Frank Downes: Andrew Downes' Father

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Frank Downes (1921-2005), Father of British Composer, Andrew Downes, Hornist, Pianist, Conductor, Head of Orchestral Studies at Birmingham School of Music. Photo taken at BBC, 1967

Read Cynthia Downes' Blog Posts about his work conducting the Birmingham School of Music Brass Ensemble performing works by Andrew Downes at Open University Ceremonies and more:

Music for Brass Ensembles Part 1: Fanfares
Music for Brass Ensembles Part 2: 1970s and 1980s




Frank Downes (1921-2005)

In an obituary for the Birmingham PostDuncan 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.”

Book Launch, 1994:

Frank (second right), Beresford King-Smith (second left)

Cake made by his daughter, Judith.

Frank Downes was born at 11B Stafford Street, Walsall, on 21st November 1921, the eighth child in a family of ten. 

1. Frank (front right) with four of his brothers: Tim (middle), Len (front left), John (back right), Harry (top left)

2. Youngest brother Donald (who sadly died of TB aged 18) and Frank

3. Above: Brothers Tim, Donald and Frank

Below: Frank

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. 

4. Frank's mother with her youngest son Donald

5.Frank's parents with one of their grandchildren


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.

6. Frank's brother, Herbert Downes (right), violist of the Philharmonia Quartet, Principal Violist of the Philhamonia Orchestra (photo taken in 1947)


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.

7. Frank Downes at the piano.


Having turned his attentions to the French Horn, Downes joined the RAF Central Band, 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.

8. Frank and brother Len (immediate right) in the RAF Central Band, 1940s

9. Frank (right) with RAF Central Band Colleagues, 21st July, 1941

10. RAF Band 1942

11. RAF Central Band, 1940s

11a. Frank with RAF Central Band Colleagues, 1940s

12. RAF Central Band Football Team & Ted Heath Band 1945 at Fighter Command HQ, Bentley Priory

13. Frank Downes, RAF Central Band, Brussels, 25th February, 1945 


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.

14. Frank Downes playing in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Malcom Sargeant, 1946

15. Signed illustration of Sir Malcom Sargeant


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.

16. Frank (right) in the BBC Midland Light Orchestra Horn Section, 1960s

16a. Frank (left) in the BBC Midland Light Orchestra Horn Section, 1960s

17. Frank (middle) in the BBC Midland Light Orchestra Horn Section, 1960s

17a. Frank with clarinettist colleague and friend from BBC Midland Light Orchestra, Mike Saxton (son Andrew Downes named his daughter after Mike's wife, Paula) 

18. Frank


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. 


19. Frank, August 1985


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 School of Music. 
Watch the video below to see Frank receiving his Honorary Fellowship:

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Frank Downes receiving his Honorary MA from Open University for all the degree ceremonies he provided music for. Here he is shaking hands with Donald Burrows, OU Professor of Music.

20. Frank's retirement party with cake by daughter, Judith


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

Frank Downes (1921-2005): Horn player, Pianist, Conductor, Head of Orchestral Studies at Birmingham School of Music/Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, father of Composer Andrew Downes

Family photos:

22. Frank's wife's parents: Flora and Andrew Fennell


23. Frank's wife, Iris (1923-1997), at North Walsall Junior School, front row, 3rd from the right, 1920s


25. Frank's wife, Iris, 1940s. They married in 1944.


26. Frank's wife, Iris with a friend, 1940s


27. Frank's wife, Iris (right): she worked for the Fire Service during the Second World War


28. Frank with wife Iris


30. Frank with daughter Judith and son Andrew, 1950s


31. Brother-in-law, Ray Fennell, Frank, son Andrew, daughter Judith, Mother-in-law Flora Fennell, 1950s


32. Ferry crossing near Exmouth: Frank, Iris, Flora Fennell, Judith (right), Andrew (front)


33. Brother-in-law Ray Fennell on his wedding day to Mary, with Frank, 10th September, 1960


34. Andrew Downes, Flora Fennell, Frank Downes, Iris Downes


35. Frank's daughter Judith on her Wedding day to David Holloway, 4th February, 1967


36. Family Photograph at Judith's Wedding


37. Son Andrew Downes' Wedding to Cynthia, August 9th, 1975


38. Frank & Iris


39. Frank & Iris outside their home in Walsall


40. Frank & Iris at their home with son Andrew, daughter-in-law Cynthia and granddaughter Anna, 1978


41. Granddaughter Paula's Christening, March 1980:
Back - Cynthia's Mother, Cicely; Judith; Cynthia's father, Geoffrey; Andrew
Front - Grandson, Alex; baby Paula with Iris; Granddaughter, Anna; Son-in-Law, David; Frank 


42. Annual Family Fruit-Picking at brother Tim's house, 1980


Frank with his four grandchildren:
Paula, Alex, Anna, James, Frank; Son-in-law, David, 1980s


43. Brother, Violist Herbert Downes, playing a new viola made for him, October 1986


45. Frank & Iris, 1990s

44. Playing the Bach Double with Granddaughters Anna and Paula, 1990s

46. Brothers Len, Arthur, Frank, Herbert (Bert) Downes at their sister Nell's 50th Wedding Anniversary



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