Sir Thomas Beecham: the life and legacy of the great conductor
A guide to the legendary British conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, and his best recordings
When a 50-year-old Thomas Beecham made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic on 29 January 1930, his rapport with them was immediate. At the end of their first rehearsal, the players gave him a standing ovation.
In that same year, Beecham drew admiring reviews for performances of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Lohengrin in Wiesbaden, and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (introduced to Britain by Beecham in 1913) in Hamburg.
For Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at Cologne’s Easter opera festival, though assigned just ‘a rehearsal and a half’ with one of the principals arriving only in time for the performance itself, Beecham received 15 minutes of applause. The British critic Richard Capell, covering the event, reflected that, in contrast to Beecham’s overwhelming success in Germany, ‘at home, a proper sphere of action is still denied this rare spirit, who (can it be questioned?) is so far and away the finest musician our race and generation have produced in the executive field’.
Who was Thomas Beecham?
Thomas Beecham was a legendary conductor famous for some of the greatest performances in the early to mid-20th century
When was Thomas Beecham born and who were his parents?
Clearly, and contrary to legend, Beecham’s talent was not one solely promoted by the prodigious wealth of his family’s pharmaceutical business (which, in fact, had been bought from the family in 1924).
Still, being a son of Joseph Beecham, the music loving and well-to-do proprietor of Beecham’s Patent Pills, undoubtedly kick-started his career. He was born on 29 April 1879
When did he get his first break?
On 8 November 1899 the young Beecham, having had just one previous outing as a conductor with an amateur orchestra, found himself conducting the Hallé in a programme including Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. His father, on being elected mayor of St Helens, had booked the Hallé to give a celebratory concert conducted by Hans Richter. On discovering that Richter was due to be in Vienna on the date of his concert, and unable to find a conductor of similar repute, Joseph insisted – to the leader of the Hallé’s dismay – that his son should take charge instead.
The event proved a great success. Beecham, who had memorised the entire programme, impressed everyone by cuing the orchestra even without a score (a practice he maintained throughout his career). All too soon, though, he was at odds with his father, joining his eldest sister, Emily, to insist on their mother’s release from the asylum in which Joseph had incarcerated her against her will. Thomas and his father were estranged for almost ten years.
Thomas Beecham's unorthodox technique
Self-taught as a conductor, Beecham’s technique was anything but orthodox. The Musical Standard observed of his Queen’s Hall debut with the New Symphony Orchestra on 12 April 1907 that Beecham ‘has a good rhythmic beat but has a jerky awkward manner of exhibiting it and an exceedingly irritating habit of putting his left hand on his hip as if he didn’t know what to do with it’.
Yet such was Beecham’s passionate knowledge of the music he conducted, and his ability to communicate this to his players, that, as The Times reported of an earlier concert, ‘He got many effects that can only be got by a fine musician with his forces absolutely at his command.’
Beecham’s technique was scarcely more refined in 1941, although according to Olin Downes of the New York Times his performances with the New York City Symphony Orchestra eclipsed any from the more prestigious New York Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli: ‘Judged by the conventions of conducting, his technique, if such it can be called, and his style are precise examples, at least to the casual glance, of what a conductor should not do … He may indicate a sforzando in the manner of a man hurtling a brick or a bomb at a foe, or beat the measure freely with one arm while holding the baton in a clenched fist, invisible to the orchestra, at his back. It remains that the orchestra understands him, and that singularly inspired music floods torrentially and with precision from him and the instrumentalists…’
How many orchestras did Thomas Beecham found?
Beecham founded his first professional orchestra, the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, in 1909, drawing many of its players from the New Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra. In many ways the BSO established a pattern repeated when Beecham created the London Philharmonic Orchestra (founded 1932), and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1946).
Each orchestra was made up almost entirely of talented young players, whose playing Beecham honed through a combination of intense rehearsal (according to composer Dame Ethel Smyth, ‘only in Vienna under Mahler had I heard music rehearsed to such a pitch of perfection’), his sheer enthusiasm, genuine respect for the most capable of his musicians, and a mischievous, almost irreverent bonhomie – several of Beecham’s witticisms, however, some of them apocryphal, have not translated well in the 55 years since his death.
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The BSO’s opening concerts in 1909 included the premiere of Vaughan Williams’s In the Fen Country and the first London performance of Delius’s Sea Drift. That summer, Beecham and his orchestra participated in the first complete staging of Smyth’s The Wreckers. Joseph Beecham was finally reconciled with his son after watching that production – not coincidentally on the same night as Edward VII’s attendance.
From then until his death in 1916, Joseph lavishly supported Beecham and his projects. These included the British premieres of several Strauss operas: Feuersnot, Elektra and Salome, all in 1910, followed by Der Rosenkavalier in 1913. Joseph financed the Ballets Russes’s first London appearance in 1911, with the BSO accompanying, the orchestra winning the admiration of Stravinsky himself when performing his The Firebird and Petrushka under Pierre Monteux.
