Thomas Beecham: the life and legacy of the conductor

Rob Cowan Wed 1st March 2017

Rob Cowan speaks to musicians who played under Beecham in order to understand what made him such an inspirational conductor

Sir Thomas Beecham (photo: Tully Potter)

Sir Thomas Beecham (photo: Tully Potter)

The Beecham magic
There’s a famous orchestral interlude in the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet by Sir Thomas Beecham’s great friend Frederick Delius where the star-crossed lovers take themselves off on a hay barge and choose to drown rather than endure more suffering. Before that, they walk to the Paradise Garden, a dilapidated inn, where they dance…and the music seems to reflect both their love and their tragic fate. Given a half-decent performance, it’ll render you speechless. But in the hands of Beecham, especially in the context of his recordings of the complete opera, listening means, in all but reality, entering the lovers’ world. Why? Because Beecham’s belief in and love for the music, his immersion in its potent emotional climate, is so uncompromising that the effect he achieves, both on his players and on us, is like a heady drug. The tiniest detail blossoms while the passion of the moment sweeps you along. But Beecham’s method involved something beyond the inspiration of the moment.

It’s easy to forget that amid the sparkling wit, unpredictability, irascibility and human warmth – all of them fairly familiar Beecham attributes – was an immense learning. During the last year or so, the broadcaster and former orchestral musician Jon Tolansky chanced upon a recorded promotional talk for A Village Romeo that Beecham gave in London before an invited audience. ‘He goes into a tremendous amount of depth about the entire perspective of the composition,’ says Tolansky, ‘not only of A Village Romeo and Juliet itself, but about the relationship that Delius had with the entire world of music. Beecham talks – briefly, but to the point – about opera at that time. He talks about Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Hugo Wolf’s Der Corregidor and Delius’s A Village Romeo as being the three works that stood completely outside the trends of opera performance, and he paints a portrait of Delius with an enormous amount of musical, musicological and artistic detail. It’s a marvellous example of just how much Beecham knew, and that’s very important, because his scholarship hasn’t always been widely acknowledged. He clearly knew the notes, how they were written, how the compositional structure was built and how the composer actually put his music together; and he also understood, very profoundly and from an artistic and aural perspective, that this opera [which he premiered] was completely in a world of its own.’ 

Beecham’s dual passions for words and music surfaced during his childhood in St Helens, Lancashire, and his flair for the theatre bore rich fruit in an early association with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the formation of his own Beecham Opera Company. ‘He had a remarkable photographic memory,’ says the writer on music David Cairns. ‘He used to do extraordinary things with Strauss operas and there are stories about him conducting whole operas without a score quite early. In fact, he conducted so much that some of the time he probably didn’t know what he was going to conduct next! You hear of him saying ‘It is Don Giovanni tonight, isn’t it?’ The leader’s reply would be ‘No, Sir Thomas, it’s Figaro’. Cairns sang in the chorus for the 1951 Covent Garden performance of Die Meistersinger and dispels another myth, namely about the ‘imprecision’ of Beecham’s baton technique. ‘Certainly his beat was extremely clear – for the chorus, anyway. He had such a strong sense of rhythm: he projected it with his whole body. I don’t think there’s ever been a conductor who had a more marvellous feeling for rhythm than Tommy.’ Denis Vaughan, Beecham’s assistant and the founder of the Beecham Choral Society, recalls how ‘he would use the tip of the baton…he couldn’t have got those results otherwise. When he needed precision he got it very easily in that way.’

Playing for Tommy
Beecham nowadays is most readily associated with two orchestras, the pre-war and wartime London Philharmonic, and the post-war Royal Philharmonic, which took around a year or so to settle after its formation in 1946. Regarding the LPO recordings, Vaughan asserts that what most captures his attention ‘are those things that he always insisted on – the sharpness of the accent and the complete freedom in the commas and the spaces between phrases, so he would do sharp rallentandos very, very subtly, making the punctuation so much clearer than usual. For me, the key part of his technique,’ continues Vaughan, ‘was the way he really crept inside every phrase – that, and the musical significance of silences, huge silences, and the inflection. His favourite phrase was ‘the grand line and flexibility: the grand line is the only thing the public recognises, and the flexibility is the only thing that makes music’. Inflecting within the sound, so that it is constantly growing, and never static – you’ll always find that that pertains from gesture.’ Clarinettist Nick Tschaikov, who played under Beecham in both the London and Royal Philharmonic orchestras, takes up the theme. ‘The clarinettist Jack Brymer once said to me, ‘Well of course he was wonderful…the thing about conducting is it’s the art of gesture’. I thought that was a marvellous phrase on Jack’s part, because it does absolutely sum up what the real conductor does.’ Tschaikov vividly recalls Beecham’s rehearsals. ‘Musically they were a delight. He was familiarising the orchestra with the music while, at the same time, familiarising himself with what his players could do. He would leave some players entirely to their own devices – the bassoonist Gwydion Brooke, for example. ‘Gwyd’ was a wonderful player but an idiosyncratic musician. When Tommy dealt with him, he wouldn’t even try to ask him to do something differently. I remember when we were recording Sheherazade [EMI], which Gwyd played in a very idiosyncratic way (people would say ‘you can smell the camel dung’), Tommy tried to tone him down a bit. The strange thing was that, for a man who had such a wonderful vocabulary and spoke so well, when he addressed the orchestra he very frequently didn’t finish his sentences. He’d say ‘Could it be a little more, er…y’know…er, and Gwyd would just play it exactly as he’d played it before!’

