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Beecham, Thomas

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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Beecham, (Sir) Thomas

Beecham, (Sir) Thomas (b St Helens, 1879; d London, 1961). Eng. conductor and impresario. First appearance was as cond. of Hallé Orch. at St Helens, 1899. Educated Rossall School and Wadham College, Oxford. Studied comp. with Charles Wood. Early ambition to be composer, but took up cond. instead. Came to the fore about 1905 when he founded New Sym. Orch. In 1910, with backing of his father, the industrialist Sir Joseph Beecham, staged season of opera at CG at which Elektra had first Eng. perf., also A Village Romeo and Juliet and The Wreckers. Cond. f. Eng. ps. of Der Rosenkavalier (CG 1913) and Ariadne auf Naxos (1st vers.) (London 1913). Brought Diaghilev's Ballets Russes to London 1913–14. Thereafter there was hardly a feature of Eng. mus. life with which Beecham was not closely, often controversially, and always artistically involved. Assoc. with most leading Brit. orchs. Founded Beecham SO 1909, Beecham Opera Co. 1915, LPO 1932, and RPO 1946. Salzburg Fest. 1931 (Vienna PO). NY Met début 1942 (Phoebus and Pan (Bach)/The Golden Cockerel). In decade preceding Second World War was art. dir. of Royal Opera House, CG. Cond. many Amer. orchs. Ardent champion of Delius, about whom he wrote a book, and cond. f.ps. of his A Mass of Life (1909), Songs of Sunset (1911), North Country Sketches (1915), Cynara (1929), Koanga (CG 1935), Florida Suite (1937), and Irmelin (Oxford 1953). Notable interpreter of Mozart, Haydn, Sibelius, Strauss, and Fr. composers of 19th cent. Thrice married. Knighted 1915, 2nd baronet 1916, CH 1957. Autobiography A Mingled Chime (London, 1944).

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Beecham, Sir Thomas

Sir Thomas Beecham (bē´chəm), 1879–1961, English conductor. Beecham was educated at Oxford but did not attend any formal music school. Early in his career as a conductor and producer, he introduced his fellow countrymen to the operas of Richard Strauss, many Russian operas, and the Russian ballet. In 1932 he organized the London Philharmonic Orchestra, forging it into one of the world's finest orchestras, and in 1932 he became artistic director of Covent Garden Opera, London. A frequent conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, Manchester until 1942, he later appeared (1942–43) with the New York Philharmonic and with the Metropolitan Opera, New York. In 1946 he organized the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London.

Beecham wrote a biography (1958) of Delius, whose music he championed; he also excelled at interpreting Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Berlioz, and Sibelius. He was known for his exquisite phrasing, his ability to masterfully unfold a melodic line, his fine sense of proportion, his combination of power and delicacy, and his insight into the unique styles of various composers. For his services to British music, Beecham was knighted in 1916; he also had enormous international influence. His versatility and high standards of excellence are attested to by numerous recordings.

See his autobiography (1944); biography by C. Reid (1961).

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Beecham, Sir Thomas

Beecham, Sir Thomas (1879–1961). Self-taught English conductor. Financed by the family business (for which his spell in advertising produced ‘Hark! the herald angels sing! ¯ Beecham's Pills are just the thing’), Beecham founded many leading orchestras, including the Beecham Symphony Orchestra (1909), London Philharmonic Orchestra (1932), and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1946), with whom he made many fine recordings. He also created the Beecham Opera Company (1915), performing in London and the provinces, and was artistic director at Covent Garden (1932–9), where he conducted several Ring cycles. His vast repertoire included many small-scale ‘lollipops’, although he was an early champion of the operas of Richard Strauss and, most notably, the music of Delius. His elegant, meticulously phrased performances of Haydn and Mozart became legendary, as did his caustic, witty bons mots. Although he maintained that he simply chose the best players and let them do the rest, his genius as a conductor is indisputable.

Eric Cross

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Beecham, Sir Thomas

Beecham, Sir Thomas (1869–1961) English conductor, one of the greatest of his era. He founded (1906) the New Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic (1932), and the Royal Philharmonic (1947). In 1933 Beecham became artistic director of Covent Garden Opera, introducing the operas of Richard Strauss to English audiences. He was widely respected as an interpreter of Delius and Sibelius.

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Beecham, Thomas

Thomas Beecham

Conductor

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

Sir Thomas Beechams 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 heretofore been considered daring, avantgarde, or even too foreign; as a result, he introduced a generation of London musiclovers to some outstanding composers, especially the lighter French artists of the previous century. Beecham was known for a legendary wit and his cutting manner, but many of the artists who worked with him recalled him as a delightful taskmaster.

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 loveathleticsbut enrolled in Wadham College at Oxford University to study music in 1897. He considered becoming a concert pianist.

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 midtwenties, Beecham had already traveled extensively in Europe to further his musical education, attending opera performances at some of the continents most famous venues. He made his London conducting debut with the Queens Hall Orchestra in December of 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 sixtyfive members according to his own high standards.

