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Return to Chapter 6



Sir Thomas Beecham

The Beecham Wind Orchestra – a unique wind ensemble. Memories and anecdotes from musicians who played for him, including my father (from 1912 onwards) and myself (from 1944 until his last concert in 1960). His rehearsal methods, repertoire and influence on all who played for him. Playing for him at concerts, on recordings, film and TV. His last concert.

The first really great musician that I worked with was Sir Thomas Beecham. This was a quite wonderful experience and a source of great pleasure that I was to enjoy for the following sixteen years – for a year or so in the LPO and then, from 1947, in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Those of us who made music under Sir Thomas’s direction were extremely fortunate, because he was a conductor of a particularly unusual, indeed unique, kind. There have, of course, been a number of outstanding and a few ‘great’ conductors – artists who inspired performances that reached the heart of the music, bringing it to life and inspiring players and audiences alike. But, having played for nearly all the most renowned conductors between 1943 and 1980 and worked with many, in a different capacity, for a further ten years, no one else has seemed to me to have had the remarkable qualities Beecham possessed.

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Though I did not to play for Beecham until 1944, the wonderful records he made with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, between 1932 and 1939, were known to me. His leading players – Reginald Kell, Leon Goosens, Anthony Pini and David McCallum, had become my boyhood heroes. One always heard the solos so clearly and the players seemed to have such freedom of expression and an opportunity to be creative. I was to learn later, from personal experience, that when playing for Sir Thomas one never had to fight one’s way through a barrage of strings ‘scraping away regardless’, as Sir Henry Wood used to call it, when playing a soft, delicate solo passage.

Beecham formed the LPO in 1932 and from the start he and the orchestra were a great success. The audience at the first concert was stunned and excited by the verve and virtuosity of the performance of the very first item Carnaval Romain Overture by Berlioz. It was also the first piece Beecham conducted when he returned to the LPO exactly 12 years later. It was to remain one of Beecham’s favourite works.

I first heard about Sir Thomas from my father. He had played for Beecham in the short-lived, but adventurous Beecham Wind Orchestra in 1912. Later he played for Sir Thomas, several times, in various orchestras. As a child I remember him speaking of these occasions with enthusiasm.

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The Beecham Wind Orchestra, in contrast to a military band, is of historical interest in that it predated the rise of the wind bands of the 1950s by some 40 years. The Wind Orchestra’s first concert (I believe the Orchestra only gave three concerts) took place in St. Helens, Thomas Beecham’s (as he then was) hometown. It was billed as ‘The Mayor’s Invitation Concert’, and was probably funded by Beecham’s wealthy father.

The programme notes for this occasion included the following information, (first printed in the Daily Telegraph): Mr Thomas Beecham, convinced that wind-instrument playing in this country is – and has for some time past been – steadily deteriorating, has founded a new wind orchestra, primarily with the view of raising the standard of wind playing and opening a new field to composers and executants. The formation of the orchestra is the practical outcome of several years study of (i) the possibilities generally of wind-instrument music; and (ii) the condition of wind-instrument playing in the British Isles.

Mr Beecham maintains that with the improvement of the manufacture of most wind instruments and the invention of several others of great beauty, which are still unfamiliar to the average player, there is a field for new development both in the practical reorganisation and theoretical treatment of wind combinations. It must, therefore, be made quite clear that this body of players is not in the least what is generally known as a brass or military band; it is essentially a wind orchestra. Whereas in the brass or military bands of the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards, etc., the proportion of brass to woodwind is in the approximate ratio of two to one, in the Beecham Wind Orchestra the proportion is reversed to one to two. It is hardly necessary to point out that this preponderance of a woodwind quality of sound alters the entire nature of the combination, and justifies the description of it as a ‘wind orchestra’.

There were 52 musicians and as can be seen from the orchestra list it included a number of instruments not usually found in a military band: cor anglais, heckelphone (or bass oboe), 2 corni di bassetto or basset horns), contra bassoons (the 2 bassoons have been omitted from the list, though they are mentioned elsewhere), bass trumpet, and, rather surprisingly, celeste.

The programme has the mixture of classical and entertainment music one would expect to find in a programme of that date. H F Willemson, who had worked as a copyist and also scored for Brahms, specially arranged the Wagner overture. I think he did a number of other arrangements for the band and these, plus a great deal more music and a wonderful collection of Beecham’s personal belongings, are housed in the Sir Thomas Beecham Archive.

Listening to some of the Music Preserved Oral History recordings that have been made since 1987, it has been interesting to hear the views of some of the players who had played with Beecham during the 1930s, when he was much younger than I ever knew him.

