Monday, 12 February 2007


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 New York drew delighted crowds to Carnegie Hall, and his Marseillaise wowed the French.

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 England engage so many third-rate continental conductors when we have so many second-rate ones of our own?” He dismissed Toscanini as “a glorified Italian band-master” and had a teasing relationship with Sir Malcolm Sargent, mischievously enquiring when Sargent told him that on a visit to the Middle East he had been detained by some Arabs who subsequently released him “Why? Had they heard you play?”

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 Covent Garden shortly before the curtain was due to go up crying “Sir Thomas! Sir Thomas! My husband – he has no voice – he cannot sing”, Sir Thomas blandly replied: ”My dear lady, WE know that – but does he?”

When he was in New York, the telephone rang in Sir Thomas’s hotel room and a voice with a strong American accent said: “Is thaat you, Sir Tammas Beech’m? Ah’m the chairman of the English Speak’n Oonion.” “I don’t believe it!” said Beecham and replaced the receiver. When he took the London Philharmonic Orchestra on a tour of Germany in the 1930s, Beecham was presented to Hitler who enquired how he would be received in England if he came for the Coronation. “You would, I have no doubt, be the object of great interest” Sir Thomas tactfully replied. Hitler then remarked that his visit would probably put a great strain on the police. “Oh, I don’t think so”, said Beecham. "You would be safer in London than in Germany. In England, we leave people to do whatever they choose.” Hitler seemed nonplussed by this reply.

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 StoriesAnecdotes, sayings and impressions of Sir Thomas Beecham, compiled by Harold Atkins and Archie Newman, from the dusty shelves.]


zola said...

I've been convicted.
Does that count as misconducting?
I cannot even manage a decent sentence.
But passion ......
Conviction without passion is no real conviction at all.

zola said...

sori - safer in lapland I am.
The police cannot get me here.
can they?