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was born at St. Helens, Lancashire, April 29, 1879, son of a wealthy patent pill manufacturer and civic leader. When he was 7 he was precociously studying the opera scores of Wagner, and at 10 he organized an amateur orchestra. He first visited America with his father, who came on business in 1893. Young Thomas was educated at Rossall School and Wadham College, Oxford, and by extensive foreign travel.
Having already conducted the Halle Orchestra in his teens, he first appeared as a conductor in London in 1905, and in 1906 he organized the New Symphony Orchestra with family funds. After a fine beginning, that venture failed and Beecham founded another--the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, with which he gave concerts until the beginning of World War I. By 1911 he was in charge of opera at Covent Garden; during this stage of his career he produced some 120 operas, about half of them new to British audiences, or long neglected. In 1911 he introduced Diaghilev's Russian Ballet into England, as well as Russian opera with Chaliapin, Wagner cycles, and first performances in England of major works by Richard Strauss and operas by several British composers. In 1916, upon his father's death, he succeeded to the title of Baronet and a huge inheritance; he was knighted on January 1, 1916, for his services to music, and opera in particular.
During World War I he financed orchestras and opera companies all over England, including the Beecham Opera Company, which moved in to fill the void when Govent Garden closed. After the war, the Beecham's Pills fortune was exhausted and funds supplied by Lady "Emerald" Canard and other music patrons had declined.
Beecham made his American debut in 1928, and the following year he presided over a Delius festival in London. In 1932 he became chief conductor of the Leeds Festival, guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic and at Salzburg, and founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra with strengthened personal finances. Beecham's first London concert with that orchestra, according to Grove's Dictionary, "indisputably confirmed his reputation as the greatest British executant of the century." In 1933 he became artistic director of Covent Garden, and held that position for seven years with "ever-increasing brilliance of performance and variety of repertoire" In 1938 the President of France bestowed upon him the decoration of the Legion of Honor. Guest appearances with various American orchestras brought him to this country frequently, and he spent World War II conducting in America (most notably at the Metropolitan Opera), Canada, Latin America and Australia. His autobiography, "A Mingled Chime,' was published in 1943, and in the following year he returned to England. In 1947 he founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a hand-picked ensemble which he trained and recorded with until near the end of his life; together they toured the U.S. and Canada in 1950. (After Beecham's death it was announced by Lady Beecham that Rudolf Kempe, associate conductor since 1960, had been appointed principal conductor of the orchestra.)
In 1957 he was named a "Companion of Honour, one of England's highest distinctions, but most of the year was spent in semi-retirement in his home at St. Jean Cap Ferrat, near the French Riviera. He emerged upon the death of his friend Jean Sibelius to conduct his music and that of others all over the Continent, and to make many important recordings. Sir Thomas died in London on March 8,1961, at the age of 81, of a second cerebral thrombosis. He had been ill for several months and had cancelled a number of engagements in Europe. America heard him last in early 1960.
He was married three times: first in 1903 to Utica Celestia Welles of New York, their marriage ending in divorce in 1943. Soon after he married the English pianist Betty Humby, who died in 1958. In 1959 he married his former secretary, Shirley Hudson. He had two sons by his first marriage.
SIR THOMAS BEECHAM by David Bicknell
WITH THE DEATH of Sir Thomas Beecham, England has lost her greatest executive musician, possibly the greatest that she has ever produced, and the world has lost a conductor of genius. Sir Thomas was not only a musician-he was famous as a wit, controversialist, orator, was an accomplished writer, was deeply read, had travelled widely and was a man armed at all points. It is unlikely that we will be entertained by his like again because he was a product of his age and the age has ended. Only by the union of genius and inherited wealth operating in an age of privilege could such an artist be produced. Possibly the genius will be forthcoming but the wealth and the privilege have been swept away--no doubt a man endowed with such outstanding gifts will make his mark in any society and in any age but certainly he cannot make the same kind of career and travel by the road that was chosen by Sir Thomas. Often his methods were extravagant and infuriating to others but the results were usually of the finest, and those who had obeyed the rules and plodded along the orthodox highway rarely scaled the heights that were his by the virtue of his natural talent and irregular development.
