Christie, John 1882-1962, founder of Glyndebourne Opera, was born 14 December 1882, at Eggesford, Devon, the only child of Augustus Langham Christie, a country squire, and his wife, (Alicia) Rosamond Wallop, third daughter of the fifth Earl of Portsmouth. His family had acquired large estates over the past hundred years since their ancestor came from Switzerland to settle in England, and now owned the manor house at Glyndebourne and some ten thousand acres, as well as an extensive property in north Devon. Unfortunately Augustus Christie suffered from a nervous instability verging upon insanity, and the early life of the son was spent away from his father. His childhood was unhappy, which had the effect of making him fiercely independent and often rebellious; so that at the age of six, being strong and well able to look after himself, he was sent away to school, where he quickly earned a reputation for indiscipline. In 1896 he went to Eton, like his father and grandfather, where, despite his small stature, he made his mark by unconventional behaviour and by the capricious use of his intelligence according to whether he liked or disliked his masters. From there he was sent in 1900 to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, but he injured his foot in a riding accident, and, much to his satisfaction he abandoned a military career and in 1902 passed into Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he spent three years reading natural sciences, which he liked, and developed a keen interest in music and the motor car. After getting a second class degree (1905) he became a master at Eton in 1906 and spent sixteen years there (apart from two years on war service), which proved, as he often said, to be the happiest of his life. At that time Eton masters were allowed very considerable freedom, and he was conspicuous among a somewhat eccentric community for a novel approach to his duties and methods. But he enjoyed teaching and had the gift of inspiring loyalty among his pupils and made many friends among his colleagues. The years 1914-16 saw him in France, where, as a captain in the King's Royal Rifle Corps he showed absolute fearlessness in action, which won him the Military Cross and the admiration of his men. But trench warfare proved too severe a strain on his injured foot and he returned to Eton, staying there another six years, until he decided to give up teaching in order to pay more attention to the development of his inherited assets. In 1913 his father had let him have virtual control of Glyndebourne, which he made his own home and used for entertaining his friends. In 1920, when he gained legal ownership of the estate, he at once set about improving the amenities of the house. He had already built on a large room which was to become the centre of his musical activities. Here he had installed a cathedral organ, buying up an organ company for the purpose, and developed the estate workyard, which later grew into a most successful commercial enterprise. He also acquired a controlling interest in various other businesses; for he felt strongly that a landlord should do something constructive with his money and property, and he had no use for the idle and parasitic rich. As yet he confined his musical interests to performances in the Organ Room, but in 1930 he became engaged to (Grace) Audrey Laura St. John-Mildmay (died 1953), a gifted soprano with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, daughter of the Revd Aubrey Neville St. John-Mildmay (later tenth baronet), and they were married the next year. Almost at once he made plans to give complete operas at Glyndebourne, but his wife saw that this would not be practicable unless it were done properly (as she put it). Therefore her husband, who trusted her professional judgement implicitly, decided to build a theatre on to the back of his country house. So Glyndebourne Opera was founded.
