Sir Thomas Beecham was one of the most important orchestra conductors of the 20th century, exerting a huge impact on the entire field of classical music -- and the way people listen to it, and the way people have been exposed to it -- through his performances, recordings, and the two major orchestras that he founded. Beecham was born in 1879, the son of Sir Joseph Beecham, the maker of a popular and profitable brand of patent medicine. The elder Beecham was also a lover of music and when his son manifested an interest in music, the old man was glad to encourage him in any way that he could. Beecham was educated at Oxford but was virtually entirely self-taught in music. He led a small opera company from 1902 to 1904, and a year later made his debut as a conductor with the members of the Queens Hall Orchestra. A year after that, he established the New Symphony Orchestra of London, and began attracting the serious attention of the musical and critical establishments.
The family fortune became his passport to professional importance, enabling Beecham to take over the creative and business affairs of Covent Garden in London in 1910, whence he produced Wagner's Die Meistersinger Von Nuremberg and the then shockingly avant-garde Richard Strauss works Elektra and Salome, as well as bringing in some of the top international talent of the era, including conductors Wilhelm Furtwangler and Erich Kleiber and singer Feodor Chaliapin. By 1915, he'd established the Beecham Opera Company, but the economic conditions brought about by the First World War forced him into bankruptcy in 1919, a condition from which he recovered fully four years later. His recording career had begun in the teens, but as with all conductors, his real impact in the medium didn't start until the advent of electrical recording in 1925. More than most conductors born in the 19th century, Beecham understood and appreciated the importance and impact of recordings in fostering a wider interest in classical music and serving as an educational and publicity tool -- whereas figures such as Furtwangler, Toscanini, and Kleiber thought of recordings as being, at best, a "necessary evil" of a modern music career, Beecham was closer to Leopold Stokowski, who saw the advancing medium as a way to build an audience far bigger than the existing clientele for concert works and operas.
In the 1930s, he made a triumphant return to Covent Garden and also founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which played there. Backed by Beecham's considerable financial resources, the LPO quickly raided the very best players from the much older London Symphony Orchestra and most of the rest of the best orchestras in England, and started out with a huge reputation from its first performances. It was also during the 1930s that Beecham, as a recording artist (primarily with the LPO), became one of the leading exponents for the works of Jean Sibelius -- the Finnish composer who was also a good friend -- and other important and neglected late Romantic figures, of which the most significant was Frederick Delius.
An unusual (one might say unique) English Impressionist, Delius had died after a long, debilitating illness in 1934, relatively neglected except by a narrow cult of listeners, one of whom was Beecham, who had recorded some of his works in the late '20s. It was in 1934, however, that he embarked on a comprehensive survey of the composer's major orchestral works, which took four years to complete. He performed a more limited if vaguely similar function with the music of George Frideric Handel, assembling, performing, and recording modern orchestral adaptations of the 18th century composer's music, which helped to maintain Handel's popularity far beyond the handful of well-known choral works still performed at the time. So devoted was he to the composer's cause and enamored of his music that in a 1928 interview while visiting North America, when asked to name the greatest living English composer, Beecham replied, not entirely in jest, "Handel, of course."
Beecham made, with the help of producers Walter Legge and Fred Gaisberg, the first full recording of Mozart's The Magic Flute. He also did a historic recording of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and a groundbreaking set of Handel's Messiah, amid dozens of other recordings, this in a time when recording was done to wax lacquer masters, in mono, and had to be released in sets of fragile, massively heavy 78-rpm shellac platters. He was maintaining a full schedule of concerts with the LPO and other orchestras, and also as an operatic conductor in London, New York, Berlin, and other major cities, in addition to his recording commitments, when the Second World War began.
For reasons that were probably as much economic and artistic as personal -- and spurred, no doubt, by his memories of what happened to the British economy during the First World War -- Beecham embarked on a tour of America, Canada, and Australia upon the British entry to the war, and spent the years 1940-1944 abroad, conducting at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and serving as the music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra on the other coast, and also began recording for Columbia Records in America. Although all of this activity solidified Beecham's reputation in the United States -- making him the most prominent British conductor in America for many years to come -- it took a toll on his reputation in England. When he returned in 1944, he found that his stock had fallen dramatically -- the LPO had become a self-governing organization in his absence, was well able to survive without his presence, and saw no reason to renew their subservient relationship (or any relationship) with their founder. Additionally, there was resentment from musicians who had remained in England, enduring the blitz of London and other risks and privations, while Beecham had sat out the war in relative safety in America.
Having lost his orchestra, Beecham looked around for other opportunities. He heard about an orchestra founded by Walter Legge through EMI, called the Philharmonia, and conducted them and tried -- unsuccessfully -- to take the orchestra away from Legge. Instead, he formed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, again drawing in some of the finest players in England to his baton. The late '40s were a transitional time in technology and popular culture, as well as economics, and Beecham -- now in his sixties -- remained committed to availing himself of the best opportunities to get his work to the public. Among his earliest recordings with the RPO, and his last on 78-rpm disc, was his 1947 version of Handel's Messiah, a magnificent effort for RCA Victor that was only released in the United States.
