Beecham, Sir Thomas, second baronet 1879-1961, conductor, was born 29 April 1879 at St. Helens, Lancashire, the elder son and second child of (Sir) Joseph Beecham, chemist, of St. Helens and later Huyton, and Josephine Burnett. His family background was that of the very prosperous business started by his grandfather, Thomas Beecham [qv.], a famous name in the world of digestive pills, which were sold at first personally by their inventor, and later marketed and advertised in vast quantities. There was good personal rapport between Beecham and his grandfather, better than that between him and his father.
At an early age Beecham showed two personal gifts—a good memory for words, and a passion for music. He was taught the piano from the age of six. He was also interested in sport, and in spite of his short stature, played football and cricket for Rossall School, Lancashire, which he attended from 1892 to 1897 and where he was a house-captain. He later went for eighteen months to Wadham College, Oxford (1897/8), where he practised the piano, played football, and indulged in bouts of foreign travel to hear his favourite operas. It soon became obvious that music was to be his chosen life's work. He was given, at twenty, and obviously by family influence, the opportunity to conduct his first professional orchestra—the Hallé, upon a visit to St. Helens, who were faced with an empty podium because Dr Hans Richter, who had been asked to conduct, had other engagements. Previously Beecham had learnt something about conducting with his own St. Helens Orchestral Society—which he had founded two years previously—and seemed to find no difficulty in leading the Hallé orchestra through an almost unrehearsed performance, a capacity he was to demonstrate superbly with a succession of orchestras over the next sixty years.
Having left Oxford without taking a degree, Beecham went to live in London in 1900, where he studied musical composition with Charles Wood [qv.], Frederic Austin, and other teachers. In 1902, aged twenty-two, Beecham joined, as one of its conductors, a small London touring opera company directed by Kelson Trueman, and soon had committed its repertory to memory. In 1903 he married Utica (Utie) Celestia, daughter of Charles Stuart Welles, of New York, an American diplomat, at a time of serious discord in his own family. There were two sons of his marriage. It was a short-lived union of which he rarely spoke in later years, although the separation which soon followed seemed sad rather than bitter. They were divorced in 1943 and Utica, Lady Beecham, died in 1977.
An injury to his wrist in 1904 destroyed Beecham's ambition to be a concert pianist. Most of that year he spent travelling on the Continent with his wife, attending performances and collecting musical scores. In December 1905 he gave his first public orchestral concert in London, with players of the Queen's Hall orchestra. Press notices were poor, and Beecham himself far from satisfied. In 1906, helped by the clarinettist Charles Draper, he founded the New Symphony Orchestra, which expanded to sixty-five players in 1907, all of whom were carefully selected. This time Beecham's arresting style triumphed, and it was obvious that Britain had an important young conductor. It was at this stage that he met Frederick Delius [qv.], whose music was to be such an important part of Beecham's work. In 1908 he presented several works by his new friend, with whom he went to Norway on holiday. In 1910, backed by his father, whose friendship he had now regained, Beecham mounted the first of his many Covent Garden opera seasons, a mammoth affair with thirty-four works represented, many of them very grand in scale and quite unknown in Britain. There were works by Richard Strauss (Elektra and Feuersnot); Wagner (Tristan and Isolde); Debussy (L'Enfant Prodigue); four of the less familiar Mozart operas; and many works by lesser composers. This did not prevent—indeed it inevitably produced—very heavy financial losses; but it could well be taken as a pattern for many of Beecham's finest achievements in the years which followed. In 1911 he presented Diaghilev's Russian Ballet with Nijinsky and in 1913 he introduced Chaliapin in a season of Russian opera, as well as giving the first London performance of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. The tragic international events which followed in 1914 cut short Beecham's operatic activities, but he remained indefatigable in his fight to keep music going, and sustained both the Hallé Society and the London Symphony Orchestra with financial and artistic help. His greatest achievement at this time was the touring of his opera company, working in theatres large and small up and down the country, performing more than thirty different operas, including such works as The Boatswain's Mate by (Dame) Ethel Smyth [qv.] and Isidore de Lara's Naïl, all at prices so low as to put them within reach of everyone. In 1916 Beecham succeeded to his father's baronetcy, having been knighted earlier in the same year. A final financially disastrous Covent Garden season in 1920 left him fighting to stave off bankruptcy, and 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. In that year he presented the first Delius Festival in London, which was attended by the now blind and paralysed composer, who for the first time began to receive the public appreciation he deserved.
In 1932, after heated negotiations, lasting some years, with the BBC and the London Symphony Orchestra for the foundation of a full-time permanent symphony orchestra in London, Beecham founded, with the assistance of Courtaulds, the excellent London Philharmonic Orchestra, which still exists (1979). With them he was to present many excellent concert and opera seasons until 1939, when war once again changed the London scene. In 1934 Delius died and the Delius Trust, planned by Beecham, took over the task of presenting his music on records and in concert-halls. In 1936 Beecham took his orchestra to Nazi Germany, and had the audacity to include in his party his secretary Berta Geissmar, the expatriate German who travelled safely and openly with him. Two occasions are remembered from this tour—the evening when Beecham refused to precede Adolf Hitler into the concert-hall, thus avoiding having to salute the arrival of the Führer, and the concert at Ludwigshaven, in the concert-hall of BASF, manufacturers of recording equipment, which marked the first recording ever made on tape of any orchestra. From 1939 to 1944 Beecham travelled constantly abroad, in the USA and Australia, and his reputation as a wit and a raconteur grew as rapidly as his stature as a conductor.
