Magazine article The Spectator

Wit and Brio

Magazine article The Spectator

Wit and Brio

Article excerpt

THOMAS BEECHAM: AN OBSESSION WITH MUSIC by John Lucas Boydell & Brewer, £25, pp. 384, ISBN 9781843834021 Damn awful thing, what!

[The Ring] -- Barbarian load of Nazi thugs, aren't they?

'No one can honestly maintain that the lives of musicians make exciting reading', claimed Beecham in his autobiography, A Mingled Chime. If you were to have a wager, you would put it on Tommy Beecham to defy the odds. He was kaleidoscopic. He described his own book as 'demi-semi-autobiographical', and said that 'it's mingled because it concerns everything under the sun'. He might have added that it is also mangled. Beecham was an embroiderer, 'a natural dissembler' in John Lucas's phrase, and many familiar stories do not feature in this impeccably researched biography. We are therefore deprived of 'Why do we have to have all these third-rate foreign conductors around, when we have so many second-rate ones of our own?' Or indeed the famous one to the cellist: 'Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands, and all you can do is scratch it.' We get, I'm glad to say, Beecham's riposte to Malcolm Sargent's telling members of the Garrick Club that he had been shot at by Arabs in Palestine -- 'So they are musical!'-- but alas not his description of Herbert von Karajan as 'a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent', a perfect right and left.

But there are still a plethora of quips and stories to feast on in Lucas's book. Beecham was certainly not dull. It is worth pondering what he was, and why.

He was the heir to a Lancastrian fortune, Beecham's Pills, and his grandfather called himself 'Quack Doctor'. Both his grandfather and father, having amassed the fortune, were also 'libertines', we are told. Tommy was not lacking in these family traits either, making a good fist at being both a poseur and a philanderer. Alas, he did not inherit any business sense, and this book chronicles the terrifying amounts of money he was given, and then spent. The debts ratcheted up, and attempts to dishonour them. 'A Mountain of Debts' is one of the chapter headings.

Tommy could be very funny, but also tactlessly unfunny. Lucas is excellent on the visits to Australia and America, where Evelyn Barbirolli wrote that he was busy 'making an arrant fool of himself '. Lucas tells us that in replying to a speech of welcome in Queensland, Beecham 'resorted to belowpar jokes about kangaroos, but at least he was friendly'. In an attempt to obscure his amorous involvement with a female pianist (shortly to become his second wife) from a jealous Lady Cunard, he deemed it sufficient to tell her, 'She is descended from a long line of dentists'. …

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