Thomas Beecham is an English conductor who was born in 1879 and died in 1961. He was the member of the industrial aristocracy of the North England. This was effective on his individualistic and determined character. His musical talent was evident from the public school as he was able to sight-read Beethoven sonatas. He studied composition with Charles Wood in London and he studies with Moskowski in Paris. For the conducting, we can say that he learned by himself as was the tradition goes at that years by experiencing lots of concerts and operas. His debut was with the opera ‘’The Bohemian Girl’’ by Michael William Balfe at Shakespeare Club in Clapham.
In 1906, he asked to be the conductor of the chamber orchestra New Symphony Orchestra. In 1909, he was succeeded to found his own orchestra called Beecham Symphony Orchestra. They perform for the first time the complete performance of the Delius’s ‘’A Mass of Life’’. In 1910, he focused on the opera. He observed and conduct operas at Covent Garden (London), His Majesty’s Theatre and Drury Lane. One of his great successes is the performing Mozart’s famous ‘’Cosi Fan Tutte’’ in London which was nearly forgotten by the English audience and re introduce the piece. He also premiered in Britten very important operas. For example; Richard Strauss’s ‘’Salome’’, ‘’Elektra’’, ‘’Feuersnot’’ and ‘’Der Rosenkavalier’’ which are performed regularly today. He also premiered in Britten Strauss’s ‘’Ariadne auf Naxos’’. He was very innovative for the British audiences. He was also the first conductor who premiered the works of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes which was very famous in Paris at that time – and still. He was able to do all of these premiered by his family wealth. By doing that, he introduces British audiences with Petrushka (Stravinsky), The Firebird (Stravinsky), The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), Jeux (Debussy) and Daphne et Chloe (Ravel). He also introduced several Russian operas to the audiences as Boris Godunov (Musorgsky), Khovanshchina (Musorgsky), The Maid of Pskov (Rimsky-Korsakov), Prince Igor (Borodin), and The Nightingale (Stravinsky). We understand that he’s programming was very successful and innovative. Although he chose the very famous and well received pieces, it was hard to introduce these pieces to the British audience.
During the war time, he continues conducting and didn’t stop or slow down a bit. He conducted and supported (since he didn’t have a financial problem) Halle Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Society. In 1915, he established Beecham Opera Company which was again successful in terms of introducing Manchester audience with the operatic repertory. During that time, he attempted to establish an Imperial Opera League and he did lots of efforts to achieve that. He gave lots of speeches to gain a public support since his financial support needed a temporarily slow down. Once he failed to do that, he gained a very good international reputation by conducting at New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Concerts du Conservatoire and Lamoureux orchestras in Paris. These tours made him very famous.
As we discussed earlier, he was very aware of the operatic repertory deficiency of the British audience. He was introducing new pieces but it wasn’t enough for establishing a permanent opera experience for the British audience. For that reason, he formed the London Philharmonic. This was a very important step of his musical career as it is for the British musical scene. The orchestra was showing great success because he was very good at choosing the best players for the orchestra. He also paid the best fees to the orchestra members than any other orchestra. This is proved by the tours they made to the Brussels, Germany and Paris. The orchestra players loved and respect him. The orchestra members who perform under his baton state in the interview done by Rob Cowan for the Gramophone, that they love him but he was very formal with the orchestra players. They always called his as ‘’Sir Thomas’’ and they say they had to call him that way otherwise they couldn’t stay at the orchestra. They also said that he was very aware of his small size, and wants everyone to step aside during the conversation.
In 1932, he is assigned to the Covent Garden as an artistic director. During that time very famous conductors conduct at the Covent Garden as a guest conductor such as Furtwängler, Reiner, Knappertsbusch, Erich Kleiber and Weingartner. Compared to these conductors, Sir Thomas Beecham was no less than them by looking at the recordings he made. During World War II, he continued touring to Australia and United States of America (Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera).
He returned to the London, Britten in 1944. During that time his formed orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, has became self-governing orchestra. For that reason, he couldn’t have the authority over the orchestra as he used to have. Due to that, he was in need to form another orchestra which is the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1946). While conducting this orchestra, he continues touring and keep his international fame alive (USA and Canada tours). He continues to be the guest conductor of Covent Garden.
