The Wit and Wisdom of Sir Thomas Beecham

It was the sort of gaffe that only Sir Thomas Beecham could get away with. As part of a tour of Germany in 1936 with his newly-formed London Philharmonic Orchestra, he gave a live broadcast concert in Berlin. Noticing Adolf Hitler in the audience applauding after the first piece, he turned to the orchestra and, audibly to audiences across Europe,  he exclaimed “The old bugger seems to like it!”

On another occasion, he was talking to a lady whose name he had forgotten. When he asked how she was doing she replied that she was very well but her brother had been rather ill of late. “I’m sorry to hear that”, he said, “And, er, what is your brother doing at the moment?” “Well … he’s still King.”

The indefatigable conductor and impresario Sir Thomas Beecham (1879 – 1961) was a much loved and respected figure who lavished his personal fortune on the promotion of orchestral and operatic music and was described by the BBC as ‘Britain’s first international conductor’. His achievements were quite exceptional; as well as organising major concert seasons, he set up opera companies and orchestras to his own exacting standards (including the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) and found time to be artistic director of Covent Garden from 1930 – 1939. He revitalised the British musical scene through his tireless promotion of new music and lesser-known composers, conducting the first British performances of several major works. And he left behind an impressive set of recordings which span the period 1910 -1959.

This larger than life character is also fondly remembered for his irrepressible sense of humour and many of his exchanges have since passed into musical folklore.

Beecham on music
On being asked if he had ever conducted any Stockhausen, Beecham replied, “No, but I once trod in some”.

Beecham had a wide and varied repertoire stretching from Handel to the mid-20th century. He excelled in conducting Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and several 19th century French composers and championed the works of Delius and Sibelius. He disliked serial compositions, remarking “No composer has written as much as 100 bars of worthwhile music since 1925”, adding elsewhere “Music first and last should sound well, should allure and enchant the ear. Never mind the inner significance.”

His attitude to some notable German composers was equivocal. On Bach he said “Too much counterpoint; what is worse, Protestant counterpoint”. He tended to avoid Brahms and Bruckner as he found the orchestration rather “thick”, observing of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, “In the first movement alone, I took note of six pregnancies and at least four miscarriages”. He even expressed exasperation with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony “What can you do with it? It’s like a lot of yaks jumping about!”

His commitment to the newer repertoire was however indisputable. In one remarkable period (1910 – 1915) he organised a series of concerts in which he conducted the British premieres of the Strauss operas Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Ivan the Terrible. In the 1913 season alone there were 15 ballets, including the British premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (conducted by Pierre Monteux), hot from the brouhaha that had greeted its first performance in Paris six weeks earlier.

Apart from the music of Delius, Beecham remained somewhat indifferent to home grown British music, referring to Elgar’s First Symphony as the “musical equivalent of the towers of St Pancras station” and of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony “A city life for me!”. His concert programmes nevertheless featured the music of lesser-known composers (such as Karl Goldmark) and he often played as encores many charming pieces (especially by French composers) which are still known today as ‘Beecham lollipops’.

Beecham on orchestras

Sir Thomas Beecham, 1948
Sir Thomas Beecham, 1948

After playing a deep shake on the wrong note on the tuba, Beecham asked the musician “Thank you, and now would you pull the chain?” On another occasion he said to a musician “We cannot expect you to be with us all the time, but perhaps you could be good enough to keep in touch now and again”.

While the conductors Arturo Toscanini and George Szell were famous for their explosive tempers during rehearsal (occasionally firing musicians on the spot), Beecham preferred to get what he wanted not by beating the orchestra into submission, but through artful cajoling and flashes of humour. In films of his rehearsals and performances it is clear that he is in control and enjoying himself to the hilt.  “At a rehearsal I let the orchestra play as they like”, he observed “at the concert I make them play as I like.”

Many of his barbs were directed at brass players. After a run through of a piece of music he accused the bass trombone of playing out of tune. “But Sir,”  a voice piped up “the bass trombonist hasn’t arrived yet.” “Well when he arrives, tell him he’s out of tune!”

Beecham once pronounced “There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between” – rules still occasionally followed today by amateur orchestras.

Beecham on football
During the recording sessions for a Haydn symphony in 1958, Beecham turned to the orchestra and admitted he was in a quandary. “Gentlemen,”he said “I want your advice, I am going to the Cup Final and inadvertently I let it be known that my sympathies lie with Manchester United. This morning I received a letter from Bolton, reminding me that not only am I Patron of the local Musical Society but also of the Football Club. How do you get out of that?” He continued “I think that I will tell them that whereas my compassionate sympathies are with Manchester United, the intellectual and better part of me lies with Bolton! D’you think it will go down?”

Beecham on death
On seeing the inscription on a tombstone “Here lies a great organist and an excellent musician”, Beecham is said to have remarked “What, both in the same grave?” It’s most likely an apocryphal story but it perfectly evokes the incorrigible sense of humour of this fêted, quintessentially English musical statesman.


Kevin Painting

Published xx January 2016 on primephonic.