Richard Walton, his principal trumpet, in both the LPO and RPO, recalled that ‘he had authority – and he used that authority. He could be quite a tartar. It had to be really good.’ ‘He always implied a lyrical line – I’m sure both the orchestras, the LPO and the RPO, had this from Beecham – the importance of a beautiful, lyrical line.’ Leo Birnbaum, one of the violas, remembers the excitement of working with Tommy, ‘He was one of those few rare conductors who could really get better playing out of us than other conductors. At the first rehearsal Tommy would conduct the whole work, straight through. He’d get excited and we’d get excited, too. At the end we’d all cheer. I think that sometimes these rehearsals were even more exciting to us than the actual performance. Even after the last rehearsal he’d use a blue pencil to put in what we call ‘hairpins’ – crescendos and diminuendos – he was always marking and re-marking nuances.’

Playing for Tommy that ‘beautiful lyrical line’ gave me continual pleasure and the changed ‘blue pencil marks’ always gave one new insight into the music.

In 1946 Sir Thomas formed The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1947 I joined that orchestra, at the same time as Jack Brymer, Terence MacDonagh and Gwydion Brooke. When I was reviving old memories with Jack and remembering some of the works we had played many times with Tommy, I recalled how different his rehearsal methods were from other conductors. Jack Brymer responded with his own recollections, ‘His rehearsals were more a matter of familiarisation than anything else – you hadn’t the faintest idea what the old man wanted, really, because he didn’t put it into words. But when you got to the performance you looked at him, you looked at those eyes and the whole body, and the gestures, and you knew what he wanted, because this was real conducting, the art of gesture. I remember one day, Beecham had just returned from America, and he said, ‘Let’s see what we can do with this little bit of music.’ and we played the First Cuckoo (On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring), by Delius. If you listen to that recording – fantastic – it is affection in music.’ And indeed it was. He had such a great influence on all those who had the privilege of making music with him that it has always seemed to me that I could tell, from their playing, those musicians who had played for Tommy. Whatever their own individual ability, their playing was infused with some special element of imagination, whomever they were playing for.

However many times you played a piece – perhaps Mozart Symphony 39, which I must have played dozens of times with him – he always rehearsed it again. His method of rehearsal was to say, ‘Oh! Gentlemen, I think we’ll have a look at Mozart 39.’ After we had played right through to the end, without any stops, he would say, ‘Yes, that was very nice, gentlemen.’ and I would say to my friend Jack Brymer, ‘That means we’re going through it again.’ Then Tommy would say, ‘Just one or two points – it’s going extremely well’ – and we’d play straight through the symphony again.

But, of course, you didn’t just play through it again, because he would do different things with the baton, he would look in a different way, his gestures would change. He knew what he wanted to hear, he knew what had not gone the way he wished and he would do what was needed, in some subtle extraordinary way, that enabled the players to produce the sounds he heard in his head and wanted to hear again. He didn’t tell you what to do, or explain it. It was at his eightieth birthday party that he said, ‘You don’t have to teach musicians – they’re good musicians – they probably know more about the music than you do. All that you can do is help them play that music together, come together to make a performance. As I get older I’ve learnt to do less and less.’ Some people might think that he didn’t really mean it, but it was absolutely true. He did do less and less, that is he got in the way less and less. He conducted like a man bowling a hoop along. He tapped the hoop only when it was necessary. When he came to a corner he tapped it so that it started to go round and left it alone until it had gone round. Then he tapped it again. Others tap it all the way round the corner, and as likely as not it goes into the wall.

No other conductor, that I have known was able to get an orchestra to play with such a degree of rubato and yet at the same time, achieve outstanding precision of attack and ensemble. There was something so inevitable in his rhythm, that however wayward his beat might appear you always knew what was happening. In the 1947 recording of Ein Heldenleben, by Richard Strauss, there are some wonderful examples of this talent. In particular towards the end of that work where there is a lovely duet between the violin and the horn that is of breath-taking loveliness. On this first recording (we recorded it again with him in 1958) this passage is played with great sensitivity by the then Leader, Oscar Lampe, and the late, great Dennis Brain. It was taking part in performances like that, when Beecham combined masculine tenderness, subtle rubato, sensitive phrasing and dynamic outbursts of energy, that made working with him something very special indeed.

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Sir Thomas was a man of many sides and moods. Not withstanding his autocratic style, more usually with managements, the press and those he wanted to impress, Beecham was always popular with musicians who felt considerable affection for him and always referred to him as ‘Tommy’ when they spoke of him. Although he had a reputation for being a martinet – perhaps this was true when he was younger – he was always extremely pleasant and courteous to the orchestra during the time I played for him. However, he did not respond well if players, especially those he held in high regard and who he wanted always to be available to him, decided to follow their own interests and not his. I remember that on one occasion Dennis Brain had told the orchestral manager he would not be available for a concert when Ein Heldenleben, which has a very important part for the principal horn was on the programme, because he had already accepted an engagement to play one of the Mozart Horn Concertos with another orchestra.. When Beecham was informed. he said, ‘Please tell Mr Brain that he either makes himself available for our concert, or he will not play with the orchestra again.’ Dennis Brain did not do the concert and though Brain was one of Sir Thomas’s favourite players he did not play in the orchestra again for a year or more. Beecham would rather let him go than have his authority challenged.

