Definitions

beecham, sir

Thomas Beecham

[bee-chuhm]
Sir Thomas Beecham, 2nd Baronet, CH (29 April 1879 – 8 March 1961) was a British conductor and impresario. From the early twentieth century until his death, Beecham was a major influence on the musical life of Britain and, according to Neville Cardus, was the first British conductor to have a regular international career.

From a wealthy industrial family, Beecham used the money at his disposal to transform the operatic scene in England from the 1910s until the start of World War II, staging seasons at Covent Garden, Drury Lane and His Majesty's Theatre with international stars, his own hand-picked orchestra and a wide range of repertoire.

In the concert hall, London still has two orchestras founded by Beecham: the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic. He also maintained close links with the Liverpool Philharmonic and Hallé Orchestras in his native county of Lancashire. His repertoire was eclectic, sometimes favouring lesser-known composers over famous ones. His specialities included composers whose works were rarely played in Britain before Beecham became their advocate, such as Frederick Delius and Hector Berlioz.

He was known for his wit, and many "Beecham stories" are still told nearly fifty years after his death.

Biography

Early years

Beecham was born in St. Helens, Lancashire, England, in a house adjoining the Beecham's Pills factory founded by his grandfather, Thomas Beecham (1820–1907). His parents were Joseph Beecham, the elder son of Thomas, and Josephine Burnett. In 1885, by which time the family firm was making very substantial sums of money, Joseph Beecham moved his family to a mansion in Ewanville in the Blacklow Brow area of Huyton, now in Merseyside. Their former home was demolished to make room for an extension to the pill factory.

Beecham was educated at Rossall School between 1892 and 1897, after which he hoped to attend a music conservatoire in Germany, but his father forbade this, and instead Beecham went to Wadham College, Oxford. He did not find university life to his taste and successfully sought his father's permission to leave Oxford in 1898. He studied composition privately with Charles Wood in London and Moritz Moszkowski in Paris. As a conductor, Beecham was self-taught.

Beecham's first orchestras

Beecham first conducted in public in St Helens, in October 1899, with an ad hoc ensemble comprising local musicians and players from the Hallé and Liverpool Philharmonic orchestras. A month later, he stood in at short notice for the celebrated conductor Hans Richter at a concert by the Hallé to mark Joseph Beecham's inauguration as mayor of St Helens. Beecham's professional début as a conductor was in 1902 at the Shakespeare Theatre, Clapham, with Michael Balfe's The Bohemian Girl for the Imperial Grand Opera Company. He was also composing music in these early years but concluded that he was not good enough and concentrated on conducting.

In 1906 he was invited to conduct a chamber orchestra, in a series of concerts at the Bechstein Hall, adopting the title the New Symphony Orchestra. Throughout his career, Beecham frequently chose to programme works to suit his own tastes rather than those of the paying public. In his early discussions with his new orchestra, he proposed works by a long list of barely-known composers such as Méhul. During this period, Beecham first encountered the music of Frederick Delius, which he loved deeply and with which he became closely associated for the rest of his life.

Beecham quickly concluded that to compete with the existing London orchestras, the Queen's Hall Orchestra and the recently-founded London Symphony Orchestra, he needed to expand his forces from sixty players to full symphonic strength and to play in larger halls. For two years starting in October 1907, Beecham and the enlarged NSO gave concerts at the Queen's Hall. He made no concessions to the box office: he put on a programme described by his biographer as "even more certain to deter the public then than it would be in our own day." The principal pieces were Vincent d'Indy's symphonic ballad La fôret enchantée, Smetana's symphonic poem Šárka, and Edouard Lalo's practically unknown Symphony in G major. Beecham retained an affection for the last work: it was the subject of his very last recording sessions more than fifty years later.

In 1908 Beecham and the New Symphony Orchestra parted company, disagreeing about artistic control, and in particular the deputy system. Under this system, orchestral players, if offered a more lucrative engagement, could send a substitute to a rehearsal or a concert. The treasurer of the Royal Philharmonic Society described it thus: "A, whom you want, signs to play for your concert. He sends B (whom you don't mind) to the first rehearsal. B, without your knowledge or consent, sends C to the second rehearsal. Not being able to play at the concert, C sends D, whom you would have paid five shillings to stay away. Henry Wood had already banned the deputy system in the Queen's Hall Orchestra (provoking rebel players to found the London Symphony Orchestra), and Beecham followed suit. The New Symphony Orchestra survived without him and subsequently became the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra.