As a child I was frequently taken to hear him conduct; as a young man I slipped into his rehearsals uninvited. I met him over thirty years ago but it was only after the war that I began to work with him regularly. From 1946 until his death few weeks passed without some meeting or communication. Our meetings took place in many countries, in widely differing surroundings, at all hours of the day and night, and on occasions gay and sad. There were milestones such as the luncheon given by Electic & Musical Industries Ltd., on his 70th birthday and attended by many famous people, and the dinner party given by himself on the evening of his 80th birthday to a small group of intimate friends of which I was privileged to form a part. On all these occasions-large or small-Sir Thomas dominated the proceedings and rarely failed to entertain.
The art of the great conductor seems to me to be magical and inexplicable. That a great singer or instrumentalist by infinite experiment and repetition should develop his or her art until it becomes unique is only natural and easily understandable. That a conductor with a powerful personality, deeply felt convictions about music and much experience working invariably with the same orchestra should influence these men to the point at which they absorb much of his feeling is also only natural. But that a different body of men, who have been working possibly with another conductor, with views wholly different, should after a few hours' rehearsal reproduce to perfection his inimitable interpretation is truly miraculous.
I have had opportunities given to few people to listen time after time to the greatest conductors in rehearsal, have on many occasions discussed the fascinating subject with the conductors themselves, with dozens of the most gifted orchestral players, and with soloists, and I have never heard anyone give a really convincing explanation. Of course the dry bones of the matter are easily laid bare, but the spirit evades capture.
Sir Thomas was one of that very rare and exclusive company capable of producing these results, and I heard him do so in England, America, France, Germany and Italy. Command of a common language was not essential-he had no difficulties with the best French orchestra when he returned to Paris a few years ago--they started to work for him with apprehension but at the end of the first session they gave him a great ovation.
Temperamentally there have been immense differences between the great international conductors, but they all have one thing in common--a passion for music and a great deal more energy, mental and physical, than the average individual. Although they have been granted these exceptional powers of endurance I have also observed that they have been aided, firstly, by an economy of effort, as they know their job to perfection and achieve the best results with the minimum of strife; secondly, because they know how to relax when not working; and thirdly, because the more celebrated they become the less they have to fritter away their energies in futile activities--in other words they sit still and people come to them.
Certainly the octogenarian conductors are a very remarkable phenomenon. I have seen Pierre Monteux conduct during one day for nine hours at the age of 82, Tullio Serafin stand up conducting for six hours and in between take a piano rehearsal at 80, and Toscanini conduct for four hours without a break, also standing, and afterwards engage in an animated conversation with me for forty minutes calling on a memory apparently unimpaired by age at 83!
Sir Thomas was in this class. Once I was in New York by pure chance when he happened to be there. On returning to my hotel after midnight I found a message asking that I should go round to his hotel no matter at what hour I returned. It was only one block away and he had a suite on the sixteenth floor. When I arrived, there were five people in the sitting room and a great deal of cigar smoke. It was obvious at a glance that, with the exception of Sir Thomas, they were all in the last stages of exhaustion and probably semi-asphixiated by the cigar smoke which had been created by him. He was as fresh as a daisy. They were setting up some kind of a Trust and I was asked to answer some questions related to royalty payments. After giving my opinion I was glad to make my escape and go to bed while this unfortunate group of lawyers and tax experts settled down to a long session, cross-examined by their redoubtable client, who was approximately double their age! My heart bled for them!
Similarly my old friend Samuel Chotzinoff, who for many years acted as the link between the National Broadcasting Corporation of America and Toscanini, told me that when he and his family stayed with the Maestro they had to organise themselves into watches to cope with his extraordinary activity, as he only needed four hours sleep each night and could not understand why everyone was not about the rest of the day; at least one of them had to be available!
