, and that while he was music director at the ENO frequently conducted at Covent Garden as a guest. His performances of Britten's operas were legendary, and he conducted three complete Ring cycles at the ENO in 1976. He was a regular guest at the Met in New York and was also first conductor at the Hamburg State Opera in the late 60s. His opera experience and repertoire were simply immense.

But perhaps he created the biggest stir with his Mozart. Mackerras was one of those rare conductors who put principle above tradition. If the evidence was there that the music should be done a certain way, then he'd aim to do it that way, even if it flew in the face of long-established opinions and practices. In this manner of working he was tireless, fearless and - to some people - immensely stubborn. His research indicated things we now take for granted about Mozart opera performances, namely that musical lines were often ornamented and altered with notes known as appoggiaturas. Appoggiaturas have always been understood to be required in recitative; Mackerras believed they were also required in arias and ensembles. Today this is generally understood but when Mackerras performed The Marriage of Figaro with ornamentation and added appoggiaturas at Sadler's Wells in 1965 it created a sensation with enormous approval and disapproval freely expressed.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (c. 1777)

His 1994 recording of Figaro for Telarc shows that three decades had not dimmed his views, and in fact, the majority of the musical world now believes he was right. [listen]

There was much comment when Mackerras was passed over not once but twice for the post of Music Director at the Royal Opera. His reputation for being a plain speaking, no nonsense kind of man put him at odds with many throughout his career. He called a spade a spade, and while many regarded him as British, his Australian-ness was sometimes thought to have worked against him. Still, his posts as Music Director at the Welsh National Opera in the 80s and 90s and at San Francisco Opera after that gave him many opportunities to direct important houses, quite apart from his guest conducting all over the world.

Mackerras's mastery in the opera house shouldn't make us forget he was just as respected in the concert hall, and in concert repertoire was as at home with orchestral music as he was with oratorio. He had the reputation for being able to learn a score at almost no notice and became the first conductor to be called on when someone else was indisposed. The various articles I read for this tribute suggest two different origins of his nickname in the business: "Chuck 'em up Charlie". Some writers claim that his willingness to accept almost any engagement is how this started: chuck 'em up and he'll catch it, if you will. But another article claims that the nickname came from his opera conducting. If singers needed cues he'd always be there for them, throwing cues up from the pit to the stage and making singers feel totally secure.

Mackerras's enormous recorded legacy includes two sets of Mozart symphonies, one of the complete symphonies with the Prague Chamber Orchestra recorded in the 80s, and a series of the later symphonies made shortly before his death with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. When he needed to, Mackerras could make Mozart roar with energy, as the finale of the "Haffner" symphony from the Prague set demonstrates. [listen]

To many lovers of Classical music, the work of Sir Arthur Sullivan seems beyond the pale. It was typical of Sir Charles Mackerras that he should snub convention and see real musical worth in this oft-maligned master of the British operetta. In fact Mackerras came to prominence in 1951 with his ballet Pineapple Poll, which is based on the music of Sullivan. [listen] But quite apart from that, Sullivan's music - and not just the operettas - was a regular part of Mackerras's amazing repertoire mix.

Millais: Arthur Sullivan (1888)

He brought to Sullivan the same respect and clarity which is evident in his Mozart, his Handel and in everything else he did. And just as much of Mackerras's approach to both Handel and Mozart consisted of clearing away the cobwebs and looking at the music afresh and on its own terms, so he did with Sullivan. His G+S recordings took up the mantle of Sir Malcolm Sargent. Like Sargent, Mackerras used first-rate opera singers to perform the operettas, and many - not just die-hard G+S fans - saw these pieces in a new light and with a new appreciation. This is from his Mikado recording made with the Welsh National Opera in 1991. Listen to Felicity Palmer as Katisha - inspired casting! - at 25'43 in this recording of Act Two. [listen]

One vital component of Sir Charles Mackerras's creative life I've not mentioned until now was his connection with Czech music. In this, perhaps, was the most surprising element of his stellar career. As a young man, Mackerras went to Prague to study conducting with Václav Talich and it was there that he discovered Czech music in general, and the music of Leoš Janáček in particular. Nowadays, when the operas of Janáček are part of the accepted canon of great operas all over the world, it's easy to forget that were it not for Mackerras this almost certainly would not be so. His enthusiasm for the raw power and reality of Janáček's operas - and his instrumental music, too - led to the first British performances of these pieces when Janáček was virtually unknown outside Czechoslovakia (as it was then called).

Leoš Janáček (1926)

Mackerras's role in making this happen did not go unnoticed in Janáček's homeland; one of his many awards was the Czech Republic's Medal of Merit in 1996. He spoke Czech well and frequently performed in the Czech Republic throughout his life. He made possible the first authoritative editions of many of Janáček's works, not an easy task given the almost illegible state of the composer's manuscripts. His recordings of the Janáček operas - with the Vienna Philharmonic no less - are still the benchmark versions, and his ability to work with the Decca technicians in English, the orchestra in German and the singers in Czech during the sessions made a lasting impression on those present, in particular the orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic had never heard of him before they made the first of these recordings and assumed initially that he was English. When they discovered he was Australian they were shocked even more.

This is part of the recording of Janáček's Káťa Kabanová made in 1978 with Elisabeth Söderström in the title role. [listen]

In 1994 Mackerras recorded the startling original version of Janáček's Glagolitic Mass in Copenhagen. The discovery that Janáček had had to water-down the work before publication because of its technical difficulties led to a complete reappraisal of the piece, and Mackerras, having already recorded the traditional version [listen], naturally championed the original version once this was discovered. [listen]

Sir Charles Mackerras's discography in the 1987 biography I mentioned earlier runs to fifteen pages, listing recordings made between 1951 and 1986. (The more recent biography by Simeone and Tyrrell has a complete list.) We are so much the richer for having his refreshing interpretations still available to us. Apart from large quantities of Handel, Mozart, Sullivan and Janáček, his legacy includes Beethoven and Brahms symphony cycles, Mahler symphonies, a lot of music by other Czech composers like Suk, Dvořák and Martinů, a great deal of English music (Delius was a speciality), and inspired readings of Berlioz, Haydn, Richard Strauss, Russian composers...and on it goes.

I was fortunate enough to have seen Sir Charles conduct on a few occasions. I recall a concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the mid 80s (when he was the orchestra's chief conductor) which included the Haydn Mass in Time of War and the Walton violin concerto with a young Nigel Kennedy as soloist. (Amazingly, the SSO has the audio of the Walton performance available to hear on YouTube, here.)

Also in the 80s I saw him do one half of Berlioz's The Trojans in concert as well (it was done over two nights but I could only get to one). My memory of his conducting is that it was totally free of artifice. He was clear, effective, efficient and devoid of any posturing for effect. His musical results were compelling and at times confronting; but there was no doubt as to his meaning, ever.

We'll finish this tribute to Sir Charles Mackerras with part of a recording made in London in 1987. In his career Sir Charles recorded the Schubert "Great" C major symphony at least three times. One was with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1998, another is a recording of a live performance with the Philharmonia in 2006. The 1987 recording was with the period instrument orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. If anyone helped us become enlightened about performance practice - from Handel to Janáček - then it was Sir Charles. [listen]

I'll end with words from Keith McDonnell's obituary for the great man on the MusicOMH website:

Words cannot really do justice to the incredible life of Sir Charles Mackerras, but suffice it to say that the world of classical music has lost one of its leading lights and it's hard, if not impossible, to imagine musical life in London without him. And for once this maxim is true - we really will not see his like again.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2010.

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