Skip to main content
Hong Kong Observatory Brand Hong Kong - Asia's world city
GovHK Traditional Chinese Simplified Chinese Search
Search Site Map Contact Us
red dot
Print Version
Print Version

Friday, 18th February 2011

B and D

The English conductor and impresario, Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), passed away half a century ago. Despite the passage of time, when it comes to listening to the music of Delius some people still turn to Beecham.

Beecham came from a family which made a fortune producing medical pills. He did not finish university at Oxford. Instead, he went to London and Paris to study composition, and was entirely self-taught as a conductor. Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was 17 years his senior. In their formative years, both chose to pursue a musical career against their fathers' will.

Delius's life was truly international. Born in England to well-off German parents, he spent much of his early adulthood pursuing unsuccessfully as an orange grower in Florida, USA. He made his reputation as a composer in Germany, after the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), his life-long friend, convinced Delius's father to allow him to become an artist. He lived the life of a composer mostly in France and was buried in England. Influenced by Wagner, his music blends together impressionism, African-American spirituals and Nordic folk music.

Delius' music was practically unknown to his native land until 1907, when he was 45. Around that time, Beecham, hitherto unsure of his future as a composer, pianist or conductor, first encountered Delius's music, loved it deeply and talked of the composer as 'the last great apostle in our time of romance, emotion and beauty in music'. He decided once and for all to be an orchestral conductor upon the encouragement and conviction of the composer and began his championship of Delius for the rest of his life.

Figure 1    Beecham in 1910 (Source : Wikipedia), Figure 2    Portrait of Delius by his wife, 1912 (Source : Wikipedia)

Beecham was instrumental in transforming the operatic scene from the 1910s to the start of World War II. In the concert hall, he started conducting the New Symphony Orchestra in 1906, and founded the Beecham Symphony Orchestra in 1909. The latter was a hand-picked group of mainly young musicians from theatre bandrooms, local symphony societies, hotel cafés and musical colleges, and was dubbed the Beecham Pill-harmonic by its youthful staff. During World War I, he kept the concert scene alive in London and Manchester through his family wealth and conducted at various times: the Halle Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Practically single-handedly, Beecham founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932 and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. Both of these are still going strong to this day, with the latter being sometimes referred to as Britain's national orchestra nowadays.

A word of caution about Beecham's interpretation of Delius's works. He hardly ever changed the notes, but practically altered or modified every one of the composer's expression and dynamic marks.

A parade of Delius composition titles gives an immediate feeling how close his music is to Nature: "On hearing the first cuckoo in spring", "A song before sunrise", "Over the hills and far away", "Summer night on the river" and "Songs of sunset".

Tempermentally, the two were polar opposites. Delius was fastidious, cynical, and could be fiercely uncompromising with his scores. On the other hand, Beecham was known for his wit. He left Britain in 1940 for Australia and then North America, and later explained, "I was informed there was an emergency, so I emerged."

B.Y. Lee


a) Notes on CD 'Beecham conducts Delius' by Lyndon Jenkins, EMI Records Ltd. 1987.
b) Wikipedia.

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>