Beecham, Sir Thomas, second baronet (1879–1961), conductor
by Alan Jefferson

Beecham, Sir Thomas, second baronet (1879–1961), conductor, was born on 29 April 1879 in Westfield Street, St Helens, Lancashire, the elder son and second child of , manufacturing chemist, and his wife, Josephine Burnett (c.1850–1934). The family's prosperity began with Thomas Beecham's grandfather, the first , who invented, advertised, and sold huge quantities of the digestive pills bearing his name. The young Thomas Beecham had a better relationship with his grandfather than with his father—from whom, nevertheless, he inherited a deep love of music. From the boy's first piano lesson it was all-consuming, while his pungent use of words, and the ease with which he memorized huge chunks of prose, was another extraordinary gift.

Beecham attended Rossall School, Fleetwood, Lancashire (1892–7), where he cultivated a passion for cricket and football, and then went up to Wadham College, Oxford. His truancies in Dresden and Berlin to hear opera had been noticed, so he opted to leave in 1898 to avoid being sent down. Half a century later he received Oxford's honorary degree of DMus. Beecham had already practised conducting with the amateur St Helens Musical Society but, in 1899 and at short notice, when Dr Hans Richter cancelled, he successfully took over a local concert with the Hallé Orchestra.

Joseph Beecham had split his family by committing his wife to an asylum. This incensed Thomas, who went to London and eventually obtained his mother's release through the High Court. While there he studied composition with Charles Wood and Frederic Austin, lodging in South Kensington with Charles Stuart Welles, the American embassy's doctor. On 27 July 1903 Beecham married Welles's daughter Utica Celestina (1881–1977). Her ‘dowry’ was a loan of £50,000 repayable in full at the groom's death. An injury to his wrist in 1904 destroyed Beecham's chances of being a concert pianist.

The newly-weds spent their honeymoon in Europe, where Beecham bought large quantities of French operatic scores and Utica fascinated Giacomo Puccini. This was an unhappy marriage: their two sons went to live with Utica in Boreham Wood and later in St John's Wood, but their father was seldom there. He formed a chamber orchestra which he first conducted in 1906, then brought up to strength as the New Symphony Orchestra. It was engaged by Frederick Delius in 1907 for a concert of his music that marked the beginning of Beecham's lifelong devotion to the composer and his works. In 1908 Beecham presented several works by his new friend, with whom he went on holiday. In 1909 Beecham formed the Beecham Symphony Orchestra (also known as the ‘Fireworks Orchestra’ because of the members' pranks on tour), and he made it the most talked-of band in Britain; it included such young players as Albert Sammons, Lionel Tertis, and Eric Coates. After only three months he had trained it to give the first performance of Delius's A Mass of Life at the Queen's Hall.

A preliminary excursion into opera with Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers brought about a complete reconciliation between father and son, and Joseph was now prepared to underwrite his son's operatic plans for three London seasons in 1910. They included two at Covent Garden, including Richard Strauss's advanced operas Elektra and Salome, as well as a summer season of little-known Mozart and French operas. In 1911, coronation year, Thomas Beecham sponsored Serge Diaghilev with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the sensational Imperial Russian Ballet's first visit to Covent Garden. The Russian Ballet returned in 1912 when Beecham conducted two ballets new to London, and Beecham's orchestra was booked by Diaghilev for his Berlin tour, becoming the first English orchestra to go there. These lavish seasons continued in 1913 at Drury Lane when Beecham brought over Fyodor Chalyapin (as well as giving the first London performance of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier). Beecham put on Russian operas and finally gave Sir Joseph Beecham's Drury Lane season of 1914 (his father had recently been created a baronet). Meanwhile, he incorporated the ailing Denhof Grand Opera Company into his enterprise so as to form the Beecham Opera Company.

In 1909 or early 1910 Beecham began a love affair with Lady Maud Alice (known as Emerald) Cunard (d. 1948). Although they never lived together, it continued—despite other relationships on his part—until his remarriage in 1943. During the 1920s and 1930s he also had an affair with Dora Strang (Labbette; 1898–1984) , a soprano known as Lisa Perli, with whom he had a son.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 Covent Garden was closed, but Beecham set himself the task of keeping music going in England. He declared to the Hallé Orchestra, ‘Command me! I place myself unreservedly at your disposal’, and in October conducted the first of many wartime concerts with it. He also supported the Royal Philharmonic Society at the Queen's Hall and was created knight in January 1916. Sir Joseph, meanwhile, had bought the Covent Garden estate from the duke of Bedford for £250,000, intending to sell it at a profit but to keep Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres for his son, who was taking the Beecham Opera Company up and down the country giving performances at cinema prices, then conducting London seasons at the Shaftesbury and Aldwych theatres and at Drury Lane in 1917 during the Zeppelin raids. The sudden death of Sir Joseph in October 1916, one day before his will was proved, coupled with inevitable wartime restrictions, started the reversal of the family fortune. Until 1920 Beecham battled on with opera seasons, financially helped by Lady Emerald Cunard. He was made bankrupt, the opera company and its orchestra collapsed, and Beecham was forced to retire from the musical scene for three years while he became a businessman, showing great commercial ability by gradually selling off the millstone of his father's Covent Garden estate.