In 1909, Beecham founded the Beecham Symphony Orchestra. He did not poach from established symphony orchestras, but instead he recruited from theatre bandrooms, local symphony societies, the palm courts of hotels and music colleges. The result was a youthful team – the typical age of his players was twenty-five. They included names that would become celebrated in their fields, such as Albert Sammons, Lionel Tertis, Eric Coates, and Eugene Cruft.

Because he persistently programmed works that did not attract the public, Beecham's musical activities at this time consistently lost money. From 1899 to 1909 he was estranged from his father, and his access to the Beecham family fortune was strictly limited. In 1899 Joseph had secretly committed his wife to an asylum. Thomas and his elder sister Emily took legal action to secure her release and to obtain her annual £4,500 alimony. For this, Joseph Beecham disinherited them. From 1907 Beecham had an annuity of £700 left to him in his grandfather's will, and his mother subsidised some of his loss-making concerts, but it was not until father and son were reconciled in 1909 that Beecham was able to draw on the family fortune to promote opera.

1910-1920

From 1910, subsidised by his father, Beecham realised his ambition to mount opera seasons at Covent Garden and other houses. In the Edwardian opera house, the star singers were regarded as all-important, and conductors were seen as ancillary. Between 1910 and 1939 Beecham did much to change the balance of power.

In 1910, Beecham either conducted or was responsible as impresario for 190 performances at Covent Garden and His Majesty's Theatre. During the year, he mounted 34  different operas, most of them either new to London or almost unknown there. Beecham later admitted that in his early years he chose to present operas that were too obscure to attract the public. His assistant conductors were Bruno Walter and Percy Pitt. During Beecham's 1910 season at His Majesty's, the rival Grand Opera Syndicate put on a concurrent season of their own at Covent Garden, bringing London's total opera performances for the year to 273 performances, far more than the box-office demand could support. Of his 34 operas staged in 1910, only four made money: Richard Strauss's new operas Elektra and Salome, receiving their first, and highly-publicised, performances in Britain, and The Tales of Hoffmann and Die Fledermaus.

In 1911 and 1912 the Beecham Symphony Orchestra played for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, both at Covent Garden and at the Krolloper in Berlin, under the batons of Beecham and Pierre Monteux, Diaghilev's chief conductor. Beecham was much admired for conducting the complicated new score of Stravinsky's Petrushka at two days' notice and without rehearsal when Monteux was unavailable. While in Berlin, Beecham and his orchestra, in Beecham's words, caused a "mild stir", scoring a triumph: the orchestra was agreed by the Berlin press to be an elite body, one of the best in the world. Where, asked Die Signale, the principal Berlin musical weekly, did London find such magnificent young instrumentalists? The violins were credited with rich, noble tone, the woodwind with lustre, the brass, "which has not quite the dignity and amplitude of our best German brass", with uncommon delicacy of execution.

Beecham's 1913 seasons included the British première of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden, and a season at Drury Lane announced as Sir Joseph Beecham's Grand Season of Russian Opera and Ballet. There were three operas, all starring Feodor Chaliapin, and all new to Britain: Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Ivan the Terrible. There were also 15 ballets, with leading dancers including Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina. Also included were Debussy's Jeux and his controversially erotic Afternoon of a Faun, and the first performances in Britain of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, six weeks after its first performance in Paris. Beecham shared Monteux's private dislike of the piece, much preferring Petrushka. Beecham did not conduct during this season; Monteux and others conducted the Beecham Symphony Orchestra. The following year, Beecham and his father presented Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov and Borodin's Prince Igor with Chaliapin, and Stravinsky's The Nightingale.