That same year, he became involved with filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the writer/producer/director team known corporately as "the Archers," for whom he recorded the Red Shoes ballet for their movie The Red Shoes, which went on to become a massive international success. Beecham was so pleased with the results of his work on the movie that he approached the Archers about doing another movie together, this time based on an opera. The result was the movie The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), which was shot as a silent to Beecham's recorded music track with the RPO. The movie proved a major success despite cuts made in its running time outside of England, and even included an onscreen appearance by Beecham at its conclusion.
Ironically, it also landed the conductor in court as the plaintiff, opposite the Archers, when they released his music track as the movie's soundtrack through England's Decca Records (London Records in the United States) as both a three-LP set and also as a box of a dozen 45-rpm records (the recording industry was in a period of transition, and it wasn't clear in 1951 which format, 45s or 33 and 1/3 LPs, would dominate), complete with full libretto; at the time, Beecham had exclusive contracts with EMI in England and Columbia Records in America, and he and the two labels went to court to suppress the soundtrack release, but the Archers won the case. Oddly enough, The Tales of Hoffmann became the first commercially available LP version of the Offenbach opera, and Beecham's first operatic release on LP.
The advent of magnetic tape as a recording medium and the LP as the playback medium of choice fostered a new wave of Beecham recordings of all areas of repertory, from the symphonies of Schubert to new performances of Mozart operas such as The Abduction from the Seraglio, and a split set of late Haydn symphonies -- he started the set in mono, but by the time he did the second half, stereo recording had come along. Sad to say, some of his mono-era recordings for the American Columbia label have not fared as well as his EMI sides -- most of his Columbia work was done by Philips Records and stored in the Philips vaults, and according to one Sony Classical executive in the mid-'90s, at some point in the 1960s Philips allegedly made the decision, in a move to save space, to destroy any masters in its vaults that weren't owned by them, and these included the original source tapes for many Beecham recordings done for Columbia Masterworks.
Fortunately, Beecham's stereo sessions have been better preserved. With the Royal Philharmonic, he got to re-record much of Delius' work in stereo and was also able to essay those corners of the Beethoven, Mozart, Sibelius, and Handel repertoires that concerned him in state-of-the-art sound. Caught in the midst of the transition from mono to stereo was his version of La Boheme, starring Victoria De Los Angeles and Jussi Bjöerling, which was done in New York in 1956. His Carmen with De Los Angeles was done in full stereo, and both operas have remained among the most choice recordings of the two works for more than half a century and counting, as of 2006. His final years of recording, from 1956 through 1959, saw him do enduring versions of the Mozart "Jupiter" Symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, and Handel's Messiah.
Beecham's 1959 Messiah for RCA Victor -- his third recording of the piece in 30 years -- has proved virtually impervious to the onslaught of authentic instrument and period performing-style recordings of the piece that have overwhelmed the available field of recordings in the decades since, even though it breaks all of the "rules" that have been handed down by Baroque scholars. Beecham commissioned a new edition of the 18th century piece by Leon Goossens, which updated the scoring and added harps and other instruments never indicated in the composer's score, and had the temerity, in his notes for the recording, to address this issue of authenticity. He was forthright in explaining why it was necessary to make adjustments for modern ears and audiences, in part by explaining how alterations were made in the 200 years leading up to his recording. In his 1947 recording, he sought to strip the piece of many of its Victorian embellishments, but had found, for logical reasons, that it was impossible to perform a "Messiah" that was both historically correct and suited to modern concert halls and modern listeners' sensibilities. He did attempt to restore some balance and some sense of logic to the modernizations, however, and, in the bargain, also engaged the singer Jon Vickers at the very outset of his career. The album, since reissued as a triple CD, has proved perennially popular and remains in print more than four decades later, and was the culmination of his service in the popularization of Handel's music.
Beecham's health began to decline as he entered his eighties, and he retired in 1959, just as music was undergoing another change that almost certainly wouldn't have been to his liking, with the advent of the rock & roll era in England. What he would have thought of the Beatles, or EMI's being their recording label, is anyone's guess -- his life and career straddled the Victorian era and the jet age, and it was his ability and willingness to adapt to and use new technology, as well as his understanding of the many facets of the listening public, that kept him as popular in his eighties as he had been in his thirties and forties. His years spent abroad from the 1920s through the 1950s, coupled with his emphasis on music from across the globe -- he was singularly uninterested in most British composers, other than Handel, Delius, and his friend Lord Berners -- helped keep him popular internationally for decades. He had his light side -- he loved to program pieces of light classical music that he called his "Lollipops" -- and his aristocratic, goateed, avuncular presence made him endearing and memorable, especially coupled with his occasional spoken introductions, such as the one he recorded for his 1947 Messiah.
There remains an active Beecham society, securing the release of archival recordings, and labels in the 1990s were occasionally known to sue each other over the exclusivity of rival releases of his vintage sides -- EMI, Dutton, Biddulph, Pearl, and Sony Music have all undertaken major re-releases of Beecham recordings in the CD era. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which survived his passing, also both constitute a major part of his legacy. His recordings of La Boheme, Carmen, and The Messiah remain perennial best-sellers half a century after his death, and even his Magic Flute, recorded in pre-World War II Germany, is regarded as a serious choice for a recording of the opera some 70 years later. ~ Bruce Eder