For the Record

Born April 29, 1879, in St. Helens, Lancashire, En gland; (died March 8, 1961 in London, England); son of Joseph (a chemist) and Josephine (Burnett) Beecham; married Utica Celestia Welles, 1903 (divorced, 1943); married Betty Humby Thomas (a pianist), 1943 (she died in 1957); married Shirley Hudson, 1959; children: Adrian Welles (one of two sons from his first marriage). Education: Attended Wadham College, Oxford, 189798; studied musical composition privately after 1900.

Founder, St. Helens Orchestral Society, 1897; made first appearance as an orchestra conductor with the Hallé Orchestra, St. Helens, 1899; founded New Symphony Orchestra, 1906; founded London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1932; founded Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1946.

Awards: Named Companion of Honour, 1957.

Performances of the New Symphony Orchestra, with Beecham at the podium, met with a more favorable reception from critics. This time Beechams arresting style triumphed, and it was obvious that Britain had an important young conductor, assessed the British Dictionary of National Biography. 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, 1907s Brigg Fair.

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 sons plan to mount a program of operas at Londons 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 Strausss Elektra, Feuersnot, and Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Wagners Tristan und Isolde, and even Sergei Diaghilevs famed Ballets Russes from Paris all appeared before London audiences, led by Beechams baton. Already a celebrated London figure, the press loved to report some of his more pithy utterances. He once told his orchestra, We must ensure that we start and stop togetherwhat happens in between is of no great consequence.

The Covent Garden seasons were annual financial losses, however, and the outbreak of World War I and Englands belligerent relationship with Germany further curtailed Beechams plans. So Beecham founded a small touring company, and with it staged operas across the British Isles during the waryears; the programs were notable for their affordable ticket prices, making the whole endeavor quite an egalitarian one. In 1916, Beechams 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 Deliuss 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 Beechams fortunes.

Beecham spent much of the waryears 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 evenings program was recorded, the first time in history that a live orchestras 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 the eightythreeyearold Richard 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 Beechams legacy, critics have cited Puccini: La Boheme with Jussi Bjoerling and Victoria De Los Angeles, issued on RCA in 1956 and reissued by the EMIs Seraphim label, as exemplary. What makes this recording unique? posited Opera News writer Walter Price, who termed it one of the few opera albums deserving to be called great. Price listed its exceptional features: It unites a British conductor, a Swedish tenor, a Spanish soprano, a Swiss bass and four Americans in major parts not an Italian in hearing distance. As with the lighthearted operatic romp of La Bohème, Beecham was partial to the works of French composers such as Bizet, Debussy, and SaintSaëns; the entire Mozart repertoire was also a personal favorite.

Beechams 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 in March of 1961. As a conductor and orchestra director, Beecham had a reputation for a rather formidable style of management. He disliked rehearsals very much, and made certain that his musicians knew their parts well before he appeared before their assemblage with his baton. Orchestral players will long remember him as not only a great conductor, but a witty and stimulating person who could inspire them to produce their best and showed obvious pleasure in what he heard, noted the British Dictionary of National Biography. He left behind an extensive musical library, which in 1997 was acquired by Englands University of Sheffield.

Selected discography

Beecham Conducts Delius, 1987.

Lollipops, 1992.

Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Wagner/Horenstein, London Symphony Orchestra, 1996.

Beecham Conducts Handel, 1997. Mozart: Symphonies No. 39, 40 and 41/Beecham, London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1997.

Beecham Favorites: Bizet, Greig, Chabrier, et al./London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1998.

Beecham Conducts Schubert: Symphony No. 5; Franck: Symphony, 1998.

Great Recordings of the Century: Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 3, 5, & 6/Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1999.

Haydn: Symphonies No. 104, 99 & 93/Beecham, London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1999. Beecham Conducts Wagner Die Meistersinger, etc., 1999.

Mozart: Symphonies No. 29, 35 & 38/Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1999. The 1959 Royal Festival Hall Concert/Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1999. The Beecham Edition: Delius: A Village Romeo & Juliet, 1992.

Bizet: Symphony in C, etc., EMI Classics.

Bizet: Carmen, EMI Classics.

Borodin: Prince Igor, Polovtsian Dances, etc., EMI Classics.

Grieg: PeerGynt, Suite, etc., EMI Classics.

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, etc./Jascha Heifetz, EMI Classics.

Mozart: Clarinet & Bassoon Concertos, EMI Classics.

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto, etc., EMI Classics.

Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail, etc., EMI Classics.

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte, EMI Classics.

Puccini: La Bohème, EMI Classics.

RimskyKorsakov: Scheherazade, etc., EMI Classics.

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 3, 5 & 6, EMI Classics.

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos.4 & 6, EMI Classics.

Sibelius: Violin Concerto, etc./Jascha Heifetz, EMI Classics.

Sources

Books

Williams, E. T., and C. S. Nicholls, editors, British Dictionary of National Biography, 19611970, Oxford University Press, 196364, pp. 8790.

Periodicals

American Record Guide, May/June 1999.

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

Carol Brennan

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