During the First World War, Beecham strove, often without a fee, to keep music alive in London and Manchester (where he formed grandiose plans for a new opera house). He conducted for, and gave financial support to, three institutions with which he was connected at various times: the Hallé Orchestra, the LSO and the Royal Philharmonic Society. In 1915 he formed the Beecham Opera Company, with mainly British singers, performing in London and the provinces, and Manchester especially owed to Beecham a significant widening of its operatic experience. In 1916, Beecham received a knighthood in the New Year Honours, and succeeded to the baronetcy on his father's death later that year.

After the war, there were joint Covent Garden seasons with the Grand Opera Syndicate in 1919 and 1920, but these were, according to a biographer, pale confused echoes of pre-1914. These seasons included forty productions, of which Beecham conducted only nine. By then Beecham's financial affairs were in a condition that demanded his temporary withdrawal from musical life to put them in order.

The Bedford Estate

Influenced by an ambitious financier, James White, Sir Joseph Beecham had agreed to buy the Covent Garden estate from the Duke of Bedford and float a limited company to manage the estate commercially. Under the terms of his agreement of 6 July 1914, Sir Joseph contracted to buy the estate for £2 million. He paid an initial deposit of £200,000 and covenanted to pay the balance on 11 November. Within a month, however, World War I broke out, and new official restrictions on the use of capital prevented the completion of the contract. The estate and market continued to be managed by the Duke's staff, but in October 1916 the situation was further complicated by the death of Joseph Beecham. A Chancery suit was instituted to unravel his affairs, and eventually it was agreed, and confirmed by a court order, that a private company should be formed, with Joseph Beecham's two sons as directors, to complete the contract. On 30 July 1918, the Duke and his trustees conveyed the estate to the new company, subject to a mortgage of £1.25 million, the balance of the purchase price then still outstanding.

Beecham and his brother Henry had to sell enough of their father's estate to discharge this mortgage. For over three years Beecham was absent from the musical scene, working to sell property worth over £1 million. By 1923 enough money had been raised, and in 1924 the Covent Garden property and the pill-making business at St Helens were united in one company, Beecham Estates and Pills. The nominal capital was £1,850,000, of which Thomas Beecham had a substantial share.

The London Philharmonic

After his absence, Beecham first reappeared on the rostrum with the Hallé in Manchester in March 1923, then in London with the combined Royal Albert Hall Orchestra (the renamed New Symphony Orchestra) and London Symphony Orchestra with the contralto soloist Clara Butt in April 1923. The main work was Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. No longer with an orchestra of his own, Beecham established a relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra and negotiated with the BBC over the possibility of establishing a permanent radio orchestra.

In 1931, Beecham was approached by the rising young conductor, Malcolm Sargent, with a proposal to set up a permanent, salaried orchestra with a subsidy guaranteed by Sargent's patrons the Courtauld family. Originally Sargent and Beecham envisaged a reshuffled version of the London Symphony Orchestra, but the LSO, a self-governing co-operative, baulked at weedings-out and replacements of underperforming players, and in 1932 Beecham lost patience and agreed with Sargent to set up a new orchestra from scratch. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, as it was named, consisted of 106 players, including a few young players straight from music college, many established players from provincial orchestras and some poached from the LSO. The players included Paul Beard, George Stratton, Anthony Pini, Gerald Jackson, Léon Goossens, Reginald Kell, James Bradshaw and Marie Goossens.

The orchestra made its debut at the Queen's Hall on 7 October 1932, conducted by Beecham. After the first item, Berlioz's Carnaval Romain Overture, the audience went wild, some of them standing on their seats to clap and shout. During the next eight years, the LPO appeared nearly a hundred times at the Queen's Hall for the Royal Philharmonic Society alone, played for Beecham's opera seasons at Covent Garden, and made more than three hundred gramophone records.Opera in the 1930s By the early 1930s, Beecham had again secured a substantial control of the Covent Garden opera seasons. Wishing to concentrate on music-making rather than management, Beecham assumed the role of artistic director, and Geoffrey Toye was recruited as managing director. In 1933, Tristan und Isolde with Frida Leider and Lauritz Melchior was a success, and the season continued with the Ring cycle and nine other operas. The 1934 season featured Conchita Supervia in La Cenerentola, and Lotte Lehmann and Alexander Kipnis in the Ring. Clemens Krauss conducted the British première of Strauss's Arabella. During 1933 and 1934 Beecham repelled attempts by John Christie to form a link between Christie's new Glyndebourne Festival and the Royal Opera House. Beecham and Toye fell out over the latter's insistence on bringing in a popular film star, Grace Moore, to sing Mimi in La bohème. The production was a box-office success, but an artistic failure. Beecham manoeuvred Toye out of the managing directorship in what Sir Adrian Boult described as an 'absolutely beastly' manner.

