Playing with Fire; Laura Davis Looks at a New Book Which Reveals the Melancholy and Fun of Musical Genius Thomas Beecham

Article excerpt

Byline: Laura Davis

'NOW then, gentlemen, do your worst!" exclaimed Thomas Beecham, as he prepared to bring in his orchestra at the start of a concert.

He could also have cried these words during one of their many escapades away from the stage, which on several occasions ended with a huge explosion.

Guests at the Adelphi were awoken by a loud bang one night after the Lancashire-born conductor and his colleagues threw handfuls of light bulbs down the hotel's stairwell from the top floor.

After a particularly heavy night of drinking to celebrate a successful concert, Beecham had walked up every flight of stairs, collecting all the bulbs along the way.

On another occasion, the musicians hurled fireworks out of the window of a railway carriage.

These stories feature in a new biography, Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music, which reveals his sense of fun and his serious attitude towards music.

"He had an orchestra of very young musicians who were enthusiastic and energetic. They worked very hard and they played very hard," explains John Lucas, who spent nine years researching the book.

"I think he was great fun. He was still quite a young ripper and apparently they all played with tremendous fire in a way that I don't think any English orchestra had ever played before.

"There was an incident on the same tour when he met his musicians going off to a football match, and they were missing a player, so he joined in. They found he was excellent."

Beecham was born in 1879, into a wealthy St Helens family. His grandfather, also called Thomas, was an Oxfordshire shepherd who became a household name with the invention of his famous Beecham's Pills.

The younger Thomas's first musical memory, according to his own account, was of a Grieg piano recital he attended at the age of five.

So powerful were the melodies in his head that later that night he found he was unable to sleep, and he went to ask his parents if he could learn to play the piano.

Lessons with an organist from Holy Cross RC Church began the following day.

Beecham showed musical promise throughout his time at school, firstly locally and later as a boarder at an establishment in the Black Country.

University life did not agree with him, however, and he was to leave Oxford before finishing his degree.

Back in St Helens, he took a job in the advertising department of his family's pill company, although there is little record of how he spent his days there, and in 1899 he set about forming his own orchestra.

"He inspired his musicians and he didn't lecture them like a lot of conductors do. He was a very good psychologist and he knew how to get the results he needed, and they rewarded him with marvellous playing," says John, who worked for The Observer for 10 years before becoming a freelance journalist. …