More about me

I was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, in 1950, and educated at Hitchin Boys’ Grammar School, where my greatest inspiration came from our wonderful music master, Peter Cooper, and the woodwind teacher John Myatt (click on ‘Bassooning’ for more about John).  The family then moved to Cambridge, and I spent a year at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (since renamed Anglia Ruskin University), on a rather vague but fun ‘post-A-level’ course with another inspirational teacher, a young harpsichordist named Christopher Hogwood – now a renowned conductor and still a friend until his sad death in 2014. 

From the ‘Tech’ I got a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read Music (following in my brother Tony’s footsteps), graduating in 1972 with a double First (BA Hons.).  Feeling that I wanted more academic study, but not too much, I went to Birmingham University for a year – a very jolly experience – and gained an MA for a thesis on the late works of Richard Strauss.  I could have stayed on and done a PhD, but that was enough for me. 

Having already done some freelance TV work for my half-brother Humphrey Burton (nepotism!), I picked up enough work to keep me going for a year or two, as researcher, score-reader, fixer of artists, arranger and music copyist, mostly for ITV companies including London Weekend, Yorkshire TV, and Southern Television in Southampton.  I had some memorable experiences working on filmed concerts in Ely Cathedral and Vienna conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms symphonies) for the German film company Unitel.  ‘Lenny’ was an amazing and infuriating man – another great inspiration:  his influence lives on (look at the Leonard Bernstein website). 

I have been lucky, and privileged, to work with so many inspirational figures:  another was Dave Heather at Southern Television, one of the great TV directors for classical music and opera, now sadly no longer with us.  Dave employed me on his ‘Music in Camera’ series for several years, and also provided a link to my next big break, a ‘summer job’ in 1975 at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Sussex.  As Pit Manager and Assistant Librarian, I was responsible for setting out chairs and music stands, moving instruments, marking up orchestral parts to the conductors’ requirements and putting them on the stands, and handing out scores to singers, plus all sorts of odd jobs that came along, including copying music and text, tuning harpsichords, and booking piano tuners.  As I took on more responsibility, I was eventually promoted to Senior Librarian;  but as I was chiefly employed during the summer Festival season, I was still able to freelance on TV programmes in the winter, and wear two hats at once when Southern TV did their annual relay of one or two Glyndebourne operas each season.  These were golden years, both for Glyndebourne and for me, with a wonderful roll-call of great singers, conductors and directors in classic productions, all in glorious surroundings. 

Despite feeling very much at home in East Sussex, and being given the prestigious Jani Strasser Award (for Glyndebourne music staff), after ten years I felt that I had outgrown my ‘summer job’;  in 1984 I moved on, to become Senior Music Librarian at English National Opera – a similar post but in a much bigger organisation, with the added burden of hand-copying English translations into scores and getting them printed, with several hundred ‘customers’ impatiently waiting for their scores!  I also had responsibility for a big budget, covering music hire and royalties, all of which had to be negotiated with publishers and copyright holders.   For several years in the 1980s and 90s, I taught two evenings a week at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, specialising in 20th-century music history.  I also ran weekend courses on ‘Score-reading for TV Production Staff’ for HTV, Yorkshire Television and TVS.  (How on earth did I have the time?) I stuck at ENO for 16 years, working incredibly hard and generally having a lot of fun (and helped by a succession of wonderful assistants and understanding music staff);  but the company had its ups and downs, and eventually I felt that I had outgrown this job too.  In search of something quieter but more focused, once again I was rescued by a timely vacancy, this time in the Surtitling Department at The Royal Opera House – where, since the rebuilding of the Opera House in the late 1990s, it was decided that the Surtitle Department needed to be increased from one person (Judi Palmer, Surtitle Co-ordinator and subsequently my boss) to two. So from August 2000 until February 2011 I was a full-time Surtitler, building on freelance experience which goes back to the days of Southern TV, when I helped to cue subtitles on their opera broadcasts. 

