Sir Thomas Beecham was one of the foremost conductor
s of the twentieth century and also a great wit, with a whole book of "Beecham stories" devoted to his quotable anecdote
s and pronouncement
s. As well as being a great interpreter of Mozart
, he was an enthusiastic promoter of Sibelius
, Richard Strauss
, and Delius
. He also founded orchestra
s in London left, right, and centre.
He was born in St Helens in Lancashire on 29 March 1879, son of the founder of the Beecham pharmaceutical company: the "Sir" is for both his own knighthood, received in 1914, and the baronetcy bestowed on his father, which he inherited in 1916. He was also created a CH (Companion of Honour).
Beecham intended to be a composer. His first conducting engagement was of the Hallé Orchestra in St Helens in 1899; his London premiere was in 1905. He founded the LPO (London Philharmonic Orchestra) in 1932 and the RPO (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) in 1947, of which he remained principal conductor until his death in London on 8 March 1961.
His family wealth enabled him to sponsor a lot: he also created the Beecham Symphony Orchestra in 1909 and the Beecham Opera Company in 1915; and he financed the first performances of Diaghilev's ballet in Britain. He was also chief conductor at Covent Garden for some years. His fellow conductor Pierre Monteux nicknamed him Le Grand Baton, which has been adopted as the title of the journal of the Sir Thomas Beecham Society.
He wrote a book on Delius in 1959. In 1944 he published a biography A Mingled Chime covering his life till 1923, and although notes for a second volume exist, he is well remembered for many quotations like the following.
On the harpsichord: like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof; also, like a birdcage played with toasting forks.
On J.S. Bach: too much counterpoint, and what is more, Protestant counterpoint.
On Herbert von Karajan: he's a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent1.
On whether he had ever played any Stockhausen: No, but I once stepped in some.
To a lady cellist: Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands--and all you can do is scratch it.
1. Sir Malcolm Sargent was a fellow conductor and Beecham's perpetual rival.