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Thomas Beecham

English conductor Thomas Beecham's (1879–1961) influence on classical music during a span of several decades across the twentieth century was unparalleled. Founder and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Beecham depleted much of his own fortune to present before British audiences orchestral works and operas that had been considered daring, avant-garde, or even too "foreign"; as a result, he introduced a generation of London music-lovers to some outstanding composers, especially the lighter French artists of the previous century.

Beecham was born in St. Helens, a town in the Lancashire area of England, on April 29, 1879. He was the namesake of his grandfather, who had created a tremendous family fortune with his own brand of digestive pills that also bore the name Beecham. The young boy enjoyed close ties with the elder Beecham; relations with his own parents were never wholly amiable during his adult life. His gift for music was evident at a young age to his father, a collector of rare musical instruments, and formal instruction at the piano began at the age of six. For several years he attended a Lancashire school where he was also able to indulge in his second love—athletics—but enrolled in Wadham College at Oxford University to study music in 1897. He considered becoming a concert pianist.

Made Surprise Debut

That same year, Beecham had founded the St. Helens Orchestral Society, where he first practiced the art of conducting. When in 1899 the Hallé Society Orchestra appeared in St. Helens for a scheduled engagement, its conductor became unavailable, and Beecham took the podium instead. This debut was deemed a success, though he and the musicians had not been able to rehearse the program beforehand. The following year, he moved to London and began to study music composition privately with a series of teachers.

Beecham was still working toward a career as a pianist, but a 1904 injury to his wrist ended these hopes. Though still in his mid-twenties, Beecham had already traveled extensively in Europe to further his musical education, attending opera performances at some of the continent's most famous venues. He made his London conducting debut with the Queen's Hall Orchestra in December 1905, but the performance was given mixed reviews by critics. Beecham had been disheartened by the difficulty of the experience as well. With the support of a clarinetist named Charles Draper, he founded the New Symphony Orchestra in 1906, and Beecham began selecting its sixty-five members according to his own high standards.

Performances of the New Symphony Orchestra, with Beecham at the podium, met with a more favorable reception from critics. His newfound acclaim brought him into contact with the relatively unknown English composer Frederick Delius, and Beecham began to debut new orchestral works written by Delius with the New Symphony. Delius, of German parentage, was influenced by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and created works that blended the styles of Romanticism and Impressionism beginning with his first success, 1907's Brigg Fair.

The Covent Garden Years

In 1903, during a period of family strife, Beecham wed the daughter of an American diplomat, Utica Celestia Welles. Together they had two sons and traveled across Europe but the union disintegrated within a few short years. They did not divorce, however, until 1943. By 1910, Beecham and his father had mended their differences, and the latter provided financial backing for the son's plan to mount a program of operas at London's Covent Garden. Over the next several years, Beecham and his British National Opera Company presented some striking, altogether grand productions of works from the canon of European composers, some of which had not yet been performed in Britain. Richard Strauss's Elektra, Feuersnot, and Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and even Sergei Diaghilev's famed Ballets Russes from Paris all appeared before London audiences, led by Beecham's baton.

The Covent Garden seasons were annual financial losses, however, and the outbreak of World War I and England's belligerent relationship with Germany further curtailed Beecham's plans. So Beecham founded a small touring company and with it staged operas across the British Isles during the war years; the programs were notable for their affordable ticket prices, making the whole endeavor quite an egalitarian one. In 1916, Beecham's father died, and he inherited a baronetcy, but financial woes began to plague him. His 1920 season of Covent Garden operas sustained heavy losses, and he nearly went bankrupt. As the British Dictionary of National Biography noted, "until 1923 he was almost absent from the musical scene. From then until 1929 his life seems to have been a gradual climb back to the pinnacle he had achieved so early."

The composer Delius, who suffered from paralysis and encroaching vision problems with age, was feted with a festival in his honor presented by Beecham in 1929; the series, which became an annual event, marked the beginning of a more widespread recognition for Delius's works. By 1932, after several years of exacting negotiations, Beecham entered into an agreement with the British Broadcasting Corporation and the London Symphony Orchestra to create the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Several seasons of distinguished performances followed, but the onset of world war once more brought an abrupt change to Beecham's fortunes.

Performance for Hitler

Beecham spent much of the war years touring the United States and Australia, perhaps the result of lingering problems in Britain as a result of his 1936 tour of Nazi Germany with the orchestra group. Furthermore, an expatriate German woman, Berta Geissmar, served as his personal secretary at both home and on tour. At one performance, German chancellor Adolf Hitler was the guest of honor, and as customary, the entire hall was expected to rise and salute him upon his entrance. Beecham avoided this by adamantly entering the concert hall after the Führer had been seated. On another night, Beecham and the Philharmonic played at a concert hall in Ludwigshafen belonging to the chemical giant BASF, who also manufactured recording equipment. The evening's program was recorded, the first time in history that a live orchestra's performance was duplicated on tape.

Beginning in 1940, Beecham, like other European masters, made a number of guest appearances with the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Divorced in 1943, he remarried pianist Betty Humby Thomas and wrote an autobiography of his early life, A Mingled Chime, that was published in 1944. He returned to London in 1944 and became immersed in artistic and other arguments with the London Philharmonic. As a result, he broke with the organization and formed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. With that body he honored Strauss with a momentous London festival in 1947. In 1950, the Royal Philharmonic made a successful tour of North America, and Beecham led the orchestra through several stellar recordings as well. He also wrote a biography of Delius that appeared in 1958.

Among the recordings that preserve Beecham's legacy, critics have cited Puccini: La Bohéme with Jussi Bjoerling and Victoria De Los Angeles, issued on RCA in 1956 and reissued by the EMI's Seraphim label, as exemplary. As with the lighthearted operatic romp of La Bohéme, Beecham was partial to the works of French composers such as Bizet, Debussy, and Saint-Saëns; the entire Mozart repertoire was also a personal favorite.

Beecham's second wife died in 1957, the same year he received the Companion of Honour designation from the British crown. He married his personal secretary, Shirley Hudson, in 1959, but fell ill the following year while touring the United States with the Royal Philharmonic. He died in London on March 8, 1961. As a conductor and orchestra director, Beecham had a reputation for a rather formidable style of management. He left behind an extensive musical library, which in 1997 was acquired by England's University of Sheffield.

Books

Williams, E. T., and C. S. Nicholls, editors, British Dictionary of National Biography, 1961–1970, Oxford University Press.

Periodicals

American Record Guide, May/June 1999.

Opera News, March 18, 1995; July 1, 1995.

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