London Letter

December 15 1953

London Letter

December 15 1953

London Letter

owned the Covent Garden vegetable market (in which the famous Royal Opera House is placed) had something to do with it, but Thomas became its chief conductor and wielded the baton for Melba, Caruso, Scotti, Patti and all the rest of those songsters of glory.

As a soldier in the first war I went to Drury Lane where Beecham was putting on a season of opera in English,

but it was not until 1920 when I had returned to England that we first met. Because he agreed or disagreed with something I had written he asked me to lunch in which he did all the talking —which was as it should be. It was the beginning of a friendship that was not without humor or controversy or excitement.

In the late 1920s he brought back opera to Covent Garden, which had been closed during the war, and the opening night of the season was an affair of such social significance that even if you could not tell the difference

between Tristan and the Merry Widow you had to be there. The rules of the opera house were adamant. No man could be admitted to the stalls or the dress circle for any evening performance unless in white tie and tails. If you turned up in a dinner jacket you would have to go to the top gallery or else go home.

“This is my house,” said Sir Thomas, “and my guests shall observe the customs of my house.”

He was, of course, quite right. The North American custom of changing from the business suit of the day to

a different business suit in the evening shows lack of gallantry toward your female companion and lack of courtesy to the artists who entertain' you. “Dress or be damned!” said Sir Thomas, and being an autocrat he had his way.

One year Beeeham decided to open the season with Beethoven’s opera Fidelio—a poor choice but his own. But he preceded the opera with an overture which begins with a quadruple pianissimo of the strings. In other words the volume of sound would be something rather less than four mosquitoes on an off' night.

Out went the lights and there came a great hush. Sir Thomas leaned over his orchestra and with his exquisite hands called the muted strings to begin their whisper. The socialites, hearing nothing, assumed that the opera had not begun and resumed their talk.

Beeeham put down his baton and turning round shouted: “Shut up!”

The startled audience became quiet. They were puzzled but at least they had had their orders.

Sir Thomas turned to his orchestra and again leaning over the strings asked for the muted delicacy of the opening movement. As no one could hear anything the conversation broke out as before.

Waving his baton like a sword Beeeham swung around and shouted: “If you don’t shut up I’ll put you out!”

At that time he had taken a flat just below mine in Regent’s Park and I dropped in to see him the next day. He was still smoldering with anger.

“If I go to someone’s house,” he said, “I observe the customs of my host even if they are boring. If these nitwits of the West End come to my house at Covent Garden they will accept my customs or they will have to leave.

Pays a Compliment

“They have exactly the same rights as any other ordinary citizens admitted to the presence of their superiors. Am I selling opera to them? Rubbish! I am paying them the compliment of giving them at an utterly uncommercial figure, the genius of Beethoven and Wagner, which their minds cannot fathom nor their ears appreciate. Ignorance and gratitude should combine to make them dumb. If I go to any of their silly receptions or dinner parties I accept the mumbo jumbo of it all and leave as soon as I can. Well, when they come to my house at Covent Garden they can do the same thing. They do not pay me to produce opera for them. I permit them to hear opera.”

So into the afternoon we talked of the impossible English, the people whose faults he knows like a parent, and for whom his love is as great as any parent’s. His dazzling, cultured, misanthropic mind leaps from century to century, from the Greeks to the Romans, from Alexander to Beaverbrook, from the flight of the Israelites to the plight of the Czechs. His command of language is a beautiful thing, his satire perfect, his boisterousness more than Elizabethan. Then he stops and says that he has a new gramophone record by a French comedian. He puts it on and waits with a twinkling eye. What a record! It is a French clown’s burlesque of a German lieder singer, incredibly funny and incredibly vulgar. At its conclusion Beeeham is dissolved into helpless laughter and so am I. A minute later he moves to the piano and says: “Do you know

this Schumann concerto?” His touch has the delicacy of a forgotten age and the flattered piano sings its music to the stars.

“This is the orchestral part,” re-

marks Beecham, and superimposes a discordant and uncertain voice upon the limpid beauty of the keys.

Beecham anecdotes became part of the small change of social conversation. One mild day he was walking along Pall Mall wearing a heavy coat. Summoning a taxi he threw the coat inside and solemnly continued his walk with the cab crawling behind.

His orchestral rehearsals at Co vent Garden were full of incidents. Twice a flute player failed to como in at the right point in the score. With an airy wave of his hand Sir Thomas said: “We must go on. But, my dear fellow, do keep in touch with us from time to time.”

