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THOMAS BEECHAM

The English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was born into a wealthy family which had made its fortune through the manufacture and sale of proprietary medicines, yet by the time he was thirty he had established himself as Britain’s finest conductor, without any financial support from his father. He attended his first concert when he was six, and commenced piano lessons shortly afterwards. Educated at Rossall School where he was the only pupil to be allowed a piano in his room, he went on to Wadham College at Oxford, but did not stay to take a degree. In 1899, having formed an amateur orchestra in his home town of St Helens, he substituted for Hans Richter as the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, which had been engaged to give a concert to mark Beecham’s father’s assumption of the position of mayor of the town of St Helens.

After falling out with his father Beecham travelled to Paris at the turn of the century. Here he took a few lessons in orchestration privately with Moritz Moszkowski and also researched much French music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He also studied with Charles Wood in London. In 1902 he secured a conducting engagement with the Imperial Grand Opera Company, and made his debut directing Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl. In 1906 Beecham was invited to become conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra, formed by freelance orchestral players in London, and remained with this orchestra until 1908. These early concerts were not only successful, but also brought him into contact with Frederick Delius, of whose music Beecham became a passionate advocate. In 1909 he formed the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, which included many of London’s finest musicians and was led by Albert Sammons whom Beecham had heard playing in a restaurant orchestra at the Waldorf Hotel.

In 1910 father and son, now reconciled and backed by the senior Beecham’s financial investment, jointly presented the first of Thomas Beecham’s many seasons of opera in London, with Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter as guest conductors (Beecham in fact gave the first performances in Britain of five of Strauss’s operas during his career). The success of Beecham’s conducting of Die Fledermaus and Les Contes d’Hoffmann saw him entering the recording studio for the first time, to record excerpts from these two works. During the following year, 1911, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes appeared for the first time in London, and on the company’s return in 1912 Beecham conducted several performances. Father and son went on to present two further seasons by this great company in 1913 and one in 1914, all in London. These seasons introduced English audiences to the music of Stravinsky and Ravel, as well as that of Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. During World War I Beecham conducted (and supported with the family fortune) the Hallé Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Royal Philharmonic Society; while in addition to conducting and promoting concerts he formed the Beecham Opera Company in 1915.

Plans to stabilise the family finances, which had been badly hit by the war, were thrown into disarray when Beecham’s father died in 1916 on the eve of completing the necessary reconstruction. Beecham himself continued to be active until 1920, notably working with the Grand Opera Syndicate at Covent Garden, but by 1920 he had to withdraw from professional musical life for three years to sort out the Beecham estate. Without the backing of the family fortune Beecham’s activities during the 1920s were less immediately successful. Plans to create an Imperial League of Opera, to bring opera of a high standard to the country, came to nothing.

However his energy was as prodigious as ever. With the advent of electrical recording in 1926 his activities in the studio started to increase, and he conducted extensively abroad. In 1929 he presented a very successful festival of Delius’s music in London, attended by the composer. Following the formation of the permanent BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930, he determined to form his own full-time orchestra, with the support of the many institutions with which he was connected, notably EMI, which had come into being in 1931 as the result of a merger of the Gramophone and Columbia Companies. This new orchestra was the London Philharmonic Orchestra. With a solid annual programme of work, including opera at Covent Garden, and with Beecham at the helm, it was to set new standards for orchestral performance in the United Kingdom.

The outbreak of World War II drove Beecham and the LPO into difficulties, following the withdrawal of financial support from the orchestra’s wealthy backers. After a tour of Australia he settled in America between 1940 and 1944. He continued to be active as a guest conductor, notably at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and was chief conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra between 1941 and 1943. On returning to England he re-established his connection with the LPO. However its self-governing constitution did not sit well with Beecham’s temperament and desire for the highest standards, so in 1946 he formed yet another orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, once again employing the best instrumentalists and achieving the highest standards. Like the LPO before it, the RPO became extremely active in the recording studio, and with it Beecham made a triumphant tour of the USA in 1950.

The introduction of the long-playing record and later of stereophonic sound allowed Beecham to re-record his core repertoire several times, and provided essential finance for the RPO. During the 1950s Beecham divided his time between conducting the RPO in concerts and on tour, recording with it, and appearing as a guest, mainly in the USA. Towards the end of the decade, as his financial affairs once more became complex, he took up residence in France for taxation reasons. At the end of 1959 he made his last recordings, and during an arduous tour of America began to suffer from a series of mini-strokes which became progressively worse during the remainder of his life, and finally killed him in 1961.

Beecham was indisputably a conductor of the first rank. He surrounded himself with the best musicians he could contract and expected them to give of their best, guided by his own interpretative preferences. The results were frequently unforgettable. He ensured that the orchestral parts from which his musicians played were marked in detail to reflect his interpretation at any one time. Frequently changing, these nuances kept the players alert and reflected Beecham’s mastery of balance. With his mercantile and entrepreneurial background Beecham was a highly astute negotiator, recognising and exploiting opportunities with vigour; and he possessed an exceptional ability to persuade others to support his musical endeavours. He was an ardent maker of gramophone records through which his genius continues to astound. Of his commercial studio recordings, perhaps the most highly praised have been his realisations of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, and his numerous recordings of the music of Mozart, Richard Strauss and Delius.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).


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