In the seasons of 1935 to 1939, Beecham, now in sole control, presented international seasons with eminent guest singers and conductors. Beecham himself conducted between a third and half of the performances each season. He intended the 1940 season to include the first complete performances of Berlioz's The Trojans, but the outbreak of World War II caused the season to be abandoned. Beecham did not conduct again at Covent Garden until 1951, and by then it was no longer his fiefdom.German tour Beecham took the London Philharmonic on a controversial tour of Germany in 1936. There were complaints that he was being used by Nazi propagandists, and Beecham complied with a Nazi request not to play the Scottish Symphony of Felix Mendelssohn, who was a Christian by faith but a Jew by birth. In Berlin, Beecham's concert was attended by Adolf Hitler. When he saw the dictator applauding, Beecham remarked, "The old bugger seems to like it!" After this tour, Beecham refused to accept further invitations to give concerts in Germany, though he conducted Orpheus and Euridice and Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail at the Oper under den Linden the following February and recorded The Magic Flute in the Beethovensaal in Berlin in 1937 and 1938.

As his sixtieth birthday approached, Beecham had planned a year's complete rest from music, intending to go abroad for sun-warmed leisure. The outbreak of World War II on 3 September 1939 obliged him to shelve his plans, instead fighting to secure the future of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose financial guarantees had been withdrawn by their backers when war was declared.

The 1940s

Beecham left Britain in the spring of 1940, later explaining, "I was informed there was an emergency, so I emerged." Beecham went to Australia and then to North America. He became music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 1941. In 1942 he joined the Metropolitan Opera as joint senior conductor with his former assistant Bruno Walter. He began with his own adaptation of Bach's comic cantata, Phoebus and Pan, followed by Le Coq d'Or. His main repertoire was French: Carmen, Louise (with Grace Moore), Manon, Faust, Mignon, and The Tales of Hoffmann. In addition to the Seattle and Met orchestras, Beecham was guest conductor with eighteen American orchestras.

In 1944, Beecham returned to Britain. Musically his reunion with the London Philharmonic was triumphant, but the orchestra, which had formed itself into a self-governing co-operative in his absence, attempted to hire him on its own terms as its salaried artistic director. "I emphatically refuse", concluded Beecham, "to be wagged by any orchestra... I am going to found one more great orchestra to round off my career." Walter Legge had founded the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1945. Beecham conducted its first concert, but was not disposed to accept a salaried position from Legge, his former assistant, any more than from his former players in the LPO.

In 1946, Beecham founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, obtaining an agreement with the Royal Philharmonic Society that the new orchestra should replace the LPO at all the Society's concerts. As in 1909 and in 1932, Beecham's assistants went to work in the freelance pool and elsewhere. Beecham later agreed with the Glyndebourne Festival that the RPO should be the resident orchestra at Glyndebourne each summer. He secured backing, including from record companies in the U.S. as well as Britain, with whom lucrative recording contracts were negotiated. Original members of the RPO included Gerald Jackson, Reginald Kell, Archie Camden, Leonard Brain, Dennis Brain and James Bradshaw. The orchestra later became celebrated for its regular team of woodwind principals, often referred to as The Royal Family, consisting of Jack Brymer (clarinet), Gwydion Brooke (bassoon), Terence McDonagh (oboe), and Gerald Jackson (flute).

