The news last week that exceptional British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan had committed suicide at a Swiss clinic saddened the music world. In an
on Sunday, the couple's daughter, Boudicca Downes, discussed the decision-making process and the final event in Switzerland. Here are some excerpts:
My father "told me that my mum had cancer ... And he told me the prognosis: a matter of months, possibly weeks. Then he just said, 'so we've decided, we're both going to Switzerland'."
Her 85-year-old father and his terminally ill wife, Joan, 74, would travel together from their London home to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich where they would be helped to fulfil their final desire - to commit suicide together. It was there that Boudicca, 39, and her brother Caractacus, 41, gripped their parents' hands as each swallowed a single dose of a lethal barbiturate. Within minutes Edward and his wife were dead. It was three months, to the day, since he had made that phone call to his daughter ...
"Mum was not frightened of dying, but ...
she was frightened of a living death ... The idea of being increasingly weak, fragile and tired in the last weeks of her life were unbearable."
... "In my father's case, and I think in the case of many others, the issue is not the fact that you are about to die of a terminal illness in a certain number of weeks or months. It is that your life becomes unbearable because of physical or mental suffering. My father wasn't terminally ill, but he was 85, he had many health problems. He was in terrible, terrible pain and had been for a long time."
Boudicca described how hard it had been for her father to lose his sight and with it one of his greatest loves - reading. [He also lost his hearing.] For someone with my father's ear, that was hard to bear," said Boudicca of the man who conducted the first night at the Sydney Opera House, led the BBC Philharmonic, and worked with the Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra for more than five decades ...
After 54 years of marriage - 37 in the same family home in Blackheath, south London; after bringing up two children and watching a grandson come into the world; after a lifetime filled with professional triumphs and moments of joy - Edward and Joan boarded a flight to Zurich, Switzerland, for their final trip together ...
They were given anti-nausea liquid, and after half an hour they swallowed the lethal shot that would bring their "wonderful lives" to an end. "It was calm and dignified - as they wanted," said Boudicca. "I will always know that they had a peaceful death - together."
The bodies were cremated and the ashes scattered in a Swiss forest. There was no funeral.
"My parents were fiercely independent and determined people. They did everything in a rational, slightly controversial and imaginative way - that is how they lived their lives. They weren't mainstream," she added, explaining that her father had chosen their names because of a love of ancient history.
As a tribute to the memory of Sir Edward Downes, here's an excerpt from a 1986 concert he conducted featuring stellar soprano Jessye Norman, who sings a lovely Michael Balfe aria. The words take on a wider meaning now: "I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls ... But I also dreamt, which pleased me most, that you lov'd me still the same."