Sir Thomas Beecham: Reluctant Beethovenian? A Survey of His Beethoven Performances and Recordings
Douglas, Jack, The Beethoven Journal
SIR THOMAS BEECHAM (1879-1961), THE GREAT BRITISH CONDUCTOR AND IMPRESARIO, founded several London orchestras, and, -with the aid of his father's fortune (Beecham's Pills), brought grand opera to Britain. He has been gone for almost forty years, but his accomplishments have had a lasting effect on our musical lives. Many of his recordings are still available to those of the younger generation who never had the opportunity to see him conduct or to experience his mercurial wit.
It is thought in some circles that Sir Thomas Beecham did not care for Beethoven's works, and that when he did program them he did not do it with much enthusiasm. Some of Beecham's remarks regarding the composer probably added to this impression. Were Beecham's supreme efforts on behalf of his favorites Mozart and Schubert made at the expense of Beethoven? Or was Beethoven really as neglected by Beecham as some critics have believed?
In the following essay I will trace the history of Sir Thomas's encounters with Beethoven over a career which extended from 1899 to 1960. An analysis of performance history1 and some of the memorable concerts will, perhaps, clear up misconceptions about the relationship of the great British conductor with the phenomenon that was Beethoven.
Beecham began his conducting career on December 6, 1899 when his father, Lord Mayor of St. Helens, allowed his son to take up the baton of an absent Hans Richter to conduct the Halle Orchestra. Young Thomas conducted a number of short pieces by Wagner, Verdi, Gounod, Delibes and Tchaikovsky, but the major work of the evening was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Interviewed after the concert he was asked if Beethoven was his favorite composer. He replied: "Hardly ... personally, if I were giving a concert to a musically trained audience, I should not give Beethoven's 5th. It is so well known that it is a favorite symphony for conductors to start with. It is popular with an audience because the expression is so immensely facile and easily understood. One of my favorite symphonic writers is Brahms, and Schubert is another; but all Beethoven's symphonies are interesting ..."2 Cautious and faint praise for Beethoven from the twenty-year-old tyro musician. Ironically, Beecham had a greater success with the works of Beethoven than with those of Brahms.
Sir Thomas often made outrageous pronouncements when trying to make a point. In his lifelong career of showcasing new works or those of earlier neglected composers, he was often hard on the composers whose music dominated the concert scene. He once asked Walter Legge, the producer of many early EMI recordings: "My dear Walter, what are we going to do to rescue British musical life from the hegemony of the three bloodiest bores in the history of music? I am referring, of course, to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms."3
Sir Thomas may have disparaged Beethoven on occasion, but that did not keep him from playing his works often and with some success. True to form the conductor chose to conduct the less wellknown even-numbered symphonies and early concertos. A great proponent of neglected works of the classical period, he had a natural feeling for Beethoven's less romantic scores.
Symphony No. 1
Considering Beecham's preference for the classically oriented works of Beethoven, it is amazing that he conducted the First Symphony only three times. The first time was at the age of twenty in a concert with his home town orchestra, the St. Helens Orchestral Society (December 1899). He did not repeat a performance until thirty years later when it was included in a London Philharmonic concert at Queen's Hall in March 1939, and, finally, it was coupled with the Ninth in an all Beethoven concert with the Royal Philharmonic in November 1947.
Symphony No. 2
The Second Symphony was one of Beecham's favorites and it appeared on forty-six of his programs. …