Thomas Beecham

1879 1961

Thomas Beecham

Composer • Conductor

Popular Works


Sir Thomas Beecham was one of the pioneering conductors of the 20th century with a career spanning over 6 decades. Known for his wit, uninhibited sense of humour and a versatile repertoire, spanning fromHandel to the mid-20th century, Beecham is best remembered for his influence on British musical life, particularly with theLondon Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Sir Thomas Beecham was born in St. Helen’s, Lancashire, England and studied composition with Charles Wood and briefly at Oxford, before abandoning university life for his musical career. His father was a wealthy manufacturing chemist who had great regard for music. (In fact, the Beecham name is still used for cold and flu remedies.) Beecham’s comfortable financial circumstances made matters easy for him during the early years of his career, allowing him to attend his pick of operas and concerts at home and abroad. His private income also helped to fund the first orchestra that he formed in St. Helen’s, and would continue to help with many other new ventures.

Beecham had already began to make a name for himself as a conductor in the 1890s, but it was in 1902 that his official conducting career took place with the Imperial Grand Opera Company in Clapham, London, conducting a performance of The Bohemian Girlby the Irish composer Michael William Balfe. In 1909 he formed the influential Beecham Symphony Orchestra and shortly after launched a festival ofMozart operas in which he re-introduced London to rich core repertoire that time seemed to have forgotten, such asCosi fan tutte. He brought the renowned Paris-based ballet company Ballets Russes to London, and the Beecham Symphony Orchestra was the first to introduce British audiences to The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Jeux and Daphnis et Chloé.

He also formed the Beecham Opera Company, which existed between 1915 and 1920 but ultimately disbanded over financial problems. After dissolving, many of its key musicians formed the British National Opera Company, directed by Thomas Beecham, which employed the top British and British-based opera singers of the day. The company made its début performance on 6 February 1922, performingGiuseppe Verdi's opera Aida, sung in English, which was extremely well-received. The opera company did extensive tours of the English provinces, as well as short seasons at Covent Garden. The company made history as a pioneer in the broadcasting of operas, coinciding with the founding of the BBC.

Beecham made his US début in 1928, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with Ukrainian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz, performing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor in Carnegie Hall. This was also Horowitz’ first ever performance in the United States. The performance was particularly memorable because Horowitz overrode the tempo of Beecham and began to play at his own blistering tempo, thundering over the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and leaving them several measures behind by the end of the piece. Although the critics lambasted this stubbornness, the audience loved it and ensured Horowitz place at the top of contemporary pianists from that time forward.

In 1931, Beecham was approached by the conductor Malcolm Sargent to set up a brand new orchestra from scratch. This collection of 106 players became known as the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO). It made its debut concert on 7 October 1932 at Queen’s Hall, conducted by Beecham, performingBerlioz’s Roman Carnival, which led to uproarious applause by a wildly enthusiastic audience. Over the next eight years, the orchestra gave close to 100 performances at Queen’s Hall alone, as well as for Beecham’s opera seasons at Covent Garden, as well as making over 300 gramophone records.

On 19 November 1936, Beecham and the LSO recorded a performance on a magnetic tape at the BASF Concert Hall in Ludwigshafen, Germany. It was a pioneering experiment in sound recording. The recording, which includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony no. 39, was re-released in 2009 by EMI records. During wartime, the generous financial backing dried up and Beecham left to conduct in Australia and the US. The orchestra continued without him and sustained itself as a self-governing body.

Beecham formed the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) in 1946. The Times hailed one of its first performances as "a hall filled with golden tone which enveloped the listener".  Within two years, the orchestra had made 100 recordings. The RPO became the resident orchestra at the prestigious Glyndebourne Festival each summer. In 1950, Beecham took the RPO on an ambitious tour of the US, Canada and South Africa.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Beecham took up conducting engagements in Argentina, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Washington. He summarily gained the title of “Britain’s first international conductor.” Beecham was knighted in 1916 and in 1938 he was bestowed the Legion d’honneur by the president of France. He also received national honours of a similar prestige from Finland and Italy and was granted honorary doctorates from the universities of Oxford, London, Manchester and Montreal.