SCD remembers Old Dane Sir John Barbirolli on 50th Anniversary of his death

Many thanks to our school archivist Mrs Fiona Hirst, who provides some very interesting research about Old Dane Sir John Barbirolli on the 50th anniversary of his death. Please also follow here to find out more about the Barbirolli Society.


Knight Bachelor, Companion of Honour, Commendatore of the Italian Republic, Bearer of the Star and Collar of Commander First Class of the White Rose of Finland, Honorary Academician of the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Officier de l’ordre du Merite to name but a few of his international honours.

The school has many former students who have distinguished themselves in a wide range of fields but probably our most famous Old Dane is Sir John Barbirolli, world-renowned cellist and conductor. He passed away 50 years ago this month so it is fitting that we remember him in school assembly in the hall that bears his name. His career in music is well- documented and so this article focuses on his schooldays at St Clement Danes and his lifelong connection with the school.

Giovanni Battista Barbirolli was born on 2 December 1899 in Holborn, second child and first son of an Italian father and French mother. His father and grandfather were both musicians, making their livings in London by teaching and performing in local theatres and restaurants. His parents harboured early ambitions for him to become a doctor but the music tradition prevailed and he took up the violin when he was 6 or 7 under his grandfather’s tuition. However, he found it difficult to sit still whilst practising, and his habit of wandering around the house so annoyed his grandfather that he replaced the violin with a cello as a way of forcing him to stay seated!

He joined the school in September 1907 at the age of 8 and left in the summer of 1914.  During that period, he was only officially on the role for 7 terms as he was also pursuing a musical career with scholarships at Trinity College of Music and later the Royal Academy.  

The school he joined in Houghton Street, close to St Clement Danes church, was in trouble in 1907 and faced an uncertain future. Slum clearances of 1905 had greatly reduced the school age population and there were other good schools in the area so it faced the threat of closure.  Young Barbirolli’s arrival happily coincided with that of new Headmaster Mr Fuller who set about reviving the fortunes of the school. He would have seen the introduction of the House system – he was in Dane House - and the prefect system. Science, swimming, boxing and chess clubs were set up, a debating society introduced and a school library established. School sports blossomed – the young Barbirolli enjoyed cricket but was never picked to play for the school – and, most importantly for him, music was encouraged.  

From the start he enjoyed mentions in the school magazine firstly as Form 1 1st prize-winner at Speech Day of December 1908. From then on, his musical talents came to the fore.  In December 1911 he played a cello solo at Speech Day. In July 1912 he received a great ovation for his performance of Saint Saens’ concerto for cello and orchestra at Queens Hall in the Trinity College of Music Pupils’ concert. In December 1912, the Dane announced that “Barbirolli, who is one of the most promising young musicians we have ever had in the school has made a stride forward in the musical world by winning a cello scholarship at the Royal Academy”. In 1913 he was noted for two solos at speech day and performed in the Jubilee concert. He won the academy bronze medal in that year. In December 1913 it was noted that “Barbirolli is now devoting all his time to music and his work at the Royal Academy “.

By contrast, Sir John’s achievements at school outside music were not notable. Apparently, his reports showed him usually at or near the bottom of the form and he once got a 4 for conduct/effort when 3 was considered unacceptable!  Because of his irregular attendance he did not sit any end of year exams.

Once he had left, the school proudly kept close track of his achievements in the pages of the Dane through reports on the latest turns in his career and by publishing letters and articles from the man himself on his school memories and the art of conducting.

In June 1942 the Dane reported that “John Barbirolli, the famous conductor, returned to England from America. He is giving his services for a number of concerts with the London Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras in London and the provinces. He has been re-engaged as one of the conductors of the New York Philharmonic orchestra which will resume its centenary celebrations in the autumn. This will be his seventh consecutive season with the New York organisation”. 

His eminence is further summed up in July 1947: “John Barbirolli is to be a guest conductor at the Salzburg Festival which is being revived this year. The orchestral concerts will be given by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. John Barbirolli and the Halle orchestra appeared at the Albert Hall on May 28th and have been engaged to appear at the Edinburgh Festival in September”.  

Sir John had fond memories of his school days as he revealed when he returned to present the prizes at Speech Day in 1954. He well remembered the master who flew into rages when teaching the more delicate parts of the Scriptures; being banished from the choir after just one trial and having to return to his lessons much to his annoyance; the master who apparently wore the same green tie and tiepin every day for 7 years; the kindness of history master Mr Francis, himself an award-winning playwright, who helped the young musician overcome a speech impediment; and the interminable and incomprehensible sums set by Mr Lee. Mr Robson who taught history apparently had a problem with keeping order and when agitated had a habit of biting on his fountain pen. Sir John clearly remembered him biting right through the pen on one occasion liberating red ink all over his beard. And finally, the master who was rather too fond of spending his lunch break in the local hostelries. He returned one afternoon, the victim of schoolboy pranks, to see a school cap moving over the floor by itself – he was relieved to find a tortoise underneath!

Through the Dane magazine we can catch glimpses of Sir John’s character:

Modesty about his musical achievements – when asked to write an article about his schooldays he said “firstly I can have little to relate which would be of interest to the average sport-loving schoolboy and secondly, with the good fortune I have enjoyed since leaving school a recital of my doings since then would have a strong flavour of self-adulation”

Musical superstitions – an old Italian saying held that it was unlucky to start anything on a Friday. His grandmother was horrified to learn that rehearsals for his debut as an operatic conductor were to start on a Friday. Sharing the superstition, he decided that it could not happen and despite the enormous difficulties of getting all of the cast and musicians together he said that “I had to invent the most formidable untruths to convince the directors of my inability to be present at this rehearsal”.

Generosity – Sir John kept in contact with the Clerk to the Governors, Robert Lewis, and responded warmly to his request that he might meet some young aspiring musicians backstage during the interval at one of his Albert Hall concerts. He often gave his services free at concerts to help raise money for good causes.

Sir John died of a heart attack in July 1970. On 26th March 1971 the school musicians and a girls’ choir from the Hammersmith County School staged a tribute concert in his honour in St Clement Danes Church. Lady Barbirolli attended and the principal guest was Lord Goodman of the Arts Council. The music was carefully chosen to include cello and organ solos and Old Danes were invited back to perform. The concert raised £100 for the Sir John Barbirolli Memorial Appeal, a sum praised as “most generous” by his widow in a letter to the school.

Work started on building the Barbirolli Hall in 1987. At that time there was only a sports hall which was also used for assemblies and functions but was inadequate for music or drama productions.  After a lengthy construction process and enormous fund-raising effort it was ready for use in 1990 and opened officially on 7 October 1991 by Sir John’s widow, Lady Evelyn Barbirolli. The New Dane published a poem by Tristan Jones to mark the occasion:

Our Assembly Hall is built at last

It is so big it seems so vast

With so many rooms we find inside

It makes us just swell out with pride

The seats fold away so small and neat

There’s no other hall which can compete

The builders work is over and done

But our hard work has just begun

In this new hall we’ll meet each day

Sometimes to talk, sometimes to pray

We’ll say hello to those just starting

We’ll say goodbye to those departing

So, thank you parents, friends and all

For your support in our new hall.

It is intriguing to think that Sir John may have visited Chorleywood on many occasions.  Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Proms concerts, lived here from 1911 to 1939 and entertained the great and good of the musical world at his home every summer.

I shall leave the last word to Sir John himself. Whilst thanking his audience after a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 he said “I am pleased to think that my poor talents have done something to enrich British music.”




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