I continue to pursue other freelance activities, as you will see elsewhere on this site. Having lived in Sussex in my Glyndebourne days, buying my first house in Eastbourne in 1981, I found a flat in Blackheath when I came to London to work at ENO in 1984.  After seven years in the flat, I moved a couple of streets away to a small rectangular box of great architectural interest (a Span house, built in 1959) on a tiny estate of 23 houses round a very pleasant communal green.

In February 2011 I took ‘early retirement’ from my Surtitling post at the Royal Opera House and moved with my dear partner Diana to a big 1920s house near the sea at St Leonard’s-on-Sea in East Sussex, on the south coast — thus fulfilling a dream conceived during my days at Glyndebourne in the 1970s and 80s, of one day retiring to this most beautiful corner of England.  We spent several months having work done to the house, and now have extra rooms (and bathrooms!) and a terrace with a sea view…



7 Comments on “More about me”

  1. Geoff Quentin Says:

    Hi and many thanks; at last a mention of Peter Cooper in the same way that I hold his memory. My name is Geoff Quentin and was at HBGS some six years ahead of you and just about held my own on the cello behind Richard Toll and was taught by Mrs Bell. John Myatt taught my brother for a while and what years they were. My huge love of music, despite being a scientist and spending all my working life in IT, came from the musical life at HBGS and Hitchin and of course the effort and energy put in by Peter Cooper.

    • jonathanburton Says:

      HI! I do remember you of course. (But trying to remember your brother’s name and what he played…?) And I think you would remember my brother Tony. Happy days!
      Peter Cooper is still with us, in retirement (with wife No.2) in Norwich. We exchange Christmas cards every year, and I have promised myself to look him up next time we are in Norwich.
      John died a few years ago (as you will see elsewhere on my blog) but his memory and his inspiration live on. I still have so many friends and musical colleagues who were ex-pupils and he is often talked about — and of course there is still his music shop in Hitchin. I keep in touch with his widow (= wife no. 3!) and family.
      Great to hear from you, and thank you for getting in touch!

      • jonathanburton Says:

        …meant to say — of course I remember your brother. He was John Quentin and played the clarinet — he used to come and have tea at our house before John Myatt band rehearsals. I think my mother was rather smitten with his blue eyes!
        Nice chap. What is he doing now?

  2. Janet Blair Says:

    Hi. I have been researching family and I believe your Grandfather Thomas Gwynne Ellis is my Step Grandfather Frank Cyril Ellis’s brother. Frank died in 1968 he was married to my Grandmother Marie for many years and was a wonderful step father to my mother and her sister. He also had a son, Robert Frank Ellis with my Grandmother. Bobby as we knew him, was a super uncle. I hope this reaches the appropriate Jonathon Burton. My apologies if I have rambled onto the wrong person.

    Janet Blair

    • jonathanburton Says:

      Hello Janet,
      How fascinating! Thank you. Yes, T G Ellis was my grandfather…
      I’ll send you an email.

      • janet blair Says:

        Hi Jonathan
        Thank you for your email which I received when I was in Sicily and I waited until I arrived home to answer it, as I had some photos to sort out you might like to see, especially of your Grandfather The problem arose when I went to your email and it had disappeared from my inbox !!! One of the mysteries of the internet!!! I did reply last Thursday on an email address I found on this site, but it might be wrong. If you can let me know if you have received it or I could send it again to the right email address.

        best wishes Janet.

  3. jonathanburton Says:

    Hi Janet,

    Yes, I did receive your wonderful long email, with so much interesting news of my long lost new family! Thank you.

    My email address has changed — it is now — but the old one you found does still reach me (at least until Virgin decides to switch it off…).

    If you do find some photographs to send, please send them to the new email as above. Likewise I will look for more stuff for you about Thomas Gwynne Ellis — I have photos and war documents, and somewhere I have my mother’s photo albums.

    All best and many thanks again,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: