In resisting the present tendency among conductors to leave a post at the first attractive opportunity, Simon Denis Rattle (born 1955) transformed England's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from second-rate to world-class status. His imaginative programming and brilliant performances made him, his orchestra, and the city of Birmingham the toast of the musical world.
Simon Rattle was born in Liverpool on January 19, 1955. Family members provided his earliest musical influences. His father, the managing director of an import-export company, played the piano, as did his mother. His sister, elder by nine years, taught him to read scores and introduced him through recordings to much music that would remain important in his musical life. But the music of both father and sister was not that which would normally serve in grooming the leader of a world-class orchestra; not the standard symphonic works from Haydn through Brahms. Instead, Gershwin or jazz on the piano and Bartok, Mahler, Schoenberg, and other early 20th-century masters on the phonograph served as Rattle's first musical encounters.
Rattle showed an early aptitude for music making and study, taking up percussion instruments at about the age of four, having been impressed by the tympani player at Merseyside Youth Orchestra rehearsals to which his father would take him. At age six or seven he took up the piano, which he would study seriously until his first year at the Royal Academy of Music, when he dropped it in order to devote more time to conducting. At about the same time that he began to play the piano he became intrigued by Berlioz's Treatise on Instrumentation.
His practice of playing the percussion part along with recordings, this often taking the form of "concerts" in the home for family and friends, furthered his progress. By the age of ten he had become a percussionist with the Merseyside Youth Orchestra. The following year he won a studentship from the Liverpool Education Authority allowing him to study the piano with a prominent teacher, Douglas Miller. Within two years he had mastered the Mozart piano concerto K488, which he played with orchestra in a concert of the Annual European Summer School for Young Musicians in Mödling, Austria (outside Vienna), in 1967. It was there that he also received some of his first opportunities to conduct.
Apart from musical talent, Rattle's conducting debut in England displayed in abundance his energies for organization and promotion when, at age 15, he pulled together a large ad hoc orchestra and conducted a charity concert at Liverpool College Hall. While attending Liverpool College, Rattle founded and conducted a percussion group, Percussionists Anonymous, but he was to remain there for only a short time before being accepted at the Royal Academy of Music. His conducting teacher at the latter was Maurice Miles.
He would not graduate from the Royal Academy of Music either. In 1974, after his third year, he won the John Player International Conductor's Award, sponsored by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and engaging him with that orchestra until 1976. Although this must be regarded as the first major breakthrough in his career, he was at the same time becoming known through other channels. He had been conducting the Merseyside Youth Orchestra since 1971 and regularly since 1973, and his activities at the Royal College of Music had attracted the notice of Martin Campbell-White, an agent from the prestigious management company of Harold Holt Ltd.
The combination of an important award and enthusiastic management quickly threw him into the spotlight, but at the same time brought about a couple of serious problems. The first was that of repertoire. As was mentioned earlier, Rattle's taste was not that of the usual concert-going citizen, and he had insufficient experience with the staples of symphonic literature. Added to this was the fact that he had never conducted a professional orchestra of seasoned veterans, musicians who, as it turned out, resented his youth and inexperience. His early mentor, the conductor John Carewe, commented on Rattle's musicianship at the beginning of his career: "At that stage music just wandered for him—lovely sounds, but no appreciation of how it was actually built up." Rattle would spend years correcting the problem.
Following his tenure at Bournemouth he held posts as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Glasgow, and associate conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Rattle first conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in May 1976 and accepted the post of principal conductor in September 1980. It was at first regarded by many as detrimental to the career of a young and gifted conductor that he should remain at the same post for so long rather than moving on to better-known orchestras. But in retrospect Rattle's decision benefitted not only his own career but all parties concerned.
Rattle deplored the modern tendency among conductors of switching orchestras frequently and of extensive guest conducting, claiming that the musical result in such cases will always be a compromise between what the orchestra has been previously taught and what the present conductor wishes. Budgeting considerations limit rehearsal time so that only standard works that the orchestra already knows can be performed, thus not allowing new or neglected pieces to enter the repertoire.
Rattle's commitment to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra resulted in quite the opposite set of circumstances. When he assumed his post, the orchestra was failing both musically and financially, but he built it to compete with the best orchestras in the world. In 1989 Rattle stipulated that the renewal of his contract was contingent on the city of Birmingham meeting four demands: a new concert hall; enlargement of the orchestra's string section and the employment of additional experienced string principals; improved pay and working conditions for musicians; and the permission to undertake adventurous and enterprising tours and to explore the contemporary literature. With his exciting programming and the high level of performance, Rattle had already raised concert attendance to 98 percent capacity; this fact, coupled with the alternative prospect of losing him altogether, compelled the city to grant him all the terms of his contract.
This whole-hearted endorsement enabled Rattle to expand his already wide horizons. In addition to increasing his abilities in the standard repertoire, he ventured into historical performances of earlier masters such as Mozart and Haydn. Among his many accomplishments in the field of contemporary music were premiere performances of works by Oliver Knussen and Peter Maxwell Davies and the founding of the concert series "Toward the Millenium," which covered by decade works of the 20th century. A frequent performer in vocal works was his wife, the American soprano Elise Ross, whom he married in 1980.
While he received acclaim for performances of earlier masters, his greatest strength probably was with the moderns—Mahler, Bartok, Stravinsky, Britten, Janacek, Debussy, Messiaen, and others. He remained hesitant to accept guest engagements but was affiliated with the Aldeburgh Festival, the London Sinfonietta, and Age of Enlightenment Orchestra. Operatic successes included Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (recorded for his usual label, EMI) and Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen and Katya Kabanova. The Rattle/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra recording of the film score for Kenneth Branagh's Henry V reached the top of the Billboard charts. In 1987 he was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 1994 he was made a Knight Bachelor on the Birthday Honours List.
Rattle's activities continue to be charted by all classical music publications both in America and abroad. These publications include American Record Guide, Stereo Review, Classic CD, Musical America, and Grammophone. A particularly good, though short, essay by Herbert Kupferberg appeared in the November 1992 issue of Stereo Review. A full-length monograph on the conductor, Simon Rattle: The Making of a Conductor, by Nicholas Kenyon, was published in England in 1987. Though it received excellent reviews and contains a balance of praise and criticism in many interviews with colleagues, the book deals almost exclusively with his musical life so that one learns little of the person behind the baton.