Sir Thomas Beecham: April 29, 1879 - March 8, 1961

Sir Thomas Beecham in his garden at Cap Ferrat (Photo: © EMI Archives)Sir Thomas Beecham in his garden at Cap Ferrat (Photo: © EMI Archives)

In the May 1961 issue of Gramophone, David Bicknell – who would retire as Manager of EMI’s International Artists Department in 1971 after 44 years with the company – paid tribute to Sir Thomas Beecham who had died on March 8, 1961. To illustrate his unique style and personality, we include a clip of Sir Thomas rehearsing and talking about the art of the conductor...

With the death of Sir Thomas Beecham, England has lost her greatest executive musician, possibly the greatest that she has ever produced.

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 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 30 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 His Master's Voice on his 70th birthday and attended by many famous people and the small 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.

Strangely enough in the United States he encountered certain linguistic difficulties. Although most of the orchestral players are now American born and bred and not European importations, as was often the case some years ago, there are orchestras containing a great medley of races, very often producing excellent results as each nation makes a unique contribution.

I asked Sir Thomas about one of the orchestras after he had returned from the USA and how he got on with it. ‘Oh’, he said, with characteristic exaggeration, ‘there are all races, for example the first flute is French, the oboe Italian, the clarinet Dutch and the bassoon a Chinaman, they have not really got a language in common.’

‘Then what did you do?’ I enquired. ‘Oh it was only possible to communicate with them by cabbalistic signs and symbols as with the Cannibal Islanders!’ was his answer. I did not hear the performance but I should be surprised to learn that it was a poor one.

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 they know how to relax when not working and thirdly 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 40 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 16th 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-asphyxiated 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, and at least one of them had to be available!

Sir Thomas's 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 Imperial Russian Ballet out of Russia to London for the first time; he had known politicians like Arthur Balfour and Asquith. He had conducted for Saint-Saëns, 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’. He had travelled all over the world and he had been a most discerning observer.

By nature if not by birth he was an aristocrat, 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. A discriminating French musician said to me not long ago, after listening spellbound to his interpretation of the little Bizet Symphony, ‘Vraiment il est un artistocrate de la musique’.

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 our recent recordings of Carmen and Entführung 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 baritone Peter Dawson for “Oh ruddier than the cherry”.’ A year later I met Peter in Sydney and told him of this remark, much to his amusement.

He had a good earthy side to his own character. 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 Blackpool had ever been created.

If possible he went each year to the Cup Final – the year of the Manchester United plane disaster when they and Bolton reached the Final he turned suddenly to his orchestra when recording a Haydn symphony and said: ‘Gentlemen, I want your advice, I am going to the Cup Final and inadvertently I let it be known that my sympathies lie with Manchester United. This morning (here he started to laugh) I received a letter from Bolton, reminding me that not only am I Patron of the local Musical Society but also of the Football Club. (Great uproar from the orchestra).

‘How do you get out of that?’ (After a pause): ‘I think that I will tell them that whereas my compassionate sympathies are with Manchester United, the intellectual and better part of me lies with Bolton! D'you think it will go down?’

Although he was capable of saying biting things, almost invariably he was extremely polite to the orchestras which he conducted and had no difficulty whatever in preserving good order and discipline. He was held in high respect and used the courtesies of the age in which he was born.

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 Brahms symphony and then, to the fury of the engineers, change to a piece of Bizet scored for a substantially different orchestra 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 Brahms, 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 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’.

He considered that the French were much more gifted than the Germans as orchestrators, regarded the Symphonie fantastique as a miracle of brilliance and effect and 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.

Like many great conductors he was uneasy in the role of instrumental accompanist, disagreeing with many soloists' readings. His personality was too strong and his convictions held too sincerely to allow him to make compromises.

What of his personal character? No doubt a book could be written on the subject, with many exciting chapters, but I have no intention of writing it. 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 generally 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 Zauberflöte and Die Meistersinger and de Sabata Otello and Falstaff.

In his dealings with individuals he inspired, as I have said, respect, and often deep devotion. Although he was capable of treating many people with great generosity, as Mr Norman Millar and Mr Jack Brymer have related in the BBC Tribute, nevertheless there seemed 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.

He said many foolish things in public as well as witty ones. His habit in later years of attacking any musical activity not started by himself became more and more irksome and embarrassing to those fond of him. The Royal Festival Hall (‘looks like an inflated chicken coop’) and Covent Garden (‘now fallen into rather strange hands’) incurred the full share of his displeasure. I am sure that he expected the walls to fall down as a result of these attacks – when they did not do so, but on the contrary remained standing as firmly as ever, he made the best of a bad job and made use of them… but as little as possible.

State aid in any form was abhorrent to him and he detested all forms of bureaucratic interference. When the BBC first formed their Symphony Orchestra 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, and in his absence in the United States, asked him to return as conductor. He turned down the offer and re-founded 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 of the United States in 1950 and intended to repeat the tour in 1961 with Ansermet as joint conductor, and 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. It was from this garden that the excellent photograph was taken of him in a Panama hat which forms the cover of the first 'Lollipop 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 Venice, where he rented a villa belonging to Michel 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 Colón.

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 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 musical 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 façade. 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 Châteaux 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 80th 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.’

To mark the 50th anniversary of Beecham's death, EMI has issued a number of commemorative sets: 'Sir Thomas Beecham – English Music', 'Sir Thomas Beecham – The Great Communicator', 'Sir Thomas Beecham – French Music', 'Sir Thomas Beecham – The Later Tradition 1', 'Sir Thomas Beecham – The Later Tradition 2', 'Sir Thomas Beecham – The Classical Tradition'. And Somm has released a disc, recorded live, of Wagner, Delius and Schubert.




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