A romantic pact no doubt as Sir Edward was certainly ailing with almost total blindness and, cruelly for a great musician, increasing deafness but it was his wife who was terminally ill with cancer and he probably decided that this was the moment for him to end his life too.
I never met him but I have to admit to a surge of feeling, some anxiety and a lot of admiration for this gesture of taking that leap with the woman that he loved.
Foolishness maybe, a decision taken at a time of emotional inbalance, perhaps, but a grand romantic gesture all the same.
I know nothing about Joan Downes except that she was a beautiful woman, a former ballet dancer but I can imagine their mutual passion having listened to her husband’s performances of the operas of Verdi and, Prokofiev and Mussorgsky, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in particular, in awe and with admiration.
For me it was live performances of Verdi’s Don Carlos and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov that will always stay in my memory…big works with big gestures and high emotions over a base of intense dramatic intelligence.
He is, maybe, not the most famous of a generation of conductors but he was surely one of the great Italian opera conductors. He could insert extraordinary passion but also weight into Verdi’s already passionate music in a way which was always surprizing coming from someone so ostensibly reserved and, dare I say it, English.
In my experience too, when I lived in Manchester, I was often told that during his years as conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, he was a quietly tenacious champion for the works of young composers – often reading unsolicited scores and bringing new music to the concert hall. He was a leading exponent of English music both old and new who could bring out that same passion in Elgar that we heard in his Italian opera performances. England is not nearly as placid and reserved a country as our neighbours assume and Edward Downes was someone who could tap that fiery and emotional undercurrent.
So that moving final leap was, after listening to his music, no great surprize. An operatic finale, romantic, dignified and, ultimately, an expression of love between two people which demonstrates that age brings no diminution to love.
Here is a clip of Edward Downes conducting the finale to Act one of Verdi’s mostly neglected opera Stifellio. The opera is about adultery, hypocrisy and passion of course and here all hell is let loose with Downes igniting the furnace with fiery English fury.