1950s and later years

By 1950 the RPO was able to undertake a strenuous tour through the U.S., Canada and South Africa. During the North American tour, Beecham conducted forty-nine concerts in almost daily succession. Beecham was furious and hurt at being excluded from Covent Garden after the war. State-funded for the first time, the opera company operated quite differently from Beecham's pre-war regime. Instead of short, star-studded seasons, with a major symphony orchestra, director David Webster was attempting to build up a permanent ensemble of home-grown talent performing all the year round, in English translations. Extreme economy in productions and great attention to the box-office were essential, and Beecham was not felt to be suited to participate in such an undertaking. This was illustrated in 1951 when Beecham was at length invited back to Covent Garden. Offered a chorus of eighty singers for Die Meistersinger, he insisted on augmenting their number to 200. He also, contrary to Webster's policy, insisted on performing the piece in German. In 1953 at Oxford, Beecham presented the world première of Delius's first opera, Irmelin, and his last operatic performances in Britain were in 1955 at Bath, with Grétry's Zémire et Azor.

Between 1951 and 1960, Beecham conducted at the Royal Festival Hall no fewer than 92 times. Characteristic Beecham programmes of the RPO years included symphonies by Bizet, Cesar Franck, Haydn, Schubert and Tchaikovsky; Strauss's Ein Heldenleben; concertos by Mozart and Camille Saint-Saëns; a Delius/Sibelius programme; and many of his favoured shorter pieces. Though in his seventies, Beecham did not stick uncompromisingly to his familiar repertoire. After the sudden death of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, Beecham in tribute conducted the two programmes his younger colleague had been due to present at the Festival Hall; these included Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 3, Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, Brahms's Symphony No 1, and Samuel Barber's Second Essay for Orchestra.

In the summer of 1958, Beecham conducted a season at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina, consisting of Verdi's Otello, Bizet's Carmen, Beethoven's Fidelio, Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delilah and Mozart's Magic Flute. These were his last operatic performances. His last illness prevented his operatic debut at Glyndebourne in a planned Magic Flute and a final appearance at Covent Garden conducting Berlioz's The Trojans.

Sixty-six years after his first visit to America, Beecham made his last, beginning in late 1959, conducting in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Washington. During this tour, he also conducted in Canada. He flew back to London on 12 April 1960 and thereafter never left England. Beecham's final concert was at Portsmouth on 7 May 1960. The programme, all characteristic choices, comprised the Magic Flute Overture, Haydn's Symphony No. 100 (the Military), Beecham's own Handel arrangement, Love in Bath, Schubert's Symphony No. 5, On the River by Delius, and the Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah.

Thomas Beecham died of a coronary thrombosis at his London flat, aged 81. He was buried two days later in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. Owing to changes at Brookwood, his mortal remains were exhumed in 1991 and reburied in St Peter's churchyard at Limpsfield, Surrey. His grave is situated approximately 10 metres from that of the composer Frederick Delius. Sir Thomas was succeeded in the baronetcy by his elder son, Adrian Welles Beecham.

Personal life

Beecham was married three times. In 1903 he married Utica Celestina Welles, daughter of Dr Charles S. Welles, of New York, and his wife Ella Celeste, née Miles. Beecham and his wife had two sons, Adrian, born in 1904 and Thomas, born in 1909. After the birth of the second child, Beecham began to drift away from the marriage. Beecham was involved as co-respondent in a much-publicised divorce case in 1911, by which time he was no longer living with his wife and family. Utica ignored advice that she should divorce him and secure substantial alimony: she did not believe in divorce. She never remarried after Beecham divorced her (in 1943), and she outlived her former husband by sixteen years, dying in 1977.

In 1909 or early 1910, Beecham began an affair with Maud Alice (known as Emerald), Lady Cunard (d. 1948). Although they never lived together, it continued, despite other relationships on his part, until his remarriage in 1943. She was a tireless fund-raiser for his musical enterprises. Biographers are agreed that she was in love with him, but that his feelings for her were milder. In 1943 she was devastated to learn (not from him) that he intended to divorce Utica to marry Betty Humby. During the 1920s and 1930s he also had an affair with Dora Strang (Labbette; 1898–1994), a soprano sometimes known as Lisa Perli, with whom he had a son.

In 1943 Beecham married Betty Humby, a concert pianist twenty nine years his junior. Beecham and his second wife were a devoted couple until her death in 1958. In 1959, two years before his death, he married his former secretary, Shirley Hudson, who had worked for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's administration since 1950.

