Frank Downes (1921-2005)

In an obituary for the Birmingham Post, Duncan Honeybourne remembers a chronicler of twentieth century British orchestral life who became a groundbreaking pioneer in music education.

Horn Player, Writer, Broadcaster and Lecturer
Born Walsall, 21st November 1921
Died Burton-upon-Trent, 28th December 2005, aged 84

With the death of Frank Downes on 28th December, the Midlands has lost one of its most distinguished and best loved musical figures. His long and varied career reached its apex during his sixteen year tenure, between 1970 and 1986, as Head of Orchestral Studies at the Birmingham School of Music (now the Conservatoire) where his charismatic leadership inspired and guided generations of young musicians in new and adventurous artistic directions. But it was as a professional horn player that Downes made his name and, on the publication of his highly entertaining autobiography, “Around the Horn”, in 1994, Sir Simon Rattle commended the book for its “fascinating insights into the life of an orchestral player. “The dedication and commitment of musicians such as Frank”, he wrote, “have been the backbone of the development of our fine orchestras in the UK.”

Frank Downes was born at 11B Stafford Street, Walsall, on 21st November 1921, the eighth child in a family of ten. A slaughterhouse stood at the rear of the family home and this, with “trams rattling over the cobbled street at the front” was, as Downes recalled, “hardly conducive to music making”. The Downes parents were themselves unmusical, Frank’s father claiming that the musical genes must have been inherited from a great-grandfather, a Willenhall clog dancer. Remarkably, two of the Downes children were to become professional musicians of distinction, heading what remains one of the most gifted dynasties in Midlands music. Frank Downes made his public debut as a pianist when, at the age of eleven, he performed the Bach F minor Piano Concerto in Birmingham, subsequently broadcasting as a solo pianist in Children’s Hour from the BBC’s Broad Street studios. Downes remembered these occasions as having brought him overnight popularity with his classmates on account of their having been dismissed earlier from school to enable them to listen to the live broadcast.

Having turned his attentions to the French Horn, Downes joined the RAF Central Band, one a phenomenally gifted cohort of young wartime members, whilst continuing his horn studies with the help of a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London. He later took lessons with the legendary and much-lamented horn player Dennis Brain and, whilst on tour abroad, with the Belgian Jean Faulx.

After the cessation of hostilities in 1945, Frank Downes undertook a tour with the Sadlers Wells Ballet Orchestra before joining the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he toured extensively and appeared at the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. He returned to the Midlands in 1949 upon his appointment to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, then under the direction of George Weldon and, in 1953, health problems prompted a further move to the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, whose studio-based activities were physically less demanding than the constant touring schedule of the CBSO. He was to be a constant presence in the region’s concert venues, and as an orchestral and chamber music player on the regional and national airwaves, for the next twenty years.

In 1970 Frank Downes took up the post of Head of Orchestral Studies at the Birmingham School of Music, radically redesigning curriculum and course structures and raising standards of professional orchestral training. He pioneered links between the School of Music and the CBSO and introduced an innovative collaboration with the BBC, thus offering new generations of students an insight into the world of broadcasting. On his retirement, in 1986, Downes was made an Honorary Master of the Open University at a ceremony in Birmingham Town Hall, and later was appointed to an Honorary Fellowship of the Birmingham Conservatoire.

Frank Downes continued to take a great interest in the activities of the Birmingham Conservatoire, and in the world of Birmingham music in general. Much loved and respected by many hundreds of former students, he took particular pride in the remarkable musical achievements of his own family; predeceased by his wife, Iris, in 1997, he is survived by a daughter, Judith, and by his son, the distinguished composer Andrew Downes. Among his four grandchildren are soprano Paula Downes and violinist Anna Downes, who founded the Central England Ensemble in 2001 and thus continues the long family involvement in Midland music making.

Frank Downes died at the Queen’s Hospital, Burton-upon-Trent on December 28th after a short illness. His funeral service will take place at Streetly Crematorium on Friday 6th January at 10.30am.

Published in the Birmingham Post on January 3rd, 2006

Duncan Honeybourne