Impossible as it is to believe for hundreds of thousands of music lovers, it was 100 years ago today that Sir Thomas Beecham, without the title, was born in St. Helens, which made him forever a Lanchashire man.
To his good fortune, he was the heir to the pharmaceutical house responsible for the product that Sir Thomas himself celebrated with this quatrain (to be sung to the tune of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing:" Hark! The herald angels sing! Beecham's pills are just the thing. Two for a woman, one for a child. Peace on Earth and mercy mild!
Sir Thomas's father, responsible for the liver pills in question, was delighted.
The redoubtable conductor, having inherited a fortune, laid the whole thing on the line shortly after World War I on behalf of opera in Covent Garden, a gesture that led to his own temporary bankruptcy. When a banker, who could not understand such financial maneuvers, stopped Sir Thomas on the street one day to ask, "Do you owe, or are you owed, two million pounds?The irrepressible musician came back, "The answer is in the affirmative... in both cases."
Few musicians contributed more great performances, both in the opera house and in the concert hall than Beecham. Few did so much to win lifelong friends for the music of Haydn and Mozart in an era when few conductors understood how to impart style and vitality to the great symphonies and operas from those pens. never think about the purists," was the way Sir Thomas took care of them: "They are a breed that has sprung up recently." -- but he had a way of galvanizing little known music by Handel or Mehul, Bach or Campra.
He was, moreover, far from a miniaturist. When the large works of Wagner and Strauss were still seldom performed in England, Beecham brought them to splendid life, engaging many of the greatest singers of this century for the Covent Garden house, and introducing scores of great new works in orchestral programs.
It was Beecham who single-handed brought the music of Frederick Delius to the attention of the world. By organizing festivals of Delius music, and through unmatched recordings, Beecham made permanent history of his extraordinary ability to distil the fragrance, the poetry of Delius' most fragile scores on one hand, and to give virility and shape to the largest works. No one among the few conductors who have cared to make any more than the slightest obcisance to the unique beauty of Delius has found the key with which to unlock the special beauty of Paris, or Sea Drift, or the Mass of Life.
The orchestras of this country came to know the irreverent, unpredicatable Beecham very well. After his U.S. debut, which was at the head of the New York Philharmonic -- in the same concert in which Vladimir Horowitz also made his debut -- Beecham became a popular guest conductor in addition to longer stays in Seattle, where he freely insulted the audiences, (Line Illegible) House, where he conducted some of the most distinguished performances heard in the same seasons with Bruno Walter and George Szell.
Beecham came to the National Symphony Orchestra several times in the 1940's and 50's, and his visits always resulted in moments of very special beauties. Mozart and Haydn such as NSO audiences had not previously heard became possible under his baton, in part because the musicians did their best to play even above their best level for him.
Two of my own favorite recollections of Sir Thomas resulted from his appearance here with the American Symphony Orchestra in a complete performance of "Les Troyens" by Berlioz. In poor health, Sir Thomas had been unable to conduct the work in New York or Philadelphia, so that the Constitution Hall performance, Part One on Saturday night and Part Two on Sunday afternoon, was the only time he led the work in this country. He had had no rehearsal with the chorus, and was surprised, during the Royal Hunt and Storm scene, not to hear their cries of "Italie! Italie!" come out more strongly. Suddenly, above the full orchestral tumult, his left arm stretched out to the chorus and his voice through the fabric of sound, rang out for all everyone to hear, "SING!" The results were as if an electric prod had been applied to each individual singer.
The sequel came the next day My phone rang around noon, and an unmstakable voice came over the line, (Line Illegible) that was a rotten performance of Berlioz, and you know it! If you will come to my hotel room this afternoon at five o'clock I will be glad to show you why!" Even a friendship with Sir Thomas that had grown stronger over the years did not remove my feeling of curious anticipation that afternoon.
When I entered his room at the May-flower Hotel, he had his gouty leg up on a pillow and was studying the score of "Les Troyens" as if he had never seen it before in his life. After serving me 30-year-old Ballantine's scotch, he showed me how and why he had been dissatisfied with the performance. He was not in the least interested in my protest that I had been overwhelmed by hearing the music for the first time in my life.
Sir Thomas was planning to record the opera complete the following summer in Paris, but that was one venture time and circumstances did not permit him to complete. Had he finished it, the results would surely have stood alongside his incomparable "Magic Flute," his ineffable "Boheme," the towering "Heldenleben" that was his final recording, and innumerable performances of genius with which he made memorable not only Haydn and Mozart, but Kalinnikov, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Delius and Sibelius, Bantock, Prokofiev, Chabrier, Offenbach, and all the rest to whom he lent that the indefinable touch of genius that has had no parallel.
On his 70th birthday, Beecham was read greetings from Strauss. Sibelius Stravinsky and others. At last he asked, gently, "Nothing from Mozart?" $1.99 Text omitted CAPTION: Picture, Few musicians contributed more great performances, both in the opera house and in the concert hall than Beecham. Few did so much to win lifelong friends for the music of Haydn and Mozart in an era when few conductors understood how to impart style and vitality to the great symphonies and operas from those pens.