Sir Charles Mackerras
1925 - 14th July 2010
This article was written on the death of Sir Charles Mackerras in
July 2010 and first published in The White Hat Melbourne Newsletter
Over half a century ago at a festival for avant garde music the audience
was particularly struck by a youthful piece that was pushing the boundaries
and waited for the composer to come on stage to receive his acknowledgement.
Last year, White Hat was listening to the radio and heard a particularly
youthful and aggressive performance of a Mozart symphony. We waited for the
back-announcement as to who this particularly brave young conductor was.
The conductor was the Australian Sir Charles Mackerras who had recorded
this performance full of youthful verve and drive at the age of 83. More
than half a century earlier, the audience at the ISCM Festival waiting for
the revolutionary wunderkind composer to appear on stage was greeted with
the sight of the white haired and elderly
The Australian Charles Mackerras was to become one of the revered
conductors of the works of Janáček,
Handel and many
Sir Charles died yesterday at the age of 85 virtually with his boots on –
or at least with baton in hand.
His life could probably be summarised by a few simple principles. Know
your craft and keep working on it, take your opportunities and run with
them, start young and keep going right to the end.
As a student in Sydney he played the piano and the flute. He learned that
there were scholarships at the Conservatorium for oboists, so he swapped the
flute for the oboe. By the age of 16 he was playing in pick-up theatre
orchestras and on the radio with the Colgate-Palmolive band which backed
Jack Davey. He played in a jazz band that rose out of the floor at the State
Theatre. You took your opportunities and did not treat any of them lightly.
Bands such as these rarely had the complement of instruments originally
called for, so he became an orchestrator. By the time he was 18 he had
written a full ballet and summoned up the courage to approach the visiting
conductor Eugene Ormandy to look over it. Ormandy was impressed and during
rehearsal played the final movement – a masterly fugue based on Waltzing
After a stint as principal oboe with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the
young Charles headed off to London, started at the bottom again but was
happy enough playing second oboe in Gilbert & Sullivan productions. One day,
while sitting in a coffee shop and studying the score of a Dvořák symphony
which he had just purchased, a stranger pointed out that there might be the
chance of a conducting scholarship if he went and studied in Prague. Take
your opportunities. Off he went and later became one of the most respected
conductors of Czech music in the world and particularly that by Janáček
mentioned earlier. Ask most people from the Czech region today about an
Australian musician and they are likely to mention Charles Mackerras with
reverence but know little about Australian pop bands – and that will be
replicated in many places throughout the world, except perhaps for
Australian secondary schools. When the National Trust surveyed Australians
to compile its list of 100 living treasures, numbers of minor passing
players from popular culture made the list but Sir Charles didn't.
Returning to England, Charles became an assistant conductor. Various
aging conductors in poor health had to pull out of recording sessions due to
illness. The young Charles was not the name you could put on a record label
for a major work, but not to worry. There was plenty of light music that
could be recorded seeing that the studio had already been booked and if
treated with the same respect as the ‘great’ music its details could be
appreciated anew. Charles became THE conductor of Gilbert and Sullivan. He
was also exploring the world of period instruments and helping to blow the
dust off the scores from the Baroque period. His reputation grew and he
became the first non-Briton to conduct a last night of the Proms.
But with all of this he was not a flamboyant conductor. From his work
with pickup orchestras he knew that meticulously marking up the parts before
the first rehearsal meant that you could produce optimum results from
limited rehearsal time.
It was appropriate that Charles was the conductor chosen for the opening
season at the Sydney Opera House.
Vale Sir Charles – You helped give Australia a good name.