The English conductor, Edward Thomas "Ted" Downes, was a son of a bank teller. He left school at the age of 14, sent out by his father to earn his living in a local gas store. Having taken up the piano and violin aged five he won a scholarship at the age of 16 to the University of Birmingham where he studied English literature and music, and began playing the cor anglais. Downes' pursuit of conducting was aided by a two-year Carnegie scholarship from the University of Aberdeen, which allowed him to study with Hermann Scherchen after postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music.
Edward Downes's long and fruitful association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, began in 1952 with his appointment as an assistant to Rafael Kubelík. His first job was prompting Maria Callas. He remained a company member for 17 years, returning annually thereafter as a guest conductor before assuming the post of Associate Music Director in 1991. Downes conducted at least 950 performances of 49 operas at Covent Garden.
Elsewhere, Edward Downes became the Australian Opera's Music Director in 1970, conducting the first performance in the Sydney Opera House in 1973 (the Australian premiere of War and Peace by Sergei Prokofiev). He was Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Orchestra until 1983. While Downes worked with many of the world's symphony orchestras, he enjoyed a particularly long relationship with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (formerly the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), serving as its Chief Guest Conductor, then Principal Conductor, and finally as Conductor Emeritus.
Edward Downes was noted for his championing of British music, and for Prokofiev and Verdi. He advocated the symphonies of George Lloyd and premiered works by Peter Maxwell Davies and Malcolm Arnold. His passion for Prokofiev was felt in performances of both major and lesser-known Prokofiev scores throughout the world. He also conducted the UK première of War and Peace at a concert performance at Leeds Town Hall in 1967. In 1979 he completed the orchestration of a one-act Prokofiev opera, Maddalena; he conducted its first recording in 1979 and its world premiere staging in 1981.
Downes' first experience of conducting the music of Verdi came in 1953 when Rafael Kubelík withdrew from a Covent Garden Otello and Downes led the opera with no rehearsal. He felt on home ground, and then championed Verdi revivals in England. He conducted 25 of Verdi's 28 operas, and devised the idea to perform all of them in time for the 2001 centenary of the composer's death. He once expressed regret that he had never conducted Alzira, Un Giorno di Regno or, especially, Les vêpres siciliennes. The conductor said: "I seemed to understand Verdi as a person. He was a peasant. He had one foot in heaven and one on the earth. And this is why he appeals to all classes of people, from those who know everything about music to those who are hearing it for the first time."
Edward Downes was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1986 New Year Honours, and was knighted in the 1991 Queen's Birthday Honours.
In 1955 Edward Downes married Joan Weston, a dancer with the Royal Ballet. She later became a choreographer and television producer. They had two children: a son, Caractacus (born December 1967), a musician and recording engineer, and a daughter, Boudicca (b 1970), a video producer.
Although not terminally ill, Edward Downes had been coping with increasing deafness and near total blindness for many years. He had become almost totally dependent on his wife after his health declined following a hip replacement. Lady Downes was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer metastasised to her liver and given weeks to live. Edward and his wife, Lady (Joan) Downes, committed assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland on July 10, 2009, an event that received significant media coverage.