Repertoire

Handel, Haydn and Mozart

The earliest composer whose music Beecham regularly performed was Handel. Beecham's versions of Handel ignored the 'professors, pedants, pedagogues.' Beecham followed Mendelssohn and Mozart in editing Handel's scores to meet contemporary requirements. At a time when Handel's operas were scarcely known, Beecham knew them so well that he was able to arrange three ballets, two other suites and a piano concerto from inter alia, Admeto, Alcina, Ariodante, Clori Tirsi e Fileno, Lotario, Il Parnasso in Festa, Il Pastor Fido, Radamisto, Rinaldo, Rodrigo, Serse, Teseo and The Triumph of Time and Truth.

With Haydn, too, Beecham was far from an authenticist, using unscholarly nineteenth century texts, avoiding the use of the harpsichord, and phrasing the music romantically. He recorded the twelve 'London' symphonies, but in concerts generally stuck to numbers 93, 97, 99, 100 and 101. Beecham played The Seasons regularly throughout his career, recording it for EMI in 1956, and in 1944 added The Creation to his repertoire.

For Beecham, Mozart was "the central point of European music, and so he treated the composer's scores with more deference than he gave most others. He edited the incomplete Requiem and made English translations of at least two of the great operas, introducing Covent Garden audiences who had rarely if ever heard them to Così fan Tutte, The Impresario and Abduction from the Seraglio, and regularly programming The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. He considered the best of the piano concertos to be "the most beautiful compositions of their kind in the world" and played them many times with Betty Humby-Beecham and others.

German music

Beecham was not known for his Bach but nonetheless chose Bach (arranged by Beecham) for his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, and gave the Third Brandenburg Concerto in one of his memorial concerts for Furtwängler (described by The Times as "a travesty, albeit an invigorating one.")

Beecham's attitude to Beethoven was ambivalent. He regularly made rude remarks about Beethoven's music. On the other hand, he conducted all the symphonies during his career; he made studio recordings of Nos. 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8, and a live recording of the Missa Solemnis. He accompanied the Fourth Piano Concerto with pleasure (recording it with Arthur Rubinstein and the LPO), but avoided the Emperor when possible.

In Brahms's music, Beecham was selective. In his memoirs he made no mention of any Brahms performance after the year 1909. He never conducted the Fourth Symphony, rarely conducted the First, programmed the Third occasionally and made a speciality of the Second.

Beecham was a great Wagnerian, despite his frequent expostulation about the composer's length and repetitiousness: "We've been rehearsing for two hours – and we're still playing the same bloody tune! Beecham conducted all the works in the regular Wagner canon with the exception of Parsifal, which he presented at Covent Garden but never with himself in the pit. The chief music critic of The Times observed: "Beecham's Lohengrin was almost Italian in its lyricism; his Ring was less heroic than Bruno Walter's or Furtwängler's, but it sang from beginning to end.

Richard Strauss found a lifelong champion in Beecham, who introduced Elektra, Salome, Der Rosenkavalier and other operas to England and played Ein Heldenleben from 1910 until his last year: his final recording of it was released shortly after his death. Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegel, the Bourgeois Gentilhomme music and Don Juan also featured his repertory, but not Also Sprach Zarathustra or Tod und Verklärung. Strauss had the first and last pages of the manuscript of Elektra framed and presented them to "my highly honoured friend... and distinguished conductor of my work.

French and Italian music

Of 19th century composers, Berlioz featured prominently in Beecham's repertoire throughout his career, and in an age when the composer's works were far from over-exposed, Beecham presented most of them and recorded many. Along with Sir Colin Davis, Beecham has been described as one of the two "foremost modern interpreters" of this composer. Both in concert and the recording studio, Beecham's choices of French music were characteristically eclectic. He avoided Ravel but regularly programmed Debussy. Fauré did not feature often, though the Pavane was an exception, and Beecham's 1959 recording of the Dolly Suite has rarely been out of the catalogues since its first release. Bizet was often in his programmes, and other French composers favoured by Beecham included Gustave Charpentier, Leo Delibes, Henri Duparc, André Ernest Modeste Grétry, Lalo, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Offenbach, Saint-Saens and Ambroise Thomas. Many of Beecham's later recordings of French music were made in Paris with the Orchestra National de la Radiodiffusion Française. "C'est un dieu", their concertmaster said of Beecham, in 1957.

