Wednesday, 16 July 2008
The irresistible Dora
Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music by John Lucas is one of the highlights of our autumn publication schedule. In this much shortened extract from Chapter 10 we learn how the conductor met soprano Dora Labbette.
On 15th December 1926 at Queen’s Hall, Beecham conducted a pioneering and revelatory performance of Handel’s Messiah, for which, instead of the unwieldy, elephantine choir traditionally thought suitable for the work in London, he used the smallish Philharmonic Choir, trained by Charles Kennedy Scott and full of fresh, talented and enthusiastic young voices. The London Symphony Orchestra’s playing was unusually surefooted, which the New Statesman’s critic, W.J. Turner, attributed to the fact that the orchestra had been playing on tour under Beecham for some weeks, and as a result ‘had got thoroughly into form and accustomed to his style’. Tempi were fleet, textures light.
The soprano soloist, Dora Labbette, was a dark-haired, down-to-earth beauty with a racy sense of humour who maintained that Beecham chose her for the event after seeing a photograph of her during a visit to her agents, Ibbs & Tillett. Born Dorothy Bella Labbett at Woodside, near Croydon, the daughter of a railway porter, she had shown a talent for singing from an early age and during the First World War had won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music, where in 1917 she crowned a series of awards by winning the Gold Medal.
Labbette’s voice was once perceptively described as being ‘of a timbre which is peculiarly individual in its charm – the clear purity of a boy soprano touched with womanly warmth and sweetness’. Beecham fell in love with the sound. He also fell in love with twenty-eight year old Labbette, and in due course began an affair with her that would last thirteen years. At the time of the Messiah Beecham was forty-seven.
Incidentally, Beecham’s performance of the Messiah was generally greeted with considerable enthusiasm: the Guardian, for example, found it ‘a welcome substitute for the ballasted, coarsened, and square-cut versions that are too often so confidently given out as the real Handel’ while the afore-mentioned Mr Turner considered it ‘one of the greatest musical achievements of a generation of concert giving in London.’ Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music will be published in September, and will include a CD of the conductor in rehearsal.