Sir Thomas' conversation was inclined to be a monologue-but what a monologue! He had met everyone worth meeting since the age of 25 and his acquaintances were by no means confined to musicians, although of course they were well represented. His intelligence, wealth and position in the musical world, aided no doubt by what was regarded then as an orthodox education, had carried him early into exclusive circles which were then much more difficult to penetrate than now.
There were few people whom he had not met and of whom he could not talk with real knowledge and understanding. He had brought Chaliapin and the Russian Ballet out of Russia to London for the first time; he had known most of the leading British politicians. He had conducted for Saint-Sacns, dined with Mark Twain and stayed with Grieg and his wife in Norway. Edward VII had often visited Covent Garden during his regime. He was a close friend of Richard Strauss and had produced his greatest works for the first time in this country; he had interesting things to say about Puccini; he was connected closely with "Les Six" in France. As a boy he had been to Chicago with his father when, to use his own words, "It was still a city of shacks" and he had lived to see it grovv into the impressive city of today. In fact he had travelled all over the world and he had been a most discerning observer.
By nature if not by birth he was an aristrocrat, preserving the standards of refinement and elegance which should be the justification for aristocracy, while he demanded the privileges which are its natural reward. Whereas many great musicians are indifferent to their surroundings, Sir Thomas owned splendid pictures, prints, furniture, books and silver, appreciated their beauty and set them out to great advantage. He was a considerate host, a gourmet-nothing pleased him more than to choose, with long experience to aid him, a short but well balanced meal--and his knowledge of wines was discerning and refined. This same refinement he carried into music--unless he set out deliberately to shock.
When it came to choosing singers he demanded the same standard of good taste that he had acquired by right. They were not always easy to find. In my experience he would do nothing to train singers, but once he found those whom he liked he would do wonders to assist them. For example, in his recent recordings of "Carmen" and "The Abduction from the Seraglio" he made great demands on the singers but he lavished a lifetime of experience and sensibility on their accompaniment.
Vulgarity in music he could not abide, but a bucolic vigour in the right place he admired. When listening to a test of a baritone--not chosen--for "Carmen" he turned to me and said, "David, he's made a mistake, he thinks that he is the bull instead of the Toreador!" On the other hand when discussing a projected recording of Handel's "Acis and Galatea" he said, "We'll never find anyone as good as that rumbustious old Australian baritone Peter Dawson for 'Oh ruddier than the cherry'" A year later I met Peter in Sydney, where he is living in retirement, and told him of this remark, much to his amusement.
He had a good earthy side to his own character. Football Cup Finals, wrestling and boxing amused him immensely. He thought that the television advertisements-particularly in the United States- were a perfect scream and he loudly proclaimed that nothing better in its line than the vacation town of Blackpool in his native Lancashire had ever been created.
He was a master at relieving the tensions of recording by producing some new anecdote or witty sally.
As the years went by his methods of recording became more and more apparently disorganised. For example he would make a test of a bit of a heavily scored Strauss tone poem and then, to the fury of the engineers, change to a delicately orchestrated piece of Bizet needing new microphone positions.
In fact there was much more method than appeared at first sight in his goings on. If he abandoned temporarily the Strauss it was because some passage had displeased him and he needed time to consider what he would do about it. With his vast experience of recording very often he would get the effect he wanted by some change in bowing or even a change in orchestration. Sometimes this would not suffice and he would say to us, "I can do no more-you must bring out that cor anglais passage" (or whatever it might be ).Under his hand the orchestra developed great flexibility and clarity of texture. The difference between the first reading of a piece and its final form was often a marvel, and he loved to lavish all his skill on a second class composition which had caught his fancy-such pieces as Massenet's "Last Sleep of the Virgin" and the minor pieces of Delius. He knew perfectly well how slender they were and often I heard him say, "I don't know what more you can do with the damn thing!"
