Sir Charles Mackerras

1925 2010

Sir Charles Mackerras



The Australian conductor Charles Mackerras was a legend among orchestras and opera houses throughout the 20th century. His adherence to the composers’ wishes and interest in historical performance practice inspired a new generation of period-instrument ensembles and historically informed performances.

Though Charles Mackerras was born in Schenectady, New York in the United States, he was a full-blooded Australian. When just an infant, Mackerras returned with his parents to Sydney, Australia, where he was raised. Mackerras was a talented multi-instrumentalist, studying oboe and piano in addition to composition at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. 

In 1943, at the age of 18, Mackerras was appointed principal oboist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1946. Following his position in Sydney, Mackerras emigrated to Britain in 1947, eventually earning a British Council scholarship that enabled him to study in Prague with the Czech conductor Václav Talich. Under Talich’s tutelage, Mackerras became enamoured with the Cech repertoire, especially the music of Janacek.

While studying Janacek’s original scores, Mackerras noticed something peculiar about the published editions, namely that many of them did not reflect Janacek’s true intentions. He decided, at this point, that it was his duty to perform Janecek’s operas, as the composer had intended, beginning on his historically informed career path.

Mackerras was appointed a staff conductor at the Sadler’s Wells Opera (renamed the English National Opera in 1974) in London, where he made his debut with Die Fledermaus. His breakthrough moment was his 1951 British premiere of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova.

The English Opera Group, which had been founded to perform Benjamin Britten’s works, featured Mackerras as one of their main conductors from 1956 on, though rumour has it that Mackerras offended Britten so severely that he was considered among the ranks of the Britten ‘corpses’. Despite this unpleasantness, Mackerras continued to perform Britten’s operas throughout his career.

Between 1954 and 1956, Mackerras led the BBC Concert Orchestra, serving as the principal conductor before making his Covent Garden debut in 1963 with Shostakovich’sKaterina Ismailova. Despite several attempts to become the conductor at Convent Garden, he never received the position, but was always welcomed with open arms as a guest conductor. Mackerras successfully displayed his flair for the works of Verdi and Puccini during he appearances.

Much controversy followed Mackerras’ 1965 production of Le Nozze di Figaro at Sadler Wells, as he attempted a performance of the work as it would most likely have been performed in Mozart’s day. This was quite a new idea, before period-instruments were popular. Soon after, however, the idea caught on on a large scale.

Mackerras was appointed chief conductor of the Hamburg State Opera in 1966, remaining until 1969. He also had the opportunity to conduct with the Bavarian and Vienna State Operas. He returned to London in 1970 to serve as the music director of the Sadler’s Well Opera, which had moved to the London Coliseum. He held this post until 1977, continuing after the company changed its name to the English National Opera. Not only was Mackerras responsible for the expansion of the company’s repertoire, but he also insisted on having much control on the style and content of the productions. During this period, he collaborated with many virtuoso singing sensations, including Janet Baker. A number of these recordings were recorded, including Handel’sJulius Caesar, Massenet’s Werther and Donizetti’s Mary Stuart.

Mackarras moved on to the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1977, where he held the position of principal guest conductor until 1979. He then conducted on a freelance basis with any prestigious opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera. His next position was as music director with the Welsh National Opera from 1987 until 1992. One of his most important performances with the WNO was of Lucia di Lammermoor, in a version based on the facsimile of the autograph score. The success of this performance led to a second performance in 2000 with the Metropolitan Opera.

Mackerras was appointed principal guest conductor of the San Francisco Opera from 1990. That same year, he made his debut in Glyndebourne with Falstaff. Another special performance was the winter 1991 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanniat the Tyl theatre in Prague, where it was first performed in 1987.

Between 1997 and 2003, Mackerras served as principal guest conductor of the Prague Philharmonic, with which he performed at the Edinburgh festival in 2000 and recorded Janacek’s rarely performed first opera,Sarka. They also recorded Dvorak’s Rusalka in 1998, winning many awards.

Other notable recordings from his career include three Mozart Operas with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from the 1990s. With this orchestra, he also was able to explore the orchestral works of Brahms, albeit with a smaller string section than intended. In 2002, Mackerras was appointed to the poisiton of principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, followed closely after by the Berlin Philharmonic.

Mackerras was an avid researcher and one of the initiators of the period-instrument revival. Whether working with an orchestra such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra or the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment, Mackerras applied his vast historic knowledge. His perfectionism and desire to carry out each composer’s wish was clear in all of his performances and is still easily heard in the recordings left behind. In addition to his mastery of the Czech composers and early composers, Mackerras was confident leading orchestras with works by late-Romantics such as Mahler and Strauss, along with the Great French composers Massenet and Bizet. Likewise, he succeeded in his interpretation of the music of Gluck, Verdi, Wagner and even the light-hearted Gilbert and Sullivan. There was essentially no music that Mackerras couldn’t master.

Recordings for which he is particularly known are his two of Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C major, Mahler’s Symphony no. 5, Handel’sMusic for the Royal Fireworks, Gilbert and Sullivan works d the complete Beethoven symphonies and a number of discs of Mozart’s symphonies. He also recorded a number of Dvorak’s works with the Philharmonia.

Mackerras received many awards and honours throughout his career, including the Royal Philharmonic Society’s gold medal (2005), the first Queen’s medal for music and being named the honourary president of the Edinburgh International Festival Society in 2008.