E00692. Beecham, Sir Thomas. Conductor programs: Philadelphia Orchestra, Carnegie Hall 1/31/1956, 6x9 / Royal Opera Covent Garden 1939 souvenir, 6.25x9.5 / Theatre Royal Drury Lane Broadsides, May 27, 1914; June 12, 1914, 8.5x11 / His Majesty’s Theatre Broadside, July 8, 1910, 9x11.5
“Every British musician has a Beecham story, a secondhand quip of a conductor who founded or rescued most of the nation’s orchestras and, when bankrupt, told the Official Receiver to be ‘truly thankful for what he was about to receive’.
Sir Thomas was a font of wit and enterprise, a blaze of colour and bonhomie in a monochrome age. A hereditary baronet, he was a cavalier among roundheads who made the lives of session musicians more play than work. Few had a bad word to say about him, even when they went unpaid. Who else would have dared to dismiss Beethoven as ‘a musical Mr Gladstone’ and Elgar’s overlong first symphony as ‘the neo-Gothic equivalent of the towers of St Pancras Station’? Both his grandfather and his father had their wives committed to a mental asylum while they moved in with a mistress. Torn between warring parents, Tommy got married at 24 to a penniless American, Utica Wells, and, while she raised their two sons in a suburban house, took an official mistress, the shipping heiress Lady Cunard, while running a fluid succession of musical paramours.
One of them, the Croydon soprano Dora Labette, bore him a third son. On tour in America and Australia, his girlfriend of the moment was forever being mistaken for Lady Beecham or Lady Cunard. Tommy did nothing to correct the misapprehension or protect the feelings of his partners. When the BBC refused to let him lead its symphony orchestra in 1930, he founded the London Philharmonic; later, in 1946, he established the Royal Philharmonic. When out of funds, he drained the Cunards.
Charged by Churchill with spreading British propaganda in the US during the Second World War, he divorced Utica and – to the dismay of Lady Cunard and Dora Labette – married Betty Humby, an English pianist of modest gifts. When she died of cancer, he married in his dotage the RPO’s sometime telephonist, Shirley Hudson.
Conductors, unlike poets and composers, leave nothing of permanence except recordings and memories, both of which can be misleading. Beecham, however, left the twinkle in his eye. Rogue that he was towards women and all who were imprudent enough to trust him with cash, he engendered a sense of mischief and effervescence in London’s concert halls that is not to be found anywhere else. The sparkle in their sound is still traceable to Tommy. Part showman, part shaman, he transformed London from a cultural backwater into a musical capital and gave it an enduring resilience. For those gifts, it is not just the Official Receiver who is truly thankful.”
- Norman Lebrecht, 3 Sept., 2008