In fact he liked a great deal of music which most people considered second rate. Conversely he ran down in conversation many venerated figures. Although he liked to conduct the Second Brahms Symphony, frequently he referred to "that old bore Brahms!" When recording the third movement of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony he said to me, "What can you do with it?--it's like a lot of yaks jumping about."
Of course he shared the love of all great musicians for the bulk of classical music and never intended remarks such as these to be taken very seriously; but he had an impish side to his character which delighted in twitting the overrespectable. Nevertheless' he was sincere in considering that the French were much more gifted than the Germans as orchestrators, regarding the "Symphonie Fantastique" as a miracle of brilliance and effect; his dislike of Brahms and some Beethoven was for their alleged thickness of texture. From his point of view this was quite logical, as he liked elegance, wit, brilliance and melody. His personality was too strong and his convictions held too sincerely to allow him to make many compromises in interpretation, and certainly he was uneasy in the role of instrumental accompanist, disagreeing with many soloists' readings.
What of his personal character? No doubt a book will be written on the subject, but not by me. In my dealings with him, invariably he was courteous and considerate. I never heard him fly into the rages that were not unusual with Toscanini. Contrary to general belief it was his habit to speak well of his contemporaries; in fact I rarely heard him discuss voluntarily colleagues who were living, but sometimes he showed interest in an eminent contemporary. When Victor de Sabata was enjoying great success in London soon after the war, he asked me to bring him to tea and they got on famously together. In fact so well that there was some talk of their sharing an opera season, at which Sir Thomas should direct "Zauberflote" and "Die Meistersinger" and de Sabata"Otello" and"Falstaff"
In his dealings with individuals he inspired, as I have said, respect and in many deep devotion. Although he was capable of treating many people with great generosity there was some strange twist in his nature which forced him from time to time to dismiss associates who were, in fact, devoted to his interests. His wit was often so brilliant that in a phrase he could annihilate a colleague if he chose to do so and these mots went the round of the international musical world. But in most cases I think that they were not meant to kill.
State aid, such as has become essential for most artistic undertakings in Great Britain today as a result of our punitive scales of taxation, was abhorrent to Sir Thomas; and he detested all forms of bureaucratic interference. When the B.B.C. first formed their Symphony Orchestra, which in later years recorded with Toscanini, they offered the direction to him. He refused and was quite right to do so, as it would have been impossible for him to provide the sort of service which presumably they had in mind. His reply was to found the London Philharmonic Orchestra. At the end of the war this orchestra, which had held together by their own efforts in his absence in the United States, asked him to return as conductor, leaving the business arrangements in other hands. He turned down the offer and refounded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in which he directed everything.
To keep an orchestra alive and occupied and make it as good as any other in the world, without State aid, was a remarkable achievement. He did more than that; he took them on a highly successful tour in the United States in 1950 and intended to repeat the tour in 1961 with Ansermet as joint conductor. In recent years they paid several visits to the Continent.
His ability to extract money from other people to sustain his projects was unparalleled. Once he said to me, "I never go to a financial meeting without having some brick in my pocket" He knew very well when to hurl it and usually it caught the recipient squarely on the nose!
No secrets will be betrayed if I state that a few years before his death he had one of his differences of opinion with the Income Tax authorities and decided to live abroad. All his treasures were packed up and put in store and he leased a house overlooking the little harbour of Cap Ferrat near Nice on the French Riviera. It was from this garden that the excellent photograph was taken of him in a Panama hat which forms the cover of the first "Lollipops" album. (He never wore a hat in reality-he borrowed one for the occasion to please the French photographer!)