Of the more than two dozen operas in the Verdi canon, Beecham conducted eight during his long career: Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Aida, Don Carlos, Rigoletto, Un Ballo in Maschera, Otello and Falstaff. As early as 1904, Beecham met Puccini through the librettist Giuseppe Illica, who had written a libretto for Beecham while he was still attempting to become a composer. At the time of their meeting, Puccini and Illica were revising Madama Butterfly after its disastrous première. Beecham seldom conducted that work, but conducted Tosca, Turandot and La bohème. His 1956 recording of Bohème, with Victoria de Los Angeles and Jussi Bjorling has seldom been out of the catalogues since its release. After making the recording, he observed that Bohème was one of his three favourite operas; he did not name the other two.

Delius, Sibelius and "Lollipops"

Except for Delius, Beecham was generally antipathetic to, or at best lukewarm about, the music of his native land and its most acclaimed composers. Beecham's championship of Delius promoted the composer from relative obscurity. The great authority on Delius, Eric Fenby, referred to Beecham as "excelling all others in the music of Delius... Groves and Sargent may have matched him in the great choruses of A Mass of Life, but in all else Beecham was matchless, especially with the orchestra. Beecham put on a Delius Festival in 1929 and presented his operas and concert works throughout his career. Beecham also led the programme of the Delius Society to record the composer's works.

The only other major 20th century composer apart from Delius to engage his sympathies was Jean Sibelius, who recognised him as a fine conductor of his music (though Sibelius tended to be lavish with praise of anybody who conducted his music). When the composer was celebrating his ninetieth birthday, he and Beecham listened to recordings of Sibelius's music, played at full volume, clearly relishing the sounds, while the Royal Philharmonic players fled the room. In a live recording of his 8 December 1954 concert performance of Sibelius's Second Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall, Beecham can be heard uttering encouraging shouts at the orchestra at climactic moments.

Beecham was dismissive of some of the established classics, saying for example that he would happily give up all of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet's Manon. But he was famous for presenting slight pieces as encores, which he called "lollipops". Some of the best-known were Berlioz's Danse des sylphes (La Damnation de Faust); Chabrier's Joyeuse Marche and Gounod's Le Sommeil de Juliette.

Recordings

Beecham began making recordings in 1910, when the acoustical process forced orchestras to use only principal instruments, placed as close to the recording horn as possible. His first recordings, for His Master's Voice (HMV), were devoted to excerpts from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann and Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus. In 1915, Beecham began recording for the Columbia Graphophone Company.

Electrical recording technology (introduced in 1925–26) made it possible to record a full orchestra with much greater frequency range, and Beecham quickly recorded in the new medium. Longer scores had to be broken into four-minute segments to fit on 12-inch 78-rpm discs, but Beecham was not averse to recording piecemeal – his well-known 1932 disc of Chabrier's España was recorded in two sessions three weeks apart.

Columbia Records produced many of his recordings, using EMI crews in London. From 1926 to 1932, Beecham made nearly 150 78-rpm sides, including an English version of Gounod's Faust and the first of three recordings of Handel's Messiah. He began recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1933, recording more than 300 78-rpm sides for Columbia, including music by Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, Wagner, Handel, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, and Delius.

Although Beecham signed a contract with RCA Victor on in 1941, it was three years before he recorded with that company. Instead, he made his first American recordings, for Columbia, in June 1942. There was a recording ban imposed by the American Federation of Musicians in the United States after those recordings were made, which continued until 1944. Although Columbia was among the first companies to settle with the musicians union, Beecham recorded primarily for RCA until he became unhappy with their refusal to adopt the new long-playing recordings introduced by Columbia in 1948. (RCA waited two years before releasing 33-1/3-rpm discs.) So, Beecham returned to Columbia and recorded again in New York City in December 1949. There were also recordings for Columbia with the Philadelphia Orchestra in February 1952.

