- Charles Mackerras ed. by Nigel Simeone, John Tyrrell
Celebrated Australian conductor Charles Mackerras (1925–2010) was known through out his long career for his probing musicianship and insightful performances of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giacomo Puccini, Arthur Sullivan, and Giuseppe Verdi. But it was his discovery and promotion of the works of Leoš Janáček and other Czech composers that helped to mark his legacy as one of the most important conductors of the twentieth century.
A musical polymath, Mackerras began his career as a professional oboist, but early on turned his attention to opera and conducting. In 1947, he was awarded a scholarship to study conducting in Prague with Vácklav Talich, which provided his first exposure to the music of Janáček. Mackerras and his wife Judy returned to England after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, and soon thereafter he was appointed to a post with the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company (which would become English National Opera). He eventually rose to the position of Music Director at Sadler’s Wells and was later associated with the Welsh National Opera, all the while expanding his international reputation as a conductor.
The collection titled Charles Mackerras, lovingly edited by Nigel Simeone and John Tyrrell, presents Mackerras’s life and legacy through a carefully selected collection of essays and tributes by many who worked with him. As the editors state in their preface, the volume “is neither a conventional biography, nor is it a symposium, but it aims to combine elements of both” (p. xi). Mackerras’s widow Judy, who provided the editors with access to the extensive family archives, encouraged the publication. In their collection, the editors aim to enhance coverage of the last part of the conductor’s life, but they also take note, and make appropriate reference to, the only other major book on the conductor, Nancy Phelan’s Charles Mackerras: A Musician’s Musician (London: Victor Gollancz, 1987), which was published more than a quarter-century prior to his death.
While a “symposium” (or Festschrift) type of approach allows a number of different figures to discuss an individual’s legacy, it also presents a disadvantage to readers who might prefer a single narrative discussion of the musician’s life and works. In this volume, the main chapters on Mackerras’s career by Nigel Simeone (“An Immense Stylist Evolves: 1947–87”; “The Musical Values of Opera: WNO, 1987–92”; “Triumphs and Tribulations: Opera, 1993– 2001”; “Rethinking Old Favorites: Opera, 2002–10”) are interspersed with tributes and commentaries by others, including David Lloyd Jones (“A Personal Portrait of Charles Mackerras”) and Patrick Summers (“The Lion: Charles Mackerras”).
Of particular note in Simeone’s chapter, “An Immense Stylist Evolves,” is the section on Mackerras’s interest in historically-informed performance practice (“Mozart and Handel: Figaro and Fireworks,” [pp. 16–27], which includes copies of the conductor’s annotated scores. In the 1950s, Mackerras was an early adopter of eighteenth-century vocal ornamentation (notably appoggiaturas), a practice that was not widely accepted at that time. This chapter includes excerpts from Mackerras’s own writings about his musicological research and implications for performance practice, along with reviews, both positive and less than positive, about the resulting performances.
In his own “Personal Portrait of Charles Mackerras,” David Lloyd Jones recounts the response to Mackerras’s performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with the Hamburg State Opera in 1965. When Mackerras complained that there was “not one damn appoggiatura the whole evening,” the reply was, “Herr Mackerras . . . I should warn you that in North Germany we do not make appoggiaturas,” to which Mackerras responded, [End Page 716] “That’s nothing to be proud of . . . you might as well say that in North Germany you sing out of tune” (p. 41).
One of the key sections interspersed with Simeone’s chronological perspectives on Mackerras’s career is John Tyrrell’s chapter on “Mackerras and Janáček...