He achieved beyond the dreams of great conductors

He achieved beyond the dreams of great conductors


norman lebrecht

July 15, 2010

Sir Charles Mackerras, who has died aged 84, was a nice man and near-neighbour. We would exchange a sunny wave and an occasional chat on morning walks along Hamilton Terrace.

Never an assertive personality, Charlie was often underrated by orchestral musicians and had a wretched time as chief conductor of English National Opera in the 1970s. But the musical results spoke for themselves.

His achievements, in my view, are twofold. He was the first, after Neville Marriner, to seek fusion between period-instrument practice and modern orchestras, achieving wonderfully transparent Mozart and Beethoven performances, especially with his last ensemble, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He had been due to work with them this summer at the Edinburgh Festival (he was also down to conduct a Viennese Night at the BBC Proms the week after next and, never a narrow mind, he was irrationally fond of Gilbert and Sullivan.)

His greatest breathrough, though, was to introduce Janacek to the English-speaking world. A fluent Czech-speaker after studies in Prague with Vaclav Talich in 1947, he joined the Sadlers Wells Opera in London and, in 1951, conducted the first Katya Kabanova outside continental Europe. It paved the way for Rafael Kubelik to conduct Jenufa at Covent Garden and for Mackerras himself to record the complete Janacek operas with a stellar cast on Decca.

It took Katya another 40 years to reach the Met but by then most of Janacek was being staged the world over and Charlie’s contribution was near-forgotten. It could be said that he did more for Janacek than anyone other than Max Brod, his original German translator.

To bring a great composer back to life is more than most conductors can ever hope to do. Charles Mackerras did that, and we should be eternally grateful for his courage and persistence. He will be eulogised as Australia’s greatest conductor (which he was) but the greatness of Mackerras was the ease with which he overcame the barriers between nations, languages and periods in the history of  music. He was truly a citizen of the world.


Charles Mackerras, born Shenectady, New York, 17 November 1925; died London, 14 July 2010


  • Derek Warby says:

    He was also a tremendous scholar, paring-back centuries of corrupt performance ‘tradition’ to reveal the composer’s original intentions. This was never more apparent than the one time I was fortunate to work with him – on a Sony recording and Edinburgh Festival performance of Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lamermoor’ in 1997. Gone were all the transposed, over-ornamented show-off arias and back were Donizetti’s original text. Wonderful!

  • Michael Kaye says:

    It is sad to mark the passing of Sir Charles Mackerras. Several years ago he invited me to lunch at the apartment he and Lady Mackerras had rented for their stay in New York. The purpose of the meeting was also to go through the manuscripts of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. Sir Charles was fascinated to see so many of the details and sweeping changes in the dramaturgy. When we came to the point where Dapertutto sings his aria in the Giulietta act and it was absolutely philologically clear to him that Offenbach had composed “Tourne Tourne mirror” as Dapertutto’s chanson (a fact Ernest Guiraud also respected in his redactions of the opera) and that “Scintille diamant” was added much later by Raoul Gunsbourg and his team in Monte Carlo, Sir Charles turned to me and asked: “why can’t we have both arias still sung by Dapertutto (not giving “Tourne tourne” to Coppélius)?” At first I was shocked that the person who had done so much for the authenticity of Janaceck and other composers would even pose such a question in the first place. However, in view of that, and Sir Charles’ long experience in the theater, I took it as an unspoken challenge to find a solution that would not be redundant and enable “Scintille diamant” to be sung (if desired) in a different context as a bonus interpolation. So in the event you experience a production of HOFFMANN, in which that is done, it was inspired as a possibility courtesy of Sir Charles.

  • Yi-Peng Li says:

    This is rather sad and sudden news, coming as it does in the middle of a rather difficult month for classical music lovers. Mackerras was one of the underrated “greats” on the conducting podium. He could give us many legendary performances but somehow or other his music-making was, to put it mildly, lost in the sea of admiration for Karajan and Bernstein. Mackerras shone in Beethoven, Janacek, Dvorak and even the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.