Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Thomas Beecham

In 1932 the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham had founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), which, with the backing of rich supporters, he ran until 1940, when finances dried up in wartime. Beecham left to conduct in Australia and then the US; the orchestra continued without him after re-organising itself as a self-governing body. On Beecham’s return to England in September 1944 the LPO welcomed him back, and in October they gave a concert together that drew superlatives from the critics. Over the next months Beecham and the orchestra gave further concerts with considerable success, but the LPO players, now their own employers, declined to give him the unfettered control he had exercised in the 1930s. If he were to become chief conductor again it would be as a paid employee of the orchestra. Beecham responded, “I emphatically refuse to be wagged by any orchestra … I am going to found one more great orchestra to round off my career.” In 1945 he conducted the first concert of Walter Legge’s new Philharmonic Orchestra, but was not disposed to accept a salaried position from Legge, his former assistant, any more than from his former players in the LPO.

In 1946 Beecham reached an agreement with the Royal Philharmonic Society: his new orchestra would replace the LPO at all the Society’s concerts. He thus gained the right to name the new ensemble the “Royal Philharmonic Orchestra”, an arrangement approved by George VI. Beecham arranged with the Glyndebourne Festival that the RPO should be the resident orchestra at Glyndebourne seasons. He secured backing, including that of record companies in the US as well as Britain, with whom lucrative recording contracts were negotiated.

Beecham appointed Victor Olof as his orchestral manager, and they started recruiting leading musicians with whom Beecham had worked before the war. On 11 September 1946 the Royal Philharmonic assembled for its first rehearsal. Four days later it gave its first concert, at the Davis Theatre, Croydon. Beecham telegraphed a colleague, “Press virtually unanimous in praise of orchestra- First Croydon concert huge success”. Beecham and the orchestra played a series of out-of-town engagements before venturing a first London concert on 26 October. The Times then spoke of “a hall filled with golden tone which enveloped the listener”. Before its London debut the orchestra made its first recording, and within two years had made more than 100.

In the early days the orchestra comprised 72 players all on yearly contract to Beecham, giving him first call on their services, subject to reasonable notice, but not otherwise restricting their freedom to play for other ensembles. The RPO toured the United States in 1950, the first British orchestra to visit America since the (LSO) in 1912. This was a long-cherished plan of Beecham who had been unable to take the LPO to the US in the 1930s. He arranged 52 concerts in 45 cities in 64 days. The tour was described as a huge success.

The orchestra’s first appearance at the Proms took place in August 1952, and Beecham made his Proms debut two years later, conducting the RPO in a programme of music by Berlioz, Schubert and Sibelius; In 1957 Beecham and the RPO made a European tour, beginning in Paris and ending at Vienna.

Beecham conducted the RPO in his last concert, given at Portsmouth Guildhall on 7 May 1960. Beecham suffered a heart attack the following month, from which he did not recover and died 9 months later.

Rudolph Kempe had been appointed associate conductor in 1960 and became principal conductor in 1961 and music director in 1962. Beecham’s widow ran the affairs of the orchestra as best she could, but some senior players were unhappy with the management, and they left. The orchestra reorganised itself in 1963 as a self-governing limited company, but almost immediately encountered difficulties. The Royal Philharmonic Society decided not to engage the RPO for its concerts; Glyndebourne booked the LPO instead of the RPO from 1964 onwards. The RPO was also excluded from the London Orchestral Concert Board’s schedule of concerts, which meant that it was denied the use of London’s main concert venue, the Royal Festival Hall. Kempe resigned, although he returned shortly afterwards. Helped by strong support from Sir Malcolm Sargent, the orchestra successfully mounted its own concerts at a cinema in Swiss Cottage. A 1965 report to the Arts Council recommended that all four independent London orchestras should receive adequate public subsidy.

The severance of the tie with the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1963 turned out to be temporary, but for three years it threatened to deprive the RPO of the “Royal” in its title. The matter was resolved in 1966, when on the advice of Roy Jenkins, who as Home Secretary had responsibility for such matters, the Queen conferred the title unconditionally on the orchestra.

The RPO celebrated its silver jubilee in 1971. On 15 September the orchestra returned to Croydon, where it had made its debut 25 years earlier. The theatre in which it had first played had been demolished, and the anniversary concert was therefore given at the Fairfields Hall.

Since 1993, the RPO has had a community and education programme, later given the title of “RPO Resound”. It aims to increase “access to and engagement with world-class music-making.” It has worked in venues including homeless shelters, hospices, youth clubs and prisons. The orchestra gives an annual series of concerts at the Festival Hall, and since 2004 has had a permanent home at Cadogan Hall At the Royal Albert Hall in London, the RPO gives performances ranging from large-scale choral and orchestral works to evenings of popular classics, and is a regular featured ensemble at The Proms.

Beecham was married three times. In 1903 he married Utica Celestina Welles, by whom he had two sons: Adrian, born in 1904, who became a composer and achieved some celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s, and Thomas, born in 1909. After the birth of his second child, Beecham began to drift away from the marriage. By 1911, no longer living with his wife and family, he was involved as co-respondent in a much-publicised divorce case. Utica ignored advice that she should divorce him and secure substantial alimony; she did not believe in divorce. She never remarried after Beecham divorced her (in 1943), and she outlived her former husband by sixteen years. after Beecham divorced her (in 1943), and she outlived her former husband by sixteen years. In 1909 or early 1910, Beecham began an affair with Maud Alice (known as Emerald), Lady Cunard.

Although they never lived together, it continued, despite other relationships on his part, until his re-marriage in 1943. She was a tireless fund-raiser for his musical enterprises Beecham’s biographers are agreed that she was in love with him, but that his feelings for her were less strong. During the 1920s and 1930s, Beecham also had an affair with Dora Labette, a soprano sometimes known as Lisa Perli, with whom he had a son, Paul Strang, born in March 1933.

In 1943 Lady Cunard was devastated to learn (not from Beecham) that he intended to divorce Utica to marry Betty Humby, a concert pianist 29 years his junior. Beecham married Betty in 1943 and they were a devoted couple until her death in 1958. On 10th August 1959, two years before his death, he married in Zurich his former secretary, Shirley Hudson, who had worked for the

Utica to marry Betty Humby, a concert pianist 29 years his junior.Beecham married Betty in 1943, who had worked for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s administration since 1950.  She was 27, he was 80.  Beecham died on 8th March 1961 in London

  • Some quotes from Beecham bear repeating. During a rehearsal Beecham thought that his female soloist was playing less than adequately on her fine Italian cello. He stopped the orchestra and declared: “Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands, and all you can do is scratch it!”
  • Once he described the sound of the harpsichord as”two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”.
  • On another occasion he declared that “the British may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes”.
  • His pointed goatee beard, his proud and portly stature and, most of all, that dry, acerbic wit have passed into musical mythology.
  • No other conductor could possibly have got away with saying: “There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.”

Sources: Wikipedia, The Guardian, Encyclopedia Britannica and Bach Cantatas Website

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