Upon his return to London in 1944, and after trials and arguments with both the London Philharmonic Orchestra and what was soon to be the Philharmonia under Walter Legge's direction, in 1946 he formed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which was to be his last orchestra and the one with which he was to be longest in association. In 1946 he gave an important series of concerts in the second Delius Festival; and in 1947, in the presence of the eighty-three-year-old composer, a Richard Strauss Festival.
In 1950 he presented his orchestra in a lengthy tour of North America—an enterprise which somehow supported itself without government help and with Beecham's own generous donation of his services to balance a precarious budget. In the years which followed, Beecham busied himself with almost every possible aspect of orchestral and operatic activity at the very highest level. His recordings were among the finest produced anywhere. He conducted extensively in Britain, America, and Paris. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1957, an event which was clouded for him by the death of his second wife, Betty, daughter of Daniel Morgan Humby, a surgeon, of London. She was a pianist who was formerly the wife of the Revd H. C. Thomas, of London, and they had been married in 1943, after Beecham terminated his long association with Lady Cunard. Beecham's publications included an early autobiography, A Mingled Chime (1944), which described his life only until 1924, and should have been augmented by a later volume; and a biography of Frederick Delius (1958). In 1956 he gave the Romanes lecture at Oxford.
In 1959 he married his personal secretary, Shirley Hudson, who was with him in the United States in 1960, when illness forced him to return to London, where he died 8 March 1961. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his elder son, Adrian Welles Beecham, born in 1904.
Beecham was often a harsh taskmaster and could sometimes be inconsiderate to those working for him. Punctuality was not among his most noticeable virtues. Nevertheless, such peccadilloes were easily overlooked in view of his effervescent enthusiasm which communicated itself to musicians and public alike. 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. He was a man of wide reading, which informed and enlivened his conversation, and he was renowned for his wit. Sometimes his interpretations of the music he conducted were controversial—for example, it was felt that he failed to bring out the heroic nature in some passages by Beethoven. But he succeeded in giving a freshness of outlook to performances and often astonished the public by his vitality, his flamboyance of manner, and his deep musical understanding. His own favourite composer was Mozart.
In appearance Beecham, although invariably an impressive figure, changed considerably over the years. In youth he was, judging from the many photographs and cartoons of the time, slim, elegant, dark-haired, and something of a dandy. The famous story of his summer evening walk along Piccadilly when he is said to have hailed a cab, thrown in his redundant overcoat, and said Follow me as he continued his stroll is probably exaggerated, but contains a germ of the truth about the Beech of the time. By his fifties he had already become a more sturdy character, but by no means rotund; now white-haired and with his famous goatee beard jutting formidably (especially if he were arguing or directing a more dramatic musical work), he took on a more pinkish hue and a somewhat more benign aspect in moments of repose. With the passing years the figure became stouter, but Beecham was never anything like a fat man, and to the very end he presented an impressive pair of shoulders to orchestras the world over. Sitting down at this time he seemed gigantic; it was when he stood that he was revealed as a very short man—his legs were surprisingly short, belying every other physical aspect of this remarkable man. One feature remained constant through the years—the large and lustrous eyes, at once the agents of fear and confidence in the hearts of the players who faced him, and possibly the most important tool in his conducting equipment.
Apart from photographs and cartoons, portraits of Beecham seem to be few and rarely successful. Simon Elwes painted a portrait in 1951, but it is generally regarded as not a good likeness. In the Royal Festival Hall there is an excellent if somewhat skeletal bust in bronze which catches the mercureal conductor very much in action with a typical sideways cut-off which was extremely characteristic of his technique. There is a portrait of Beecham in oils by Gordon Thomas Stuart (1953) and a drawing by Guy Passet (1950), both in the possession of Alan Denson. One of six bronze bust casts by David Wynne (1957) is at the National Portrait Gallery, and others are at the Festival Hall, Bristol, and Aberdeen. Several caricatures were drawn by Edmund Dulac. There is also a portrait by Dorothy E. F. Cowen (1952). Sketches made at the Queen's Hall, London, during the Delius Festival of 1929, by Ernest Procter, are in the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has a sculpture by Muriel Liddle (1979).
Charles Reid, Thomas Beecham, 1961
Neville Cardus, Sir Thomas Beecham, 1961
Humphrey Proctor-Gregg, Beecham Remembered, 1976
Ethel Smyth, Beecham and Pharaoh, 1935
Sir Thomas Beecham, A Mingled Chime, Leaves from an Autobiography, 1944
Harold Atkins and Archie Newman, Beecham Stories: Anecdotes, Sayings and Impressions, 1978
Alan Jefferson, Sir Thomas Beecham: A Centenary Tribute, 1979
Contributor: Jack Brymer