His stay there only lasted a few months and off he went to nearby Vence, where he rented a Villa belonging to Michael Cherniavsky; then he turned up in Paris and for a time was at Lausanne. For a few days he was at Geneva, where I went with him and his wife for a steamer trip down the lake and back; the steamer had a very asthmatic siren which he loved to imitate, to the astonishment of the staid Swiss. In the middle of these wanderings he went off to Argentina, where he carried through triumphantly a season of opera at the Teatro Colon, and he demonstrated once more the extraordinary breadth of his musical taste in conducting "Otello" "Carmen,' "Samson and Delilah,'"Don Giovanni" and "Fidelio"
The tour of the United States which he undertook in the early months of 1960 would have been a very exhausting one for a man half his age. For Sir Thomas it was particularly tiring owing to a virus infection which he contracted at the beginning of the tour and to the exceptionally bad weather, which prevented flying and necessitated long train journeys, often at night. On his return to London he was utterly exhausted and never recovered his health fully.
During his long lifetime he talked and often belaboured the British music public into appreciating areas of music hitherto unknown and unappreciated by them. No one could have been more scathing about their Philistinism or made more assaults on some of their cherished musical illusions, but all this fundamentally was a facade. At heart he was a great Englishman, proud of his race, ready to join battle, as I heard him do on many occasions, with anyone who ran it down.
In his person he had many characteristics which used to be regarded as typically English-the short, stocky build, the splendid head and the pugnacious manner, allied with great personal charm. In private conversation, in spite of many odd and fascinating facets of character, he gave the impression that he represented the accumulated wisdom of many generations, a characteristic which one often finds in men of his distinction in the Old World.
I continued to see him at frequent intervals until shortly before his death. As Sir Malcolm Sargent has related, he became mellower in his last days, but the brilliance of his mind and his command of the memorable phrase remained unimpaired. During our last talk together he said how much he loved France and told me of his plans to visit the Chateaux in the Loire again this summer and he agreed that Azay le Rideau was the best. The talk turned to famous singers of the past, a subject that always amused him, and I recall that he said that accompanying Tetrazzini was like "taking part in a cavalry charge--hell for leather. Oh, it was most exciting"
His young wife provided him with every comfort that devoted service could devise, and my last impression of him is seated in his high-backed armchair looking serene and surrounded by his beautiful pictures and books.When I heard of his death I could not help recalling Sir Winston Churchill's magnificent description of the death of Lord Balfour:
"Amid universal goodwill and widespread affection he
celebrated triumphantly his eightieth birthday. But thereafter
hungry Time began to revenge itself upon one who had so long disdained
its menace. He became an invalid. His body was stricken, but his
mind retained, almost to the very end, its clear, tranquil outlook
upon the human scene, and its inexhaustible pleasure in the processes
of thought."I had the privilege of visiting him several times
during the last months of his life. I saw with grief the approaching
departure, and-for all human purposes --extinction, of a being
high-uplifted above the common run. As I observed him regarding
with calm, firm and cheerful gaze the approach of Death, I felt
how foolish the Stoics were to make such a fuss about an event
so natural and so indispensable to mankind. But I felt also the
tragedy which robs the world of all the wisdom and treasure gathered
in a great man's life and experience, and hands the lamp to some
impetuous and untutored stripling, or lets it fall shivered into
fragments upon the ground"
BEECHAM THE UNIQUE by Desmond Shawe-Taylor
THERE are men who, by sheer force of personality, focus the vague interests and tastes of their fellow countrymen. Sir Thomas Beecham was one of these. He left England a far more musical place than he found it; and he achieved this result by a dazzling variety of gifts, of which his musical genius was only one.
His wit, his ebullience, his assumed and mischievous air of pomposity, his princely public benefactions and subsequent tussles with the tax inspector, his calculated and devastating thrusts at dullness and mediocrity: all these aspects of his character made him one of the best-known men in England. At one time his very brilliance caused him to be distrusted by sober, right-thinking, middle-of-the-road persons; but in due course he triumphed. He became a national monument. His combination of energy and enthusiasm, vitality and genius, helped to put music on the map for the previously indifferent man in the street; and there, happily, it has stayed.