David Cairns recalls Sir Thomas Armstrong, who was principal at the Royal Academy of Music and before that was organist at Christ Church, Oxford, telling a wonderful story about a Royal Philharmonic concert at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. ‘Beecham used to come down to Oxford and give afternoon concerts with morning rehearsals; they’d usually play something that they’d already been performing in London. At the end of this particular rehearsal he said, ‘We don’t have a symphony, do we?’ Someone replied, ‘Yes Sir Thomas, we do – it’s the Second of Brahms’. Beecham then piped in with, ‘Oh well, we all know that!’ But a young second violinist, who hadn’t been playing in the orchestra for very long, put his hand up and admitted, ‘No, Sir Thomas…I’ve never played it’. Can you imagine that happening in an orchestra under Toscanini or Fritz Reiner? Beecham’s response was instant and delightfully ambiguous. ‘My dear fellow,’ he said, ‘there’s no need to worry. I can assure you you’ll like it. It’s charming.’’ Cairns reminds us that Beecham had a rather provocative personality, ‘and of course he was so different from other maestros of the time. He gave repartee to the audience. You know the singer Thomas Hemsley? Near the close of the Second World War, he heard Beecham in Leicester. At the end of the concert (this must have been with the London Philharmonic), the audience called for an encore. He turned to them and said, yes, he would play an encore, as long as somebody in the audience could provide him with a Melton Mowbray pork pie! As it happened someone could…and two months later, according to Hemsley, Beecham came back, and at the end he just turned round and with his forefinger described a circle’. Cairns continues, ‘You see, it’s us, the English – we’re disturbed by that sort of behaviour in public figures and think that the reason for Beecham’s frivolity is that he’s not serious, which is utterly nonsensical. Also, he treated his players much more like human beings than a lot of other conductors did in those days.’

Beecham as colleague and stepfather
It’s fairly obvious that Beecham’s players adored him. But could they easily socialise with him? Tschaikov says that as a rule they couldn’t, ‘although I’d travelled with him in the car and I had a couple of meals in his company. I enjoyed working with Beecham as much as I enjoyed working with anybody but it didn’t matter how long you worked with him, you always remained ‘Mister [so-and-so]’. Musicians always referred to Beecham as ‘Tommy’ but you always referred to him as ‘Sir Thomas’ – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have lasted two weeks! You know, he was a little man and was very conscious of the fact. When he was talking to you, you never got within three feet of him, because he didn’t like looking up at you. But he was always agreeable and benign – though he hadn’t been when he was young. That’s so often the case with young conductors. People I’d known who worked with him early on told me that as a young man Beecham had been quite difficult, even tyrannical and rude. But that wasn’t how he was when I knew him, although I did once see him kick his way out of St Pancras Town Hall when we were rehearsing and he couldn’t get his own way.’

Beecham’s stepson Sir Jeremy Thomas (by his second wife, pianist Betty Humby) also recalled that he could on occasion be impatient, ‘though never with me or Mamma. However, I do recall an incident with a telephone operator in an American hotel. ‘Uncle Tom’ [as Sir Jeremy called him] hadn’t been able to contact someone, and when the telephone operator said ‘have a nice day’, he replied ‘go to hell!’’ Sir Jeremy tells a touching story that reflects the man’s basic humanity, as well as his willingness to ‘face the music’ in more ways than one. ‘One thing that always surprised me – and don’t forget I was a young boy at the time – was the enormous amount of business that would be going on, daily office work…after all, the finances were always a concern. Friday would come around and if it had been a particularly bad week, with no recordings or whatever to cover outgoings, he’d walk over to my Mamma and say, ‘It’s no good darling. Could I borrow the ring?’ And, with a grin, she’d take off her engagement ring. It would then be given to Mr White, the lovely chauffeur, and taken to the pawnshop so that 80 orchestral members could be paid. There was, after all, no subsidy.’

