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June 2019
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2003-09-09 Thomas Beecham

The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes. The witticisms of Oscar Wilde are without a doubt some of the most amusing and perceptive observations on society. However, the above utterance came not from the mouth of Wilde, but from that of Thomas Beecham.


Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), son of the famed pharmacist Sir Joseph Beecham, was one of the 20th Centurys finest conductors, with a recording career spanning almost 50 years. But it is not only his fine recordings which live on (for example Boheme with Jussi Björling), Beecham will also be remembered for his colourfully eccentric and outrageous personality, his sharp (often bitchy) wit, and for always bowing first to the orchestra and then to the audiences after his performances, despite believing those orchestras to be a collection of disappointed soloists.

Music, for Beecham, released him from the tyranny of conscious thought. Music should always sound well, should allure, and enchant the ears. It should penetrate the ear with facility, and quit the memory with difficulty, not the reverse, as in much avant-garde music.

Not a fan of the music critic, he described them as a fraternity for stating the exact opposite to fact and that they had the score in their hands and not in their heads. Similarly, he saw musicologists as people who can read music but can not hear it.

He was not a fan of certain musical instruments, describing the sound of the harpsichord, for example, as like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof. To a trombonist, the conductor exclaimed Are you producing as much sound as possible from that quaint and antique drainage system you are applying to your face?.

And after a bum-note had been discharged from the tuba, he asked the player to now kindly pull the chain. Beecham suggested the bagpipes as a good instrument to study as they sound exactly the same before and after learning. Possibly his most famous quote of all time was to the unfortunate lady cellist  Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands, and all you can do is scratch it!

As with many great geniuses, Beecham was not without his faults, and one of those faults was sexism. He preferred not to have attractive ladies in his orchestras as they tended to distract and upset the players, but the unattractive ones upset Sir Thomas. A lady pianist once performed a piano concerto rather badly under his baton. At the interval, the librarian asked if he ought to arrange for the piano to be moved offstage. Leave it, replied Sir Thomas, itll probably slink off by itself.

On another occasion, he enquired as to the name of the 1st Trombonist. Ball came the reply. How very singular exclaimed Beecham. He once accused his 2nd Trumpet of being too loud. The 1st Trumpet explained that in fact the 2nd Trumpet was not at rehearsal. Well, when he comes, tell him hes too loud.

Of course, singers also came under fire. One Wagnerian soprano sounded like a cart coming downhill with the brakes on. A tenor had missed his entry and explained to Beecham that it wasnt his fault  the soprano kept dying too soon.

Beecham replied My dear man, sopranos never die soon enough. He suggested, rather beautifully, that people of all ages ought to listen to 15mins of Mozart every day, but other composers from Bach to Brahms to Vaughan Williams came under the Beecham aim frequently. As regards other conductors, Beecham wondered why there was  a need to employ 3rd rate continental conductors when England had so many 2nd rate ones of its own. Poor Sir Malcolm Sargent was constantly on the receiving end of Beechams wit.

There was a rumour that Sargent had been kidnapped during his tour of China. Beecham remarked that he had no idea the Chinese were so musical. He went further to describe Karajan as a sort of musical Malcolm Sargent.

I think my favourite of all has to be when he was approached after a Manchester concert by a lady in the hotel foyer. He vaguely recognised her and took a chance to ask her how her husband was  still in the same job? Yes, came the reply, hes well, hes still the King.