Thomas Beecham

Thomas Beecham
Thomas Beecham. From the private collection of Lionel Carley. Used with permission.

Biography

Sir Thomas Beecham was an acclaimed English conductor, noted for his contribution to the improvement in standards of orchestral playing in early twentieth-century Britain, and for his advocacy of the music of Frederick Delius.

Who was Sir Thomas Beecham?

Sir Thomas Beecham, second baronet (1879–1961) was a notable English conductor of the early twentieth century. He was born in Lancashire, into a wealthy family that had gained prosperity through manufacturing chemicals. He studied piano from boyhood and gained experience of conducting with the amateur St Helens Musical Society, later also studying composition privately with Charles Wood in London.

What did Beecham do for music in Britain?

Beecham was an important figure in the development of professional orchestras in early twentieth-century Britain. Over the course of his career, he founded three orchestras – the Beecham Symphony Orchestra (in 1909), the London Philharmonic Orchestra (in 1932) and the Royal Philharmonic (in 1946) – and acted as the artistic director of Covent Garden for much of the 1930s. Beecham was concerned with improving the quality of orchestral playing in Britain through such simple, but by no means standard, measures as adequate rehearsal time, meticulous marking of parts, and achieving balance between different sections of the orchestra.  He tackled a wide range of repertoire, achieving not only great success in his home country but celebrity abroad in the course of a series of tours with his orchestras. 

What was Beecham's relationship with Delius and his music?

Frederick Delius and Beecham first met when the composer heard Beecham conducting the New Symphony Orchestra, and engaged Beecham and the ensemble to present a concert of his works in 1907. In 1909, the Beecham Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance of Delius’s A Mass of Life. This marked the beginning of a sustained period of devotion to Delius’s works; Beecham not only gave many performances during Delius’s lifetime, but also made important recordings, inaugurated the first Delius Festival in 1929, and became the editor-in-chief of the Delius Collected Edition. Many items in the Collected Edition still contain Beecham’s own performance markings, taken from his personal copies of Delius scores meticulously corrected with the conductor’s famous 'blue pencil'.

Beecham also made concerted efforts to associate Delius with his country of birth, in spite of the latter’s cosmopolitanism and longstanding residence abroad. It was Beecham who remarked, in an oration upon the re-interment of Delius’s body in Limpsfield, Surrey, in 1935, that:

From that moment [the outbreak of the First World War] the eyes of this great musician turned inquiringly and wonderingly towards the shores of his native land. … His music which I venture to say is extraordinarily redolent of the soil of this country and characteristic of the finer elements of the national spirit, became known, it became loved, and came to be understood.

When did Beecham die?

Beecham died of thrombosis on 8 March 1961. In 1991, his own remains were reinterred in the same Limpsfield cemetery as those of Delius. The conductor remains known for his distinctive personal appearance, with a sharp beard and ubiquitous cigar in hand, and his talent for aphorism. However, it is his legacy of performances, recordings, and contribution to professional musical culture in Britain that remain most significant.

Further information about the life of Sir Thomas Beecham can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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