‘Lollipops’ being both a child’s favourite sweet and Sir Thomas’s affectionate term for short musical sweetmeats, Sir Jeremy loved what have since become widely known as ‘Beecham Lollipops’. But the older Beecham could be wickedly pointed with his double entendres (there are one or two beauties on the Sibelius 90th birthday broadcast, released by BBC Legends). Sir Jeremy recalls how ‘when my future wife Diana and I were to be married, he sent some of the members of the orchestra down to the church. Beforehand he said, ‘Well now, old boy, what would you like us to play?’ Oh, I said, I’ll leave that to you, Uncle Tom. He thought for a moment, then said: ‘I’ll tell you what, there’s a piece by Massenet – it’s called The Last Sleep of the Virgin. Naughty!’’

Sir Jeremy speaks with great affection of having been treated ‘as a fellow conspirator’. Sorry? A conspirator? ‘Oh yes. You see, I went out to join them in Seattle [the period when Beecham was conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra]. There was great rivalry between Seattle and San Francisco, and Tom was obviously pushing Seattle, where his loyalty lay, raising money for the orchestra. One of the things he liked to do was to compare the two. He got a 78 of the San Francisco Symphony and one that he’d just done in Seattle, I think one of the lollipops [probably an acetate – there are no commercial 78s with Beecham and the Seattle Symphony]. Between the three of us (I was the imp in the ménage), we acquired some sandpaper and rubbed the surface of the 78 so that it sounded awful. He played them both and said to the audience, at the end, ‘My dears, you can see perfectly well which is the better orchestra’.’

Betty Humby’s approval was an important signal for visitors. Denis Vaughan recalls that if she liked you, you could stay around in their company that much longer, ‘and it was good luck for me that she did! I stayed with them in various country houses, and that’s when you’d find him at his most relaxed and with completely different attitudes. His knowledge, especially of poetry and literature, made you feel more informed, richer. He gave out humanity and you felt the size of that – you also felt you were tapping into vast resources of knowledge and experience, of warmth and humanity’. Being a very capable musician herself, Betty had her opinions, one of which concerned Victoria de los Angeles as Carmen, who she felt was ‘far too queenly’ for the role, and which in turn contributed to delays in completing the famous EMI Carmen recording.

Live versus studio
The Beecham legacy is immense, not only the commercial recordings but, thanks to the co-operation between Beecham’s third wife, Lady Shirley, and the archive recordings producer Arthur Ridgewell, a vast corpus of live material has appeared, largely since the advent of CD. Much of this ‘live’ Beecham has surfaced on BBC Legends and ‘The Beecham Collection’ on Somm, which has appreciably widened our experience of the great man’s repertoire and interpretative style. I mentioned earlier the Sibelius 90th birthday concert (BBC Legends), which includes adrenalin-boosted versions of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies and Tapiola, but perhaps even more impressive is the 1948 broadcast performance of Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet (Somm), which is so much more intense and at times broadly paced than the contemporaneous EMI 78s. Somm’s enterprise is especially valuable because the general consensus rates ‘Beecham live’ rather more highly than Beecham in the studio. In addition to works never commercially recorded by Beecham (some tasty-looking programmes are currently in the pipeline), there are the various ‘second versions’ of works that are well known from Beecham’s long-available studio discography but that incorporate the sort of altered detail that those lucky enough to have attended his concerts still recall. For example, Jon Tolansky, who knows Beecham’s Haydn records well, recalls hearing the Military Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall. ‘The memory has stayed with me ever since,’ he says. ‘What I most noticed in the second, ‘military’ movement – I can see it as if it were yesterday – was the extraordinary dynamic range of the left hand, the way he brought the orchestra down to these incredible pianissimos and how then, when the fortissimos arrived, gunshot chords which he would slash down with the baton with his right hand, as Walter Legge used to say, from north-east to south-west. I remember how the impact of seeing him and hearing him totally took me over. I still love his magnificent studio recording but this was a very different kind of experience.’  

Over the years Beecham’s commentators have been copious, varied and often authoritative. ‘Writing about Tommy’ is in effect writing about the mystery of great music-making, and, time and again while speaking to those who played for him, knew him or saw him in concert, the same key word keeps cropping up. That word is ‘love’; and, for those of us whose Beecham moments are confined to digits or grooves, ‘Beecham’ and ‘love’ remain synonymous concepts. No true music lover can walk away from a great Beecham recording and remain unchanged.

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