Truly it can be said of Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart., that, take him all in all, we shall not look upon his like again. Therefore, I was much pleased when he invited me to a dinner party which he was giving on the occasion of his own eightieth birthday.
Here is a man who has burned the candle at both ends and in the middle, a dreamer, a satirist, a gourmet, a composer but above all a conductor who can make his orchestra play like angels or devils according to his mood.
One of my early impressions of him was when I saw the announcement that Sir Thomas was to conduct Tristan and Isolde at Covent Garden. Here was a chance to hear Wagner and prove to myself that his music was pompous, evil, overpraised and typical of the sensual bestiality of everything Teutonic.
Nearly everybody knows that Tristan opens with the soft melancholy chromatic loneliness of the cellos followed by a silence. As the audience could not hear anything they started to talk; whereupon Sir Thomas turned around and shouted: “Shut up!”
With his goatee trembling with anger he repeated: "Shut up or I’ll
put you out!” Then he turned to the cellists and drew the opening notes from them as if they were played by an angel. Nor shall I forget when, some hours later, there came the Liebestod at the end of the last act with the majestic major chord which tells the audience that Wagner had nothing more to say. Since then I have heard Tristan and Isolde in many opera houses but I like to think that on that night it was given the greatest rendition of all time.
Who and what is Beecham? His father, a man with practical vision but very little money, decided that the English were a race of pill takers, and so he founded his pill kingdom. Being a man of original thought he offered to print hymn books free if they would carry a modest advertisement for his pills. Thus it was agreed and all went well until an eager congregation found themselves singing:
Hark the herald angels sing Beecham’s Pills are just the thing: Peace on earth and mercy mild; Two for man and one for child.
Well, at any rate, that is the legend and when I challenged Sir Thomas on continued on page 81
continued from page 10
When Carmen sang a very sour note, Beecham said, “Madam, will you please sound your A?”
it in later years there was a twinkle in his eyes as he said that it was purely apocryphal.
To establish the chronological order: 1 went to the 1914 war. returned to Canada, and eventually came back to London. Beecham had formed his own opera company but even his capacious pocket was feeling the strain of financing opera on the grand scale.
. By chance 1 had taken a fiat in a building where Beecham also lived and we became frequent companions. One morning he took me down to Covent Garden to rehearse The Paris Opera Company in Carmen. The principal role was played by a huge woman, and as she came on the stage Sir Thomas turned around to me and said: "There is only one possible explanation. She is undoubtedly the girl friend of the president of the French Republic.”
A little later Carmen sang a very sour note. “Madam,” said Beecham bluntly, “will you please sound your A?”
But there is another side to him — a gentle and sensitive understanding.
One night when he was conducting, the tenor broke embarrassingly on a high note. Next day I asked Beecham if he gave the tenor a dressing down for his offense. Beecham glared at me in anger, and his goatee vibrated menacingly. “I went to his dressing room and apologized." he said. "I told him that only in a completely barbaric country would a
great artist like him be compelled to rehearse all day and sing all night."
A few months later Beecham had a bright idea. He would appeal to the public. to the great masses, for funds. When the money was collected he would then
produce opera as it should be. Wherever he went he appealed from the platform for money. Some months went by and then the Daily Express, on which I was the features editor, began to ask out loud what had happened to Beecham’s fund.
As there was no reply the Express grew more pungent in its queries. What about the money?
One morning Beecham called me on the phone: “It is only fair." he said, “that I should tell you that I am consulting
my solicitor. Beaverbrook has a lot of money but the damages which the court will award me will stagger him. I only tell you this as an act of friendship." In return I suggested that he should first come to see me and he agreed.
The meeting was difficult and it was easy to understand his resentment. He had squandered his inheritance to give opera on the grand scale to a people who were then not really opera lovers as the French, the Germans and the Italians are.
For twenty minutes Sir Thomas poured out his indignation and predicted a dreadful end for the Daily Express, its proprietor and me. Finally I got a word in. "Tell me,” I said, “where is the money you collected?”
Beecham drew himself up with outraged dignity. "Do you suggest that I embezzled it?”
"Not for a moment,” I replied. “But where is the money?”
“How the devil do I know?” he roared. And thus the interview ended.
One day he called me on the telephone and said: “You are a persistent traveler so why not come with me to Golders Green this evening? I am going to do II Trovatore in a vast hall with an augmented orchestra. It should be simply frightful.”
At the appointed hour we arrived at the London suburb of Golders Green where Beecham conducted a bewildered orchestra before a stunned audience. At the end of the performance he went on the stage, complete with goatee and mischievous eyes.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he drawled. “You have been listening to Verdi's II Trovatore. Well, perhaps that is not quite accurate. Let me put it this way. You have been listening to something which is more like Verdi's II Trovatore than any other opera. Don't blame the orchestra. They are men of admirable character, completely faithful to their wives, and it isn’t their fault that they played so badly. They just didn't have sufficient rehearsal, but of course we are a barbaric race. Now I want to tell you about my operatic fund.”
Driving back to London in his car he said to me: “Would you believe it? I got practically no money at all from the audience.”
Gout kept him seated
As Covent Garden had been taken over by the state, Beecham gave up opera and concentrated on his orchestra, the London Philharmonic. But the years were taking their toll and Sir Thomas became a victim of gout. So he decided to remain seated while he led his orchestra to heights supernal. Every now and then he would forget his gout and rise on his feet to drive the orchestra to new heights of ecstasy.
Then suddenly the British public realized that here was a truly great orchestral conductor. His recordings were sold in every civilized country and the problem of finance existed no longer.
So we gathered for dinner on his invitation to celebrate his eightieth birthday and in due course my fellow parliamentarian, Lord Boothby, and I insisted upon making two short speeches in honor of our host. Beecham protested but we overruled him. When we had finished our tributes Sir Thomas sat back in his chair and spoke with dazzling misanthropic wit mixed with odd moments of gentleness.
His final flourish was typical of his liveliness and his sense of climax. "We are a barbaric people, thank God! That is why we have always defeated the nations who went in for culture. Now that I am eighty the English will take me
to their heart — they love a stayer!” Whereupon he declared the dinner was at an end and wished us all good night with the roguish smile of Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Always courageous, always invincible, he walked (a little wobbly) to the door and waved us good-by.
“I invite you now,” he said, "to my ninetieth birthday party. Good night!” What is the core of his strength? Why should this son of a pill manufacturer become a genius of the baton? Where does he draw the strength to drive an orchestra to frenzy or to charm them to an idyllic tenderness?
If anyone was so unwise as to ask the questions he would probably answer: “Beecham’s Pills, dear boy!” And then roar with laughter, if
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