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© Basil Tschaikov 2006
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The Music Goes Round and Around
by Basil Tschaikov


1 It must be in the Genes

Sir Thomas Beecham’s return to the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1944. The author’s family roots – the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the 1890s, escaping the East European Jewish pogroms, arriving as refugees in England near the turn of the century, playing in cinema orchestras and other groups in England in the first two decades of the 20th Century

It was the 30th September 1944, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra were in Wembley Town Hall (now Brent Town Hall). A small man with a little white beard walked majestically towards the platform followed at a respectful distance by his wife, his manager, the orchestra’s general manager, the concert manager, and several other members of the management staff. He came onto the platform and took his place on the podium. ‘Good morning, gentlemen! It is very good to be back with you again. Let us begin with the Berlioz Overture – Carnaval Romain.’ Those few words of greeting were the first I heard in Sir Thomas Beecham’s rich, plummy Edwardian voice, with its inimitable inflection. He had just returned to Britain from the Americas, where he had been since 1940, to rejoin his old orchestra. This was to be our first rehearsal with him and it was also my first experience of the great man. After those first few brief words of greeting and a swift glance round the orchestra, up went his baton and we were off.

The orchestra had been awaiting his arrival with some anxiety because it was still wartime and we all knew that his voyage across the Atlantic might be long and dangerous. In fact the rehearsals and the tour to follow had to be delayed because he had arrived back three weeks later than expected. Now, on the morning of his first rehearsal, scheduled for 10 o’clock, everyone had been ready and we were keen to get started. True to form, he was well-known for frequently being late, on this occasion he was over an hour late.

Though I had already played with several fine conductors I knew at once that this was something special. As soon as we started the Carnaval Romain Overture by Berlioz I was immediately aware that the allegro was so alive and vibrant and the slow section that follows, though still taut rhythmically, had the flexible lyricism that I soon came to learn was characteristic of this remarkable conductor. Then back into the allegro six-eight again. With mounting excitement we approached the main theme. Just when the first allegro melody returns there is a big accent. At that moment an astonishing thing happened. Beecham gave a great lunge, to emphasise the accent, and stuck the baton through the palm of his left hand. It went right through and came out the other side. He was immediately rushed off to hospital leaving a bewildered and worried orchestra wondering what would be the outcome.

In the afternoon he returned with his left hand bandaged and his arm in a sling, but in good humour and his usual ebullient self. After a short tour – Watford, Leeds, Huddersfield, Sheffield, and Peterborough we returned to London, where for so long Beecham had had an enthusiastic and adoring audience. Not to the Queen’s Hall, the scene of his former triumphs before the war, as this had been destroyed by a bomb in 1941, but in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. On the 7th October 1944 I had my first experience of a ‘great occasion’, the first of many wonderful concerts over the next 16 years during which I had the good fortune to play under Sir Thomas’s direction.

I had joined the London Philharmonic eighteen months before Sir Thomas’s return, just before my eighteenth birthday. I did not expect to be able to remain with the orchestra for very long since once I was eighteen I knew it would not be long before I would receive my call up papers. It was unlikely that I would be considered fit for a unit that would go into action, but I thought I would be expected to undertake work of national importance instead. I had a short and slightly wasted leg, caused by an accident when I was a child. In the event I was designated unfit for military service on that account. I received this news with mixed feelings. Naturally I was delighted to be able to continue playing in the orchestra, but at the same time I felt uncomfortable at having to explain why as an apparently healthy young man I was not in the army.

Without that childhood accident, which at the time had been serious and kept me from school for the best part of a year, the rest of my life might have been very different, though it was probably destined that I would earn my living as a musician. It is rather unusual now, but in the past there were a good many musicians who belonged to ‘musical families’, families such as the Goossens, Drapers, Brains, Penns and the Tschaikovs in which grandfathers, father and uncles, aunts and cousins were all musicians. Most of my family had been or were musicians: two grandfathers, my father, a very successful clarinettist, and his brothers and sisters; it was likely I would follow in their footsteps as did my younger brother. Because of what I learned from them my memories of the past go back long before I started in the profession in 1942.

My maternal grandfather, David Belinfante, had been the second clarinettist and librarian in the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in the 1890s. Like many European musicians at that time he was attracted by the prospect of employment opportunities in London and Manchester. In 1900 he arrived with his young family – my mother, then a year old, and her elder brother, later to become a professional violinist.

The Belinfantes were an old Portuguese Jewish family living in Lisbon. When the Inquisition arrived in Portugal, around 1530, they were obliged to flee for their lives and seek refuge elsewhere. They first went to Turkey, where the family remained for several generations before finally settling in Holland in about 1660. The records show that since the sixteenth century there have been musicians and lawyers in the Belinfante family.

I never knew my father’s father. He died long before I was born. Most of the knowledge I have of him comes filtered through the somewhat unreliable recollections of a rather eccentric aunt. It is a measure of her eccentricity that she believed that her constipation – her main topic of conversation for many years – had been cured by her spirit-guide, a holy medicine man of some long lost tribe.

Grandfather Tschaikov, as well as being a violinist, also played the clarinet and the double bass. He probably belonged to one of the families of musicians that formed the Klezmer bands that went from village to village in Russia and Poland, playing at weddings and other celebrations. By the time my father was born, grandfather had moved on and was conducting small orchestras on the pleasure boats that used to cruise from Sukhumi, Sotshi, and Botumi, on the Black Sea, where a Mediterranean climate and an abundance of vineyards and orchards made for a most enjoyable life. ‘Conducting’ probably meant that he stood in front of the orchestra and ‘led’, standing in front of the other players, playing the violin and using the bow to conduct when necessary. This was the traditional style in small orchestras playing light music until the 1940s – now only seen at concerts of Viennese waltzes. It was also the style adopted by dance and jazz bandleaders, though they would play clarinet, trumpet, trombone or piano.

Through his association with the influential people he met on these cruises he could have avoided the consequences of the pogroms that were then sweeping through Russia and bringing terror and exile. He had the opportunity to convert to Christianity, and this was the course his rich and powerful friends recommended. Had he taken their advice he could have continued to follow his profession as a musician. But he was a proud and stubborn man and preferred to retain his integrity and independence. He set off, with his large family, for what he hoped would be a more welcoming environment.

It is a long way from the warmth of those Black Sea holiday resorts to Warsaw, and the journey was to be slow and painful. One stopping place was Tiflis, now Tblisi, in Georgia, where my father was born in 1894. Tblisi is the Georgian word for hot. Legend has it that 1500 years ago King Vakhang Gorgasali went hunting in the woods near Mtskheta, the ancient capital. His falcon was chasing a pheasant when it suddenly dropped into a pool and was boiled alive. The hot springs that caused this interesting phenomenon led to the King moving his capital to Tblisi.

Soon after my father was born the pogrom reached Tblisi, making it impossible for the family to remain there. They were obliged to set off once again. This time they decided to make the long journey to Warsaw. Each Friday evening at dusk they would all get off the train, since travel on the Sabbath was proscribed by their religion, and wait patiently by the side of the track until dusk the following day before continuing on their journey. Once settled in Warsaw Uncle Anton, who was only about six or seven years old, was heard playing the violin by a distinguished teacher who decided to take him under his wing. He thought that the boy showed outstanding talent and that he could become a successful solo violinist. But after a year or so the pogrom caught up with them yet again. This time they decided to leave mainland Europe altogether.

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