In the interview of Rob Cowen, the players explain his musical taste. For example; Jon Tolansky state that Beecham knew the music very well, especially the compositional and the musicological aspect of the pieces. It had very artistic details. David Cairns state that he had a very good photographic memory. He was said to perform a complete Strauss opera without any score. He also says that Beecham – due to his busy schedule conducting – sometime didn’t know the piece he will conduct that night. For his baton technique they say that he had a very clear beating. He had a great feeling of the rhythm. Regarding his London Philharmonic recordings, it has been said that he prefers the sharp accents, freedom in commas, spaces between the phrases. Beecham said that ‘’the grand line is the only thing the public recognises, and the flexibility is the only thing that makes music’’. Compared to the other maestros, he was considered to be softer in personality. He is famous with a lot of stories and quotes that can never happen with other conductors of that time who are known to be very strict.
For his musical taste, he didn’t love J.S. Bach very much, but appreciated Handel in a great deal. He made arrangements for Handel’s ballet and concert suites. Her Mozart interpretation was very personal and tended to Mannerism. However, he is known to do lots of efforts for performing Mozart, more than any English conductor anyway. He preferred not famous, minor English and French composers of the 18th and early 19th century. For instance; Gretry and Mehul. For the Beethoven conducting, he is known for the recording of London Philharmonic Orchestra on Fourth Symphony in 1945. His Berlioz conducting was very appreciated. He regularly performed Haydn, Mendelssohn, Bizet, Dvorak, Richard Strauss and Sibelius. He also conducted British composers. He is known especially with the Delius interpretations. In his interpretations in general, he was able to change his own interpretation of the piece according to the audience and the circumstances which shows how he was inspired by the music and how much hardworking he was.
Although he is very wealthy, he had an entrepreneur side and he had a great understand of the music business as well as the financial aspects. This is proved by the two major entrepreneurial attempt; London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic.
As mentioned earlier, he was loved by the orchestra members and he treated them as colleagues. During a recording session, if he was unsatisfied with the result, he would leave the recording incomplete, could change the piece immediately or made jokes to cheer the musicians for a better mood. He was very unpredictable as well which keep his musicians very alert.
Regarding the repertory choices of Beecham at his recording sessions there are two phased. One is before the World War where Beecham was in control of the repertory. However, after the World War the circumstances has changed. After that recording companies – especially EMI- choose the control the repertory. Beecham was very aware of these changes and the causes. He has an enormous number of recordings, excessing 350. His recordings of Carmen (Bizet) and Madama Butterfly (Puccini) remained as classics.
It is also important to look to the concert programs and compare them to the recording programs. Below there are examples of some concert programs.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 14 October 1956
Royal Philharmonic Society, 26 October 1946
Royal Philharmonic Society, 23 November 1939
We can see that in the earlier concerts he included more works of Delius - whom he truly admires – and in the most recent ones he included more international repertoire. It was hard to find the program of the concerts, for further investigation and outcome we have to find much more about the concert programing.
Sir Thomas Beecham was very influential conductor especially for Britten. He was very innovative. Although he became very popular, gained an international fame and also doesn’t need any financial support, he continued to do innovations and entrepreneurial attempts. His decisions impact the famous British musical scene of today. He also had a positive impact on his musicians which is also very important for my opinion. His recordings enabled us a very good understanding of his music and interpretation. Although he is mostly mentioned and remembered by London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic and his relationship and admiration of Delius; he was certainly more than that. He had his own understanding of the compositions, he had arrangements and unusual interpretations as well. Although he is mentioned mostly about the subjects I mentioned below, we should remember that he was a great conductor who can conduct atonal pieces of Strauss from memory. In other aspect of him was he made a mission for the British audience to be experienced different repertoires of opera. It was a challenging task, and he conducted very hard and modern pieces rather than focusing on popular or English composers. He should be a role model for his enthusiasm of the music and the aim he has for the audience. He is a great asset for today’s British music society.