Beecham first reappeared on the rostrum with the Hallé at Manchester in March 1923, then in London with the combined Royal Albert Hall Orchestra (the renamed New Symphony Orchestra) and London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) with Clara Butt in April 1924. Elements of the Beecham Opera Company, renamed the British National Opera Company, had been reconstituted as a self-governing body in 1922 and were playing at His Majesty's Theatre in 1924 when in came Sir Thomas Beecham, bt, to give a single, rousing, and packed performance of Wagner's The Mastersingers to remind them of the past. A single concert with the LSO in the following year convinced him that without his own orchestra he might as well leave England, so he went to the USA and, despite few personal funds, he characteristically stayed at the New York Ritz. Soon he quietly returned home and began flirtations with English orchestras. The need for an independent and first-class London orchestra was in the air, and Beecham's sights were on the LSO between March and December 1928. His overtures to the BBC were met with ‘Keep Beecham out!’ Concentrating on the 1929 Delius festival in London at the end of 1929 with the composer present, and twice using the BBC Symphony Orchestra for broadcasts, he continued to puzzle the musical world as to his real intentions.

In 1931 Beecham conducted Borodin's Prince Igor and his own Handelian score The Gods Go a-Begging in a special season of Russian dancers and singers at the Lyceum Theatre. He had been quietly vetting individual members of the orchestra whom he had raised for this season and effectively concealed the real reason for his recent return to Covent Garden, in partnership with Colonel Eustace Blois, managing director of the syndicate.

On 7 October 1932 another new Beecham orchestra, the London Philharmonic (LPO), was born in the Queen's Hall and immediately showed itself to be the finest in Britain, if not in Europe. Despite outstanding debts to former players of the Fireworks Orchestra, the members were only too glad to come back and play for ‘Tommy’ Beecham because he could guarantee them work from concerts, recordings, and every summer season in the Covent Garden pit until 1939. Beecham was himself again. Sometimes he conducted the Hallé, but neither the LSO nor the BBC enjoyed such successes as he had with the LPO. In 1934 he gave his services to the Royal College of Music with three enchanting student performances of Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet. Delius had died only a few days before, and was buried in a small Surrey churchyard where Beecham, an equivocal believer in Delius's atheism, delivered a passionate oration. In 1936 Beecham took his orchestra to Nazi Germany. His secretary, Berta Geissmar, documented the evening when Beecham refused to precede Adolf Hitler into the concert hall, thus avoiding having to salute the arrival of the Führer.

Britain was at war again in September 1939, and Beecham put all his vigour into keeping music going in England. During the war his reputation as a wit and a raconteur grew as rapidly as his stature as a conductor. When the Queen's Hall was gutted by incendiary bombs in May 1941 most of the LPO's instruments were destroyed, but the players begged and borrowed others and gave their concert, undefeated, at the Royal Albert Hall. With call-up and a complete change in orchestral life, Beecham again felt himself redundant and returned to the USA. He gave typical concerts there and conducted the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Between 1941 and 1943 he took over the Seattle Orchestra.

Beecham had seen nothing of the first Lady Beecham since the First World War, and he wished to marry again. He did not even refer to her as Lady Beecham but as Dame Beecham or Mrs Beecham, because she had played no part in his life after his knighthood and baronetcy. She would not consent to a divorce, however, remained faithful to him from their marriage in 1903 onwards, and outlived him. To overcome this impasse Beecham filed a suit for divorce in Idaho City, USA, on 4 October 1942. After arrival from England of a deposition from Mrs Beecham that carried no weight in the USA, the divorce was granted by the district judge of Idaho City. Beecham married (Margaret) Betty Humby (1908–1958) on 23 February 1943. A pianist, Betty was the daughter of Daniel Morgan Humby, a London surgeon. She had previously secured a divorce in Idaho from her first husband, an English clergyman, but on 7 September 1944 she and Beecham went through a second marriage ceremony in New York, ‘to assure compliance with technicalities of the English law’.

Beecham returned home to a utilitarian, post-war England but, in spite of the fact that a new recording orchestra called the Philharmonia was being formed, he prepared to raise yet another. ‘You'll never do it!’ went up the cry; ‘I always get the best players!’ he retorted, and he was right. On 15 September 1946 his last orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic (RPO), lifted the roof of the Davis Theatre, Croydon. He proudly paraded it round the country, and a month later its London début at the Royal Albert Hall began another Delius festival. Then came a celebration at Drury Lane to help the rehabilitation of his 83-year-old friend Richard Strauss. Strenuous RPO tours followed through the USA and South Africa.