Of course, Beecham provided a great deal of employment, paid well and from time to time put his own money, as well as other people’s, into his musical enterprises. But that was not the main thing – it was, as always, the pleasure everyone got from taking part in magical performances that made the difficult and often unrewarding life of an orchestral musician really worthwhile.

Rehearsals could also be enjoyable because he was usually in a good humour when making music. His reputation for off-the-cuff ripostes and asides is not something I experienced very often. It was more his timing, his tone of voice, and his manner of speaking that led to quite ordinary remarks being greeted with howls of laughter. He could make ‘pass the salt’ sound amusing. There are two anecdotes that I can vouch for and one must have been spontaneous. It was when my father played for Sir Thomas for the first time, about 1910 or 1911. He had been engaged as deputy principal clarinet in one of the orchestras Sir Thomas was conducting. During the rehearsal Beecham wanted to make a musical point to my father. Not knowing his name he turned to the principal second violinist and asked him, ‘Who is playing principal clarinet today?’ Unfortunately this player suffered with a quite dreadful stammer. ‘It’s Mr ch – ch – ch – chhh… …’. ‘Oh! dear!’ said Sir Thomas, ‘I didn’t know we had a train with us today.’

The other time was when we were doing a TV programme that Sir Thomas was presenting as well as conducting. We had already rehearsed everything that morning and had reassembled for a short rehearsal before the actual telecast – this was still in the 1950s when TV broadcasts went out ‘live’. As usual Beecham was very late arriving and as we neared the time of the transmission the studio manager was becoming more and more agitated. When Tommy eventually arrived the studio manager by then extremely flustered rushed up to him and said ‘Oh! Sir Thomas it’s so terribly late we really must have some voice levels.’ ‘There’s nothing to worry about my boy.’ said Tommy as he went towards the microphone and in his most serious voice started to recite:

Mary had a little watch,
She swallowed it one day.
She took a box of Beecham’s Pills,
To pass the time away.

Beecham was able to rescue music that had been neglected, often because it required someone with his special kind of imagination to bring it to life. One such work that I enjoyed very much, to which Tommy brought his magic, was Fifine at the Fair by Granville Bantock. This employs a very large orchestra, in the Strauss/Mahler tradition. Though rather too long, it has some fine dramatic moments and lyrical interludes, which Beecham realised to their full potential.

Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding Symphony, surely deserving of more performances, was another of Tommy’s favourites. In the recording he made with the RPO, the slow movement is played with particular sensitivity and beauty of tonal colouring. One hears the lyrical, firm yet infinitely flexible rhythm Beecham brought to everything he conducted. The music moves forward, never dragging, always unhurried and timeless. The Last Sleep of the Virgin, by Massenet, usually consigned to the ‘lollipop’ category, is a small gem. It was intensely moving when the recording he had made with the RPO was played at his reburial in St. Peter’s Churchyard, Limpsfield, close to his beloved Delius, on the 29th April 1991.

His championship of Delius is well known and his recordings of the very large works, The Mass of Life, A Village Romeo and Juliet, and many smaller works remain a touchstone for performance of these great compositions. The sounds he drew from the orchestra were transparent and airy, supported by an extraordinary rhythmic spine that moves the music along, never letting it become shapeless, as it can become in other hands. I remember very clearly the week of performances of Irmelin in Oxford. The cast, the scenery and the production were not of the highest standard. Indeed, it was even rumoured that the scenery for the previous year’s pantomime, Cinderella, had been called into service. The opera was unknown and with the poor notices the first performance received the audiences were very thin. Box office taking were nowhere near sufficient to cover the costs incurred and it took a long time for the deficit to be paid off. There is so much lovely music in this opera, though no doubt it would benefit from some cuts (it is said that the best operas are known by their cuts), that it is a shame it is not heard more often. Beecham’s love and understanding of the music shone through every performance. Without his magic could it ever be the same?

Though Beecham had been an innovator for the first thirty or more years of his career, he showed little sympathy for music written after 1940. Nonetheless his programmes were extremely varied. He loved French music – especially Berlioz and Bizet, Cesar Franck, Saint-Saëns, Bizet, Massenet, Debussy and occasionally Ravel.

The performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No 2 at a Royal Festival Hall concert remains as a memory of what, in other hands, would have been a major catastrophe. Not withstanding his wonderful sense of rhythm Tommy had no liking for 5/4 or 7/8 time signatures. He was frightened of the 5/4 section towards the end of Daphnis and Chloe and therefore barely rehearsed it. At the concert one player, with an important solo entry, came in a bar early. Some sections of the orchestra followed him, some did not. Beecham bellowed and wagged the baton frenetically under the conductor’s stand. Gradually the music fell apart. At one point I think only the two flutes were still ‘wiffling’ away. But the orchestra rallied and we finished together, always an asset. ‘How about that for a near disaster’ I said to Norman Del Mar, when I met him after the concert. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘it was a bit untidy in one place, but, my goodness, what an exciting and splendid performance!’

As well as Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and regular performances of his beloved Mozart, and to a lesser extent Haydn, we played a good deal of Brahms and Beethoven. Beecham is sometimes thought to have ignored the German masterpieces. This was not so. Brahms’s Second Symphony and the St. Anthony Variations were regularly in his programmes and the other symphonies rather less frequently. We often played Beethoven’s Second, Fourth and Sixth symphonies. The Pastoral was rather slower than usual, but the Second and Fourth were the best renditions of these works that I can recall. He also liked the Seventh Symphony, which we played quite frequently. The Ninth Symphony was scheduled several times, but for some reason Beecham seemed to be heir to ill-health on most of these occasions and his place was taken by someone else.

Beecham was a conductor who always needed to be musically ‘in charge’. He was a wonderful accompanist, within the framework of his own conception. For players and singers who shared his view of a work he was a delightful collaborator: with those soloists who did not the collaboration could be less happy. His recordings of Magic Flute, Carmen, and La Boheme are ample evidence of his powers as an opera conductor and the rapport he had with singers. For his concert performances he used soloists rather infrequently. I recall an outstanding performance with Clifford Curzon, who put his subtle artistry at Beecham’s disposal in a magnificent reading of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. There were a number of performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern, who also made a splendid recording of this work with him. The recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Jascha Heifetz was a less happy occasion. At one point it seemed unlikely that the recording would ever be completed satisfactorily. Heifetz had decided that he wanted to play the last movement extremely quickly. Certainly much faster than Sir Thomas was inclined to think correct. Heifetz played at one tempo, Beecham conducted at another. The rest of us, in particular the woodwind, had to do the best we could. The result is interesting, if not quite orthodox.

When we travelled to Portsmouth in May 1960, none of us thought for a moment that this would be the last concert that Sir Thomas would conduct. He was in good shape and it seemed he would go on for ever. We all hoped he would. As on the occasion that I first encountered Sir Thomas, when he put the baton through his hand, this concert had strange and unusual events connected with it. For some reason he decided to invite the whole orchestra to luncheon when we arrived in Portsmouth. This was extremely unusual, indeed unique in my experience. Though always polite and courteous, Beecham never became familiar with members of his orchestras. He neither travelled with the players nor indulged in any kind of social relationship with them.

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However, this was a very pleasant occasion and he was at his most benign. After lunch we went to the concert hall and rehearsed for about twenty minutes. Then, another surprise. A large television set was brought on to the platform and Sir Thomas invited the orchestra to join him in watching the cup final. Liverpool, the football team closest to St. Helens where he was born, was playing that year. There was no more rehearsal and after the match we went our separate ways.

It was a splendid concert and it was received with enthusiasm. The concert ended with a characteristically ebullient performance of the Bacchanale, from Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saëns. Tommy was loved by audiences and he in his turn loved them and was generous with his encores. He loved music and enjoyed it more than any other conductor I have played for. It was this enjoyment that was so infectious, affecting audiences and players alike. Shirley, Lady Beecham, told me that Tommy had related to her how on an occasion, when he was very, very young, there was a little concert in his hometown. He was terrified of the audience. His nurse led him to the curtain and let him peep through. ‘Now, Master Thomas, you mustn’t be nervous’ she said ‘out there are all your little friends.’ On this occasion, in Portsmouth, a great many of his friends, in the audience and all of us in the orchestra, were treated to an encore, Sleigh Ride by one of his favourite composers, Frederick Delius. It was the last piece he was to conduct.

Beecham has left a treasury of incomparable recordings to enrich the listening hours of all music lovers. For those of us who were fortunate enough to make music with him, he has left a gap that remains unfilled. Though I was fortunate enough to play under the direction of a number of other outstanding conductors, none gave me the continuos musical satisfaction I enjoyed when working with Beecham. Even when he conducted music that he was not suited for temperamentally the spontaneity and the feeling that the music was being recreated in performance was exhilarating.

Chapter 8


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