Beecham himself not only gave many performances of the Firebird suite (his 1916 recording of excerpts was apparently the first made of any Stravinsky) and Petrushka, but also gave the first British performance of Three Japanese Lyrics in January 1915, and just months later the London premiere of Ravel’s closely related Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé.
Beecham’s most ambitious creation was the Beecham Opera Company, founded in 1915 in the midst of the First World War. This was Britain’s first permanent national opera company, and its conductors apart from Beecham would later include Albert Coates, formerly of the Mariinsky Theatre, who left Russia after the Revolution.
Perhaps the company’s biggest coup was the world premiere of Puccini’s Il trittico, though Beecham offended the composer by dropping the least popular of its three single-act operas, Suor Angelica, after its second performance to make the evening shorter. The company collapsed in 1920 thanks to over-ambitious productions (both in number and cost), poor planning and lack of finance, Joseph having died in 1916.
Beecham acknowledged that unlike his father he had ‘no financial ability’. Though he often waived his fee, it was not enough to off-set the thousands of pounds (millions by today’s value) he spent both on projects which made poor return – including his Herculean efforts for English music in the first decades of the 20th century – and on several extra-marital affairs. Beecham’s disregard for inconvenient details such as the need to pay overtime for extra rehearsals, or to fulfill all rather than just some contracted performances, meant that many organisations were wary of him as a permanent liability.
Was Thomas Beecham liked?
In addition, his success as a conductor coupled with his minimal sense of diplomacy made him many enemies. Several of his peers, such as Henry Wood and Adrian Boult, found his affected nonchalance, lack of responsibility and casual poaching of their players hard to bear.
Beecham caused further resentment – even among players of the LPO (which ultimately spurred him to form the RPO) – by spending most of World War Two in America, enjoying the adulation of critics and audiences there. In New York, the laudatory reviews Beecham received from Olin Downes and Virgil Thomson galled John Barbirolli, the then chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and provoked Toscanini into writing a letter of protest to Downes, branding Beecham as ‘that Nazi-sympathizer man’ alluding to his controversial pre-war tour of Germany with the LPO (though Beecham rescued conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s Jewish assistant, Berta Geissmar, by appointing her as his own).
Nor did Beecham help his cause by playing the old reactionary, telling a journalist in the 1940s: ‘My boy, creative music is dead. I have an orchestra. I have an opera house. I can find nothing new that is worth listening to. It is over!’ Yet his legacy appears to have been not only unavoidable, but also nourishing.
Benjamin Britten for all his sniping against Beecham, persisted in listening to a broadcast of him conducting Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste in 1939, despite interruptions by phone calls. Bartók’s work clearly haunted Britten when he composed Peter Grimes, its eerie celeste music resounding in the opera’s Passacaglia. Then in 1943, coincidentally the year in which Beecham’s Mephistophelean features graced the cover of Time magazine, Britten, still composing Peter Grimes, wrote to his publisher requesting a score of Der Rosenkavalier: ‘I am impatient to see how the old magician makes his effects!’ Though Britten meant Strauss, he could equally have been referring to that genius of English music who first introduced Rosenkavalier to his eager British public.
When did Thomas Beecham die?
Thomas Beecham died from a coronary thrombosis on 8 March 1961. He is buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey.
We named Thomas Beecham one of the greatest conductors of all time
Best recordings by Sir Thomas Beecham
Borodin Polovtsian Dances
Beecham Choral Society; RPO/Beecham
Warner 566 9832
Thomas Beecham conducted the Ballets Russes's stagings of these two Russian scores, and his zest for these 'exotic' works is infectious.
Delius Appalachia; Hassan etc
Jan van der Gucht (tenor); LPO/Beecham
Appalachia captured Beecham's imagination and devotion to Delius's music. The sinew and exuberance of this performance transcends the late-1930s sound.
Mozart The Magic Flute
Ema Berger, Gerhard Hüsch, Tiana Lemnitz, Helge Rosvaenge; Berlin Philharmonic/Beecham
Most of Beecham's Mozart recordings are unavailable, but this charming 1937-38 Berlin recording of The Magic Flute shows his affection for the composer.
Strauss Elektra (final scene); Ariadne auf Naxos (final Scene)
Erna Schlüter, Paul Schöffler, Ljuba Welitsch, Walter Widdop; RPO/Beecham
Recorded in 1947 after his broadcast performance of Elektra before the composer, this dramatic account affirms Beecham's Strauss credentials.
Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts
Richard Lewis (tenor); RPO and Chorus/Beecham
BBC Legends BBCL 40112
This extraordinary live performance, with flawless orchestral playing and choral singing, was recorded not long after Beecham's 80th birthday.