Barbirolli was the son of an émigré Italian violinist and his French wife. He began playing the violin when he was 4 (later switching to the cello) and, at the age of 10, became a scholar at the Trinity College of Music. He attended the Royal Academy of Music from 1912 to 1916 and established himself as an orchestral and solo cellist. During his mid-20s he devoted himself to chamber work. He then turned to opera as a full-time conductor, taking seasons at Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells and making appearances at the British National Opera. He also conducted with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Orchestra. Invited for the 1936–37 season of the New York Philharmonic, he won the permanent post in succession to Arturo Toscanini, holding it through that organization’s memorable centenary season, 1941–42.
His subsequent appointments included conductorships with the Hallé OrchestraManchester (1943–68), where he gained international recognition as a conductor. He was also principal conductor for the Houston (Texas) Symphony Orchestra (1961–67) and was a favourite guest conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (1961–70). A decade of deteriorating health did not prevent him from continuing guest conducting, recording, and worldwide touring with major orchestras. He was knighted in 1949.,