He nearly caused an international incident when rehearsing a European state opera company at the Garden. The huge soprano was singing off pitch, most decidedly off pitch.

“Madam,” said Sir Thomas, “would you mind sounding your A?”

On the other hand he could be thoughtful and even delicate in his dealings with musicians. An example of it happened on a night when he was conducting Götterdämmerung, the climax of Wagner’s cycle The Ring. It was just, one of those nights that everything goes wrong.

The stage manager had supplied moving waves for the Rhine maidens but the engine got out of control, with the result that from flapping like an eagle’s wings the waves would slow down to almost no movement at all.

The audience began a titter which swelled into a loud laugh as a bowler hat was seen going through the electric waves. Nor was that all. The tenor weighed almost a ton and when his corpse was lifted up on the shield it broke with the weight.

Black with fury Beecham called on the principal trumpeter for Siegfried’s death motif—but the top note broke into fragments that jarred the ears.

A Bow In Tribute

Down came the curtain and Beecham turned to his orchestra for the beginning of Siegfried’s Funeral March. The audience was almost out of hand but Beecham stood motionless in the light of the orchestra pit until there was a deathly silence over the whole house.

Then, and only then, he began the slow, muffled opening notes of that greatest of all funeral marches. Beecham’s beautiful hands were molding the tone from his players, whatever fires were inwardly consuming him he was outwardly calm, quietly giving confidence and inspiration to his distracted players. And then, horror of horrors, he had to call again on the same trumpeter for the Siegfried motif with that perilous high note.

Beecham leaned toward the trumpeter with a smile of confidence and with his mesmeric hands conjured the notes from the trumpet. The player did it beautifully and Beecham bowed to him, not sardonically but in tribute.

As the march moved toward its climax Beecham became something more than human. He made his orchestra play like angels and devils. The vast audience was held in the grip of his genius and his unconquerable spirit. When the march descended from its supreme climax to the muttering notes and drum beats that precede the raising of the last act curtain we were limp with excitement and emotion. It had been Beecham’s greatest hour.

1 again dropped down to see him next morning and in the course of our chat about the events of the night before I asked him what he had said to his unfortunate trumpeter.

Beecham drew himself haughtily to his full inches, few as they were. “I went up to the man and said, ‘My dear

fellow, I have: come to oiler you my humble apology. You are one of the finest trumpet players in 1 he world and it is only in a barbarie country such as Kngland where you would Inexpected to rehearse all day and play all night until you have no lips left. As your conductor 1 ask you to forgive me.’

The word “lovable” is not often used to describe Tommy Reecham hul I loved t lu: man at that moment .

Yet his long reign at Covent Carden was coming to an end. Taxation and rising costs of rehearsal and production made it impossible for him to meet the deficit, and the public would not pay the prices required to break even. So ¡ eventually the Carden was taken over ' by other hands, financially aided by j the government, and Reecham ceased | to he the king of opera.

Not long afterward he formed his j own orchestra and was one of the first i conductors to realize the immense marj ket for gramophone records of classical music. Rut he also held the loyally of a big concert public in Rritain, although he must have yearned many times for the lure and excitement of 1 he Opera House that he had loved.

Ardent Port Consumer

Today he is seventy-four and instead of holding forth at tinSavoy drill as he used to do at lunch in the lush old days he spends most of his time in the country with his youngish second wife who is a concert pianist. His wit is not so barbed, his airy sarcasms do not float about as once they did, and heno longer bullies local mayors and tells them how abominably ugly their concert halls are.

Gout has taken its toll, for he is not only a perfect judge of port hut an ardent consumer. Yet his memory remains as diamond-pointed as ever when it comes to music. Not long ago he entered a crowded festival hall and, as usual, faced his orchestra with no music beforehim. Turning toward the first violinist he whispered: “What in

the devil are we playing?” On being told that it was Reethoven’s Ninth bewas perfectly content and gave it a beautiful rendition.

Where will he rank with contemporaries? Not as great as the immaculate Toscanini nor the impassioned Furtwängler at their best, hut give him an orchestra insufficiently rehearsed, and if he is in tinmood he can make them play as if they were the children of the gods. I

His arrogance is equalled by his human understanding. His pomposity is reserved for the pompous. His wit is sharp, his classical knowledge deep and his Vandyke beard is capable of patronizing a six-foot guardsman.

He has produced more discord in the world of harmony than any musician who ever lived, with the possible exception of Wagner. I shudder to think what will happen to some of the churches on the orchestra’s twenty-first birthdav tour.

Rut in the process he will till the churches with sweet sound such as their ancient stones have never heard before. +