Beecham lived long enough to make recordings in stereo, beginning in 1955. He professed ignorance about the process despite having participated in experimental stereophonic recordings in Britain in the early 1930s, including a performance of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. His 1955 stereo recordings included a performance of Sibelius's late symphonic poem, Tapiola, later reissued as the very first Seraphim Records LP disc. Most of his later recordings were made by EMI and released on HMV in the United Kingdom and on the Angel or Capitol labels in the U.S. Two complete operas were recorded in stereo, Abduction from the Seraglio and Carmen.

EMI and the BBC prepared several albums featuring excerpts from Beecham's rehearsals, recording sessions, and concerts, as well as interviews with Beecham and musicians who had known him, containing many examples of Beecham's extempore wit. At one rehearsal, when a tuba player fluffed a note, Beecham called out "Thank you, and now would you pull the chain? While making his famous 1956 recording of La bohème, Beecham asked Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill to do a second take of their duet, even though the first take had been approved. Asked why, he answered, "Because I simply love to hear those boys sing it!

Among his last recordings was a much-discussed RCA Victor recording of Eugène Goossens's arrangement for a full modern orchestra of Handel's Messiah. His very last recordings were made in December 1959, some of which were released after his death.

Beecham and others

Beecham's relations with fellow British conductors were not always cordial. Sir Henry Wood regarded him as an upstart and was envious of his success; the scrupulous Sir Adrian Boult found him "repulsive" as a man and a musician; and Sir John Barbirolli mistrusted him. Sir Malcolm Sargent worked with him in founding the London Philharmonic, and was a friend and ally, but was nevertheless the subject of many witty but unkind digs from Beecham who, for example, described Herbert von Karajan as "a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent." Beecham's relations with foreign conductors were often excellent. He did not get on well with Arturo Toscanini, but he liked and encouraged Wilhelm Furtwängler, admired Pierre Monteux, fostered Rudolf Kempe as his successor with the RPO, and was admired by Fritz Reiner, and Herbert von Karajan.

Despite his lordly drawl, Beecham remained a Lancastrian at heart. "In my county, where I come from, we're all a bit vulgar, you know, but there is a certain heartiness – a sort of bonhomie about our vulgarity – which tides you over a lot of rough spots in the path. But in Yorkshire, in a spot of bother, they're so damn-set-in-their-ways that there's no doing anything with them!

Beecham was, and remains, much quoted. The book Beecham Stories was published in 1978 consisting entirely of his bons mots and anecdotes about him. Some Beecham stories are apocryphal (Neville Cardus admitted to inventing some himself). Some are variously attributed to Beecham or one or more other people, including Arnold Bax and Winston Churchill. The story is told of how, around 1950, Beecham met a lady whom he recognised but whose name he couldn't remember. After some preliminaries about the weather, and desperately racking his memory, he asked how she was.

"Oh, very well, but my brother has been rather ill lately."
"Ah, yes, your brother. I'm sorry to hear that. And, er, what is your brother doing at the moment?"
"Well... he's still King", replied Princess Mary.

Honours and commemorations

Beecham was knighted in 1916 and succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his father later that year. In 1938 the President of France, Albert Lebrun, invested him with the Legion of Honour (Légion d'honneur). He was a Commendatore of the Order of the Crown of Italy. He was made a Companion of Honour in the 1957 Queen's Birthday Honours, and was an honorary Doctor of Music of the universities of Oxford, London, Manchester and Montreal.

Beecham by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin is a play celebrating Sir Thomas. Written in 1979, it starred Timothy West in the title role and drew on a large number of Beecham stories for its material. It was later adapted for television, with members of the Hallé Orchestra taking part in the action and playing pieces associated with Beecham.

In 1980 the Royal Mail put the image of Beecham on its 13½p postage stamp in a series portraying British conductors, the other three featuring Wood, Sargent and Barbirolli. The Sir Thomas Beecham Society preserves Beecham's legacy through its website and release of historic recordings.

Published books

  • A Mingled Chime, (an autobiography)
  • John Fletcher (1956), Oxford, Clarendon Press. (The Romanes Lecture for 1956).
  • Frederick Delius (1959), London, Hutchinson & Co. Revised 1975, with Introduction by Felix Aprahamian and Discography by Malcolm Walker (Severn House).

See also

Thomas Beecham selected discography

Notes

References

External links

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