I only once heard the great Sir Thomas Beecham conduct. It was with his own orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, at the recently built Royal Festival Hall which Sir Thomas had at first scorned as “a disused mining shack in Nevada: frivolous and acoustically imperfect”. The latter part of this judgement was certainly correct, and it took some time to remedy the hall’s early deficiencies. But Beecham relented sufficiently to give several concerts there. This one started, I remember, with an electrifying rendering of God Save the Queen. Sir Thomas’s national anthems were magnificent and breath-taking – his Star-Spangled Banner in
I regret that I have forgotten the items on the programme I heard, but I am sure it included some of Sir Thomas’s and my favourite Mozart, of whose music he was such a sensitive and elegant performer and did much to popularize. For those unfamiliar with the Beecham legend, his strong mix of musical perfectionalism, podium panache and celebrated wit would be a refreshing change from many of the relatively insipid conductors who tour the world’s concert halls today. As Yehudi Menuhin said of him, he possessed “that subtle quality, grace – a grace that he showed to his orchestra, as to his soloists – a compound of an erudition and a wit adjoined to a courtesy of heart that has now all but disappeared from daily life”.
Notwithstanding his urbanity, Beecham was a scathing critic of many of his contemporary conductors and musicians. He wondered out loud “Why do we in
He demanded unsparingly high standards from his own players, who nevertheless thought the world of him. His remarks during rehearsals were often caustic. To one player he said: ”We cannot expect you to be with us all the time, but perhaps you would be good enough to keep in touch now and again”. When the agitated wife of a leading tenor who had a heavy cold burst into Beecham’s dressing room at
When he was in
In his old age, Sir Thomas summed up his philosophy of life thus: “Years are nothing. Thought and feeling – notably feeling – are all that matter. Say what you want to say, with firmness and conviction. The one thing that is really important, in playing, in conducting – yes, and even in misconducting – is this: whatever you do, do it with conviction.”
[Thanks to ben trovato for unearthing Beecham Stories – Anecdotes, sayings and impressions of Sir Thomas Beecham, compiled by Harold Atkins and Archie Newman, from the dusty shelves.]