The Conductor Who Made London Capital of Music; Effervescent: Thomas Beecham on Board Ship with One of His Many Mistresses, Soprano Dora Labette, En Route to America in 1935

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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"? But did he? A new biography of Beecham, the first to obtain partial access to the family papers, reveals that many of the best-known stories are myth, born of wishful thinking and faulty memories.

The one about the lady cellist, for instance, whom Beecham supposedly stopped in rehearsal with the remark: "Madam, you have a magnificent instrument between your legs and all you can do is scratch it." Definitely not Beecham, says biographer John Lucas.

More likely to have come from Sir Henry Wood, the Proms founder, who had a coarse streak of cockney humour.

And the celebrated putdown of Karlheinz Stockhausen that was quoted widely this year in the composer's obituaries: "I've not heard any Stockhausen but I think I've trodden in some." A posthumous invention, says Lucas, probably by the critic Neville Cardus.

The true story of Thomas Beecham is, it turns out, far more entertaining than any of these frayed anecdotes. He was born into a fake-cure family in St Helens, Lancashire, in 1879. His grandfather invented a herbal pill that had no medical benefit but was sold as a cure for most ills. His father expanded into laxatives and cough tinctures (the family brand is today part of the giant Glaxo- SmithKline conglomerate). Tommy was raised in the belief that you can fool most of the public all of the time.

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, and, while she raised their two sons in a suburban house, he 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.

His mission was to educate the English-speaking world in the art of music, an art which he loftily declared the English "do not like: they just like the noise it makes". At Covent Garden in the summers before the First World War, he introduced operas by Richard Strauss and a lighter style in Mozart that became the national norm. During the war, his father bought the opera house and its surroundings, while Tommy saved the London Symphony Orchestra from disbandment. …


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