Wednesday 5 August 2009

Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music

I have just finished reading John Lucas's new biography of Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart. It is highly illuminating in many ways, especially as Sir Thomas fitted so much into his life that there is probably enough material to fill two volumes.

The book is described as An Obessssion with Music and there is very much an emphasis on Sir Thomas's music-making. Lucas is very good on what made Sir Thomas a great conductor and orchestra trainer. He has also done a lot of digging an provides lots of information about areas of Sir Thomas's life which have been less covered recently. In the first part of the book, the interest is very much on his tussles with his father and the way that Sir Joseph Beecham had his wife declared insane and put in an assylum. Thomas and his eldest sister managed to get her out, though this fractured his relationship with his father. The excitement in the next part of the book is firmly on Sir Thomas's love-life, with his messy divorce and various liaisons.

Then finally we get a comprehensive survey of Sir Thomas's activities in the 2nd World War when he worked in Australia and the USA. This absence from England is probably the reason why he was less than central to music making (particularly in opera) in the UK after the war.

What we get is a rattling good yarn, written in an approachable manner. Sir Thomas was something of an adventurer and Lucas seems to bring this out. What I missed though, was a feeling for the man behind the mask. Even after reading the book, I never felt that I undersood Sir Thomas. We don't get many of the subject's own words, probably because these are unreliable. And Lucas is similarly cautious about many of the stories, he even manages to track down the correct versions of some of them. Lucas rightly treats A Mingled Chime cautiously, but it is a shame that the only commentary on the conductor's activities (either personal or musical) comes from contemporary diarists and commentators. You never get Beecham on Beecham, perhaps this doesn't exist. But it left me feeling that the great adventure lacked an emotional heart.

For anyone familiar with Beecham's post-war reputation with his bon mots and lollipops, the serious music making and trail-blazing of the conductor's younger self is something of a revelation. The book lacks anything like a complete discography, perhaps such a thing would be too voluminous. But Lucas does mention key recordings, notably some of the live ones which shed light on the conductor's methods.

As a narrative of what Tommy did next, the book is superb. But it is less good on why. He seems to have had a long relationship with Lady Cunard, but towards the end of this he took up with others. We never get behind any of his relationship, never really understand them. Dora Labette, who gave up her promising stage career when Beecham stopped their relationship, evidently burned all his letters; though being as he entirely failed to tell her that the relationship was over perhaps indicates that even Beecham's letters might not reveal the real man. This might be the problem, that the material just does not allow us to see the inner Beecham, but Lucas never lets us know.

But there is one point to bear in mind, which might explain Lucas's reticence. In the last years of his life, Sir Thomas married someone over 50 years his junior. Shirley, Lady Beecham has been zealous in her guardianship and championship of Sir Thomas's reputation. The author also seems to have had access to Sir Thomas's sons. So perhaps we cannot expect too much exploration of Sir Thomas's psyche, and that such a book might have to wait.

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