Monday, 8 September 2008

An Obsession with Music

The long-awaited biography, Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music by John Lucas will be published on September 18th. It is the culmination of a lifelong interest in Beecham for the author who describes, in this extract from the book’s preface, his first encounter with the great man some sixty years ago:

I first saw Beecham conduct in the late 1940s. I had witnessed Malcolm Sargent in action, and Boult and Barbirolli, and I even retain a vestigial memory of Henry Wood, but I was very young at the time and far more interested in the music that was being played than who was conducting it. The Beecham concert was at the Royal Albert Hall, promoted by the impresario Victor Hochhauser, who in an advertisement had announced that the great man would be giving an introductory talk about the items to be performed. Beecham walked on to the platform purposefully, stepped on to the rostrum, eyed us up and down with an air of hauteur, and paused. ‘Ladies and gentleman’, he said in a voice pitched a bit higher than I was expecting, with the words articulated very precisely, even primly. ‘Mr Hochhauser has said that I shall be talking about tonight’s programme. I shall be doing no such thing.’ And he turned and plunged straight into the most vigorous performance of the National Anthem I had ever heard. (I had no idea that his conducting of it was famous.)

This was pure theatre, pure Beecham. He had caught the audience’s attention and he held it until the end of the concert. I can still recall the magical, diaphanous effect in that first programme of Liszt’s symphonic poem Orpheus, with the perfect balance in the orchestra (it was the year-old Royal Philharmonic) and the subtle grading of the dynamics. Suddenly, for the first time, I was made aware that conducting was not just a matter of beating time but, at its best, an inspired act of recreation.

Beecham is arguably the finest executant musician this country has produced. He was certainly the most influential. He raised orchestral standards in Britain to an unprecedented height. He proved by example that opera was for everyone, and not just for the society-led coterie which, for social as much as musical reasons, attended the short summer seasons at Covent Garden. And, however incredible it might now seem, he was responsible for the works of Mozart and Haydn becoming staples of the concert repertory in Britain and, in Mozart’s case, the operatic repertory as well.

What he was unable to do, despite his tireless advocacy, and his incomparable performances and recordings of the music, was to persuade audiences that Delius was indeed, as he claimed, the ‘last great apostle in our time of romance, emotion and beauty in music’. I recall turning up for an all-Delius concert at the Festival Hall in 1958 to find that so few people had bought tickets for it that Beecham had had to change the second half of the programme to Sibelius’s First Symphony in the hope of attracting more customers. I cannot pretend that it bothered me. Beecham was one of the best Sibelius conductors of his time, a verdict with which the composer himself concurred.

Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music by John Lucas includes a CD of Beecham in rehearsal.

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