When this announcement was made, the music world was incredulous, the press derisive, and even his closest friends thought that such a wild scheme could not possibly succeed. But he went ahead, and by summer 1934 the opera house had been built with a large and excellently equipped stage but a relatively small auditorium holding about three hundred people. A first-rate team was assembled under the leadership of the conductor Fritz Busch and the producer Carl Ebert, with John Christie himself and his wife at hand to keep things under control. Recent visits to Salzburg and elsewhere had made them both ardent Mozartians, and the first season opened with Le nozze di Figaro. It was immediately pronounced a triumphant success both by the musical intelligentsia and by the lay public, and an equally good reception was given to Cosi fan tutte which followed. During the next four years the repertoire was extended to the other three best-known Mozart operas and to Verdi's Macbeth and Donizetti's Don Pasquale. In five productions of three of these operas Audrey Mildmay sang with great charm and distinction, while in the same period managing to have a daughter and a son and to act as an exemplary hostess to her many guests. She was indeed a person of rare quality. The first three seasons had cost John Christie about £100,000 of which £21,000 had been lost on the running costs of the Opera, but in 1937 he was able to make a small profit and thus to prove that such a thing could be done. Then war started, and Glyndebourne became a home for London children. Audrey Christie, much against her will, took her own children to Canada, where she eked out a precarious existence by giving concerts, but was able to return home in 1944. At once Christie set about considering means of reviving the Opera, but financial problems were acute, since he did not feel it reasonable to spend more of his private fortune for the benefit of the public. A few concerts with Sir Thomas Beecham [qv.] and opera performances (the world premières of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring, and Gluck's Orpheus with Kathleen Ferrier, qv.) were given in 1946-7, while Glyndebourne was engaged in creating the Edinburgh Festival, where it performed opera exclusively from 1947 to 1949. But it was not until 1950 that support from the John Lewis Partnership enabled Glyndebourne to put on its own festival again. Then in 1952 the Hungarian textile manufacturer, Nicholas Sekers (later knighted for his services to music) organized the supporters of Glyndebourne into a group known as The Glyndebourne Festival Society (the first scheme of its kind in Britain), and this substantially assisted the opera to remain solvent. Shortly afterwards the decision was taken to place it under a charitable Trust, the first to be registered for the benefit of the performing arts, and now the normal procedure in this field. But before this could come into effect Glyndebourne suffered a tragic blow with the death in 1953 of Audrey Mildmay at the age of fifty-two. Fortunately she had lived to see the Opera on its way to permanent existence, and her principles and ideals are alive to this day. The year after, John Christie became a Companion of Honour as a reward for his work and the Trust was set up. Thenceforth he played a less active part, and his son George took over most of the executive control. Christie lived another seven years, mentally as alert as ever but physically much handicapped by failing eyesight. In the last months of his life he became almost completely blind in his one remaining eye (he had lost the use of the other some fifty years before and had eventually had it removed), but even now, bearded and confined to a wheelchair, he was still the same genial host and stimulating company that he had always been. At last in 1962 he was no longer well enough to attend the opening night of the season, and on 4 July he died at Glyndebourne, aged seventy-nine.
In any estimate of the character and achievement of this remarkable man, perhaps the most obvious conclusion would be that he had to an extraordinary degree the ability to reconcile the ideal with the practical. Most people who knew him well would agree that among his many qualities the most vital were a highly original and creative mind, dynamic and inexhaustible energy, and unfailing and unbounded optimism. He was fifty when he established a new and challenging objective in his life, and from that moment he pursued this purpose with a ruthless and unflagging singleness of aim. Many thought of him as impossibly eccentric, but a closer acquaintance with the man himself showed that most of his decisions were amply justified in the event, even if he sometimes gave curious reasons for making them. Cast in a mould somewhat larger than life, it was not surprising that he should advise others to think big (to use his own phrase) and to ignore and despise littleness of mind and action. Above all he believed that life was not worth living without what he called amusement. By this he did not mean that a man should show a shallow or frivolous attitude to his problems, but rather that he must be capable of sifting out whatever grains of humour might be found in the chaff of experience. All through his life John Christie applied this philosophy in handling difficult situations and people, and he had the rare gift of settling disputes by making them appear ridiculous. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he had no time for those who bored him or did not try to see his point of view; nor was he particularly ready to see their own. Nevertheless he did what no man has ever done before in producing opera at his own country house and persuading people to come from all over the world to hear it. As he often said, the object of Glyndebourne was not just to put on good performances of opera but to aim at perfection, and, in the opinion of many, he came nearer to realizing this ideal than anyone else in the history of opera.
There is a portrait of Christie by Kenneth Green (1937) which hangs in the dining room at Glyndebourne, and a bronze bust by Oscar Nemon (1960) in the garden surrounding the opera house.
Wilfrid Blunt, John Christie of Glyndebourne, 1968
Spike Hughes, Glyndebourne, 1965
Glyndebourne Festival programmes
Contributor: Nigel Wykes