Beecham never got over the indignity of being denied a role at Covent Garden in 1946. For the first time it had a government subsidy, but his known profligacy was at odds with Labour Britain. Nor was he invited to conduct in the opening series of concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in 1951 (‘that biscuit box’); in spite of swearing never to set foot in it, however, he became used to taking the RPO there. He was likewise persuaded to return and conduct opera at Covent Garden. A short run of Michael Balfe's Victorian opera The Bohemian Girl (with tongue in cheek) was followed by an uncut Die Meistersinger in German.

In 1953 at Oxford, Beecham presented the world première of Delius's first opera, Irmelin, and his own last, staged performances were in 1955 at Bath, with A.-E.-M. Grétry's Zémire et Azor. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1957, an event which was clouded for him by the death of his second wife, Betty, on 2 September 1958. Nevertheless, he married his secretary, Jean (known as Shirley) Hudson (b. 1932), in Zürich on 10 March 1959.

Indulging his fondness for Berlioz at concerts with the larger choral works, Beecham was set to achieve a long ambition to conduct Les Troyens at Covent Garden, as well as making his Glyndebourne début in opera with Die Zauberflöte, but his declining health prevented both. At the Portsmouth Guildhall, after a very short morning rehearsal of the RPO, Beecham and the RPO sat and watched the 1960 cup final on television. The concert that night was his last. Nursed by the third Lady Beecham (who survived him), he struggled against the odds of all those years and died of a thrombosis at his home, 21 Harley House, Marylebone Road, London, on 8 March 1961; he was buried two days later in Brookwood cemetery, Surrey. His sense of humour might well have been tickled by the fact that, owing to changes at Brookwood, he could not stay there. His mortal remains were taken in 1991 to lie in peace beside those of Frederick Delius in St Peter's churchyard, Limpsfield, Surrey. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his elder son, Adrian Welles Beecham.

Thomas Beecham is best remembered as a portly figure with short legs, an imposingly jutting beard, and penetrating eyes, the key to a personal hypnotism which his players acknowledged; while his verbal drawl, with a Lancastrian tinge, was couched in impeccable Edwardian English. His musical abilities and achievements were unsurpassed by any Englishman in the twentieth century, but to foreigners he remained an enigma: by flouting convention, he was often making innocent fun of them.

ALAN JEFFERSON

Sources  

private information (2004) · T. Beecham, A mingled chime (1944) · T. Beecham, Delius (1959) · E. Smyth, Beecham and Pharaoh (1935) · A. Jefferson, Sir Thomas Beecham—a centenary tribute (1979) · C. Reid, Thomas Beecham (1962) · A. Francis, A guinea a box (1968) · H. Proctor-Gregg, Beecham remembered (1976) · N. Cardus, Sir Thomas Beecham (1961) · J. D. Gilmour, ed., Sir Thomas Beecham — 50 years in the New York Times (1988) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1961)

Archives  

BL, corresp. with R. Broughton and corresp., Add. MSS 52364, 52549 · St Helens Central Library, Beecham Group archives  

FILM

 

BFINA, performance footage · BFINA, ‘Beecham’, Yorkshire Television, 1 July 1990

 

SOUND

 

BBC WAC · BL NSA, ‘Beecham and opera’, 1 May 1979 · BL NSA, ‘Beecham: legend – true or false’, T21 88W C1 · BL NSA, ‘Conversation with Wynford Vaughan-Thomas’, MS403W C1 · BL NSA, In tune, 1996, H6996/1 · BL NSA, ‘Sir Thomas Beecham’, B8433/05 · BL NSA, ‘Sir Thomas Beecham’, 7T7926/01 TR2 · BL NSA, ‘Sir Thomas Beecham’, 17 March 1969, T532R P874R C1 · BL NSA, ‘Sir Thomas Beecham – a tribute’, M4763WBD1 · BL NSA, ‘Why he took up music and a story of Shalyapin’, BBC, 1 April 1959, 1LP005889551 BD6 BBC


Likenesses  

I. Mestrovic, bronze bust, 1915, Man. City Gall. · E. Kapp, ink, chalk, and charcoal drawings, 1919–58, U. Birm. · E. Dulac, caricature, c.1925, Museum of London · E. Procter, pencil drawing, 1929, NPG · W. R. Sickert, oils, 1930, Museum of Modern Art, New York · H. B. Wiener, pencil drawing, 1935, V&A · F. Man, photograph, 1936, NPG · G. T. Stuart, oils, 1953–4, NPG · D. Wynne, bronze sculpture, 1957, NPG · D. Wynne, bronze statuette, c.1957, St Helens Museum and Art Gallery · M. Liddle, bust, c.1961, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London · H. W. Barnett, two photographs, V&A · S. Glass, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · D. Wynne, bronze sculpture, Royal Philharmonic Society; on loan to Royal Festival Hall

Wealth at death  

£10,801 14s.: probate, 26 June 1961, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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Sir Thomas Beecham (1879–1961): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/30670