Had he been of German birth, no doubt he would have enjoyed one of those regular careers at the head of a series of great musical institutions-although it is not easy to envisage him as a respected Kapellmeister. But, being English, he had to create the institutions himself. Thus, he created several orchestras in succession: the New Symphony in 1906, the Beecham Orchestra in 1909, the London Philharmonic ( (memorably) in 1932, the Royal Philharmonic in 1947. He created an English opera company which presented a novel and ambitious repertory during the difficult years of the first world war, and which was later to become the British National Opera Company.
Before that, he had mounted season after brilliant season of opera and ballet, wholly or mainly at his own expense, introducing to London one by one the Strauss operas from "Feuersnot" to "Ariadne auf Naxos" Diaghilev's Russian Ballet, and the then nevv and fabulous world of Russian opera, with Chaliapin in the masterpieces of Mussorgsky and Rimsky Korsakov.
Grove's Dictionary makes a claim for Beecham's operatic activities which sounds fantastic but, so far as I know, remains unchallenged: that"as conductor and impresario he produced 120 operas in all, of which some sixty were new to Great Britain or revived after a long period of neglect" What he did for the operatic repertory in the earlier part of his career he achieved also in the concert-hall, especially after his re-emergence there in 1926.
He was insatiably curious, and delighted to follow his fancy far off the beaten track. Now and again his researches would produce a stuffed owl whose wings not even his genius could stimulate into new flight. But for every such Lalo Symphony or Offenbach Cello Concerto, we are indebted to Beecham for countless stimulating extensions of our musical experience into fields previously closed to us.
In fact, his sympathies were amazingly wide. He didn't care for the mog,umental, brooding, philosophical side of the German musical temperament, and in a recent broadcast he let us into "a secret"--that he much preferred French music to German. But not many Germans have given such radiant performances as he used to give of the Second and Eighth Symphonies of Beethoven, or of the Second of Brahms; and he opened the eyes of a whole generation, in England and elsewhere, to the richness and variety and tenderness of Mozart.
We sometimes think of him as a specialist in this or that composer; in Mozart, say, or in Delius. But if we start to jot down a list of the composers he made peculiarly his own, we find a long and wonderfully diverse gallery. Handel and Haydn, Rossini and Berlioz, Liszt and Balakirev, Bizet and Chabrier, Strauss and Sibelius: each in turn he presented with the ardour of a lover.
For, if most conductors seem wedded to music, Beecham treated the art as though it were his mistress. Husbands tend to take their wives for granted; to lovers each meeting is an adventure and a fresh intoxication. In Beecham's love for the sheer stuff and substance of music there was something almost erotic; as one saw and heard him wheel full round to his violins and coax them into unimaginably subtle refinements of phrasing and tone in some melody which they all knew by heart, one could sense the physical magnetism that he exercised over his players. He never bored them, because he was never bored himself.
His secret was an unrivalled spontaneity, a superb sense of occasion, of the actual here and now. Until the very end of his career, it was his custom to conduct everything without a score. This was not a piece of exhibitionism: he needed to preserve an unbroken contact with the orchestra, and the score would have been a mere distraction to him; his prodigious memory, nourished by long hours of silent study, is the subject of countless anecdotes in the musical profession.
In his delightful book, "The Orchestra Speaks,' Mr. Bernard Shore recalls an occasion during one of Beecham's early opera seasons when "he decided on the spur of the moment that he would conduct. Arriving at his place when the curtain was due to rise, he leant over to his leader: 'We are performing "Figaro" tonight, are we not?' 'Oh no, Sir Thomas, said the leader, 'it is "Seraglio"' 'My dear fellow, you amaze me, With that he closed the score on his desk and proceeded to perform the opera from memory"
How I wish, by the way, that some Boswell had made it his business to follow this wittiest of men around and record his obiter dictal There are good things in Beecham's autobiography, 'A Mingled Chime,' but he was a wittier talker than writer, and it is the mischievously rotund turn of phrase in his simplest injunction that carries the true Beecham flavour: