LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

So which of the Beecham stories are true?

By Norman Lebrecht / September 3, 2008

Every British musician has a Beecham story, a secondhand quip of a conductor who founded or rescued most of the nation’s orchestras and, when bankrupt, told the Official Receiver to be ‘truly thankful for what he was about to receive.’

Sir Thomas was a font of wit and enterprise, a blaze of colour and bonhomie in a monochrome age. A hereditary baronet, he was a cavalier among roundheads who made the lives of session musicians more play than work. Few had a bad word to say about him, even when they went unpaid. Who else would have dared to dismiss Beethoven as ‘a musical Mr Gladstone’ and Elgar’s overlong first symphony as ‘the neo-Gothic equivalent of the towers of St Pancras Station’?

But did he? A new biography of Beecham, the first to obtain partial access to the family papers, reveals that many of the best-known stories are myth, born of wishful thinking and faulty memories.

The one about the lady cellist, for instance, whom Beecham supposedly stopped in rehearsal with the remark: ‘Madam, between your legs you have a magnificent instrument and all you can do is scratch it.’ Definitely not Beecham, says biographer John Lucas. More likely to have come from Sir Henry Wood, the Proms founder, who had a coarse streak of cockney humour.

And the celebrated put-down of Karlheinz Stockhausen that was quoted widely this year in the composer’s obituaries: ‘I’ve not heard any Stockhausen, but I think I’ve trodden in some.’ A posthumous invention, says Lucas, probably by the critic Neville Cardus.

The true story of Thomas Beecham is, it turns out, far more entertaining than any of these frayed anecdotes. He was born into a fake-cure family in St Helen’s, Lancashire, in 1879. His grandfather invented a herbal pill that had no medical benefit but was sold as a cure for most ills. His father expanded into laxatives and cough tinctures (the Beecham brand is today part of the giant GlaxoSmithKline conglomerate). Tommy was raised in the belief that you can fool most of the public all of the time.

Both his grandfather and his father had their wives committed to a mental asylum while they moved in with a mistress. Torn between warring parents, Tommy got married at 24 to a penniless American, Utica Wells, and, while she raised their two sons in a suburban house, took an official mistress, the shipping heiress Lady Cunard, while running a fluid succession of musical paramours.

One of them, the Croydon soprano Dora Labette, bore him a third son. On tour in America and Australia, his girlfriend of the moment was forever being mistaken for Lady Beecham or Lady Cunard. Tommy did nothing to correct the misapprehension or protect the feelings of his partners.

His mission was to educate the English-speaking world in the art of music, an art which he loftily declared the English ‘do not like: they just like the noise it makes’. At Covent Garden in the summers before the First World War, he introduced operas by Richard Strauss and a lighter style in Mozart that became the national norm. During the War, his father bought the opera house and its surroundings while Tommy saved the London Symphony Orchestra from disbandment.

In the financial crash that followed his father’s death in 1916, Covent Garden had to be sold to pay off death duties and debts on the estate, leaving Tommy tangled up in lawyers as he surged up and down the country with a Beecham Opera Company, created an orchestra in Birmingham and redeemed the Halle from insolvency. When the BBC refused to let him lead its symphony orchestra in 1930, he founded the London Philharmonic; later, in 1946, he established the Royal Philharmonic. When out of funds, he drained the Cunards.

No conductor anywhere, at any time, has done so much to vitalise and diversify the musical life of a nation. If London today has more orchestras than it sensibly needs, the proliferation ensures that we never stagnate into the monolithic torpor of a one-orchestra city like New York. That, in one sense, is Beecham’s visible legacy.

Less measurable is the élan he brought to British musical life, tilting at windmills, championing Handel over Bach and, unaccountably, Frederick Delius over all other composers. It says much for Beecham and little for Delius that only in Tommy’s recordings does the Yorkshireman sound like a composer of substance.

Charged by Churchill with spreading British propaganda in the US during the Second World War, he divorced Utica and – to the dismay of Lady Cunard and Dora Labette – married Betty Humby, an English pianist of modest gifts. When she died of cancer, he married in his dotage the RPO’s sometime telephonist, Shirley Hudson.

His death on March 8, 1961 was blazoned across eight columns of the front page of London’s evening newspaper, such was his popular status. He left an estate worth a paltry £3,499, having spent the pill fortune on music. Utica was by this time reduced to showing day-trippers around their former home at 2/6d (12.5 pence) a head.

Lucas, a former arts editor of the Observer newspaper who is married to the soprano Dame Anne Evans, digs out the hard truths of Beecham’s life with painstaking research and sympathetic insight. His biography is not quite as scintillating as the conductor’s own memoir, A Mingle Chime, but it has the benefit of fact where Beecham preferred fantasy and it reveals the domestic squalor that has never been documented before. Beecham’s was, by no means, an exemplary life.

Conductors, unlike poets and composers, leave nothing of permanence except recordings and memories, both of which can be misleading. Beecham, however, left the twinkle in his eye. Rogue that he was towards women and all who were imprudent enough to trust him with cash, he engendered a sense of mischief and effervescence in London’s concert halls that is not to be found anywhere else. The sparkle in their sound is still traceable to Tommy. Part showman, part shaman, he transformed London from a cultural backwater into a musical capital and gave it an enduring resilience. For those gifts, it is not just the Official Receiver who is truly thankful.

Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music, is published by Boydell & Brewer on September 11, price £25

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001-2006