British Musician, Wife Commit Suicide

British conductor and his wife end their lives at Swiss suicide clinic

LONDON -- Sir Edward Downes, 85, and his wife, Joan, 74, shared a life immersed in music. One of Britain's greatest conductors, he conducted the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Opera. She was a former ballet dancer, choreographer and television producer.

But their greatest passion was each other, friends say. And when Joan was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they decided to die together.

On Friday, they traveled to a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland operated by the Swiss euthanasia organization Dignitas. They told only a few friends and family and died holding hands after drinking a fatal dose of barbiturates. London's Metropolitan Police force said it had been notified of the deaths, and was investigating.

News of the couple's suicide came in a statement today from their two children: "After 54 years together, our parents died peacefully and under circumstances of their own choosing," said the statement from the couple's son and daughter.

When Sir Edward conducted music at Royal Albert Hall in London, his wife Joan was in the audience for every performance and every rehearsal. Colleagues and friends said they were "completely devoted to each other."

"Ted was an extremely rational man," said Richard Wigley, a friend of the couple. "I can perfectly well imagine him being so rational and thinking it's been great and this is a way to complete our life together."

Assisted suicide is illegal in Britain, but since Dignitas opened in Switzerland in 1998, it has helped more than 100 British citizens take their own lives, according to the company. About 100 foreigners come to Switzerland each year to take advantage of the country's liberal laws on assisted suicide, according to government statistics.

The clinics' openness to patients of all kinds, including those like Sir Edward who are not terminally ill, has sparked sharp criticism.

"Places like Dignitas offer a very seductive but dangerous escape for people who think there are no other ways out of the situation that they're facing," said Marjorie Wallace, chief executive, SANE, a suicide prevention advocacy group.

Switzerland is now considering altering its suicide law. But Downes' children say it was still the right choice for their parents. With his hearing fading, they say, Sir Edward could not face life without both the wife and the music he loved.