The celebrated English conductor, Thomas Beecham, was born to a father, Sir Joseph Beecham, a man of great wealth, derived from the manufacture of the once-famous Beecham pills. Thanks to them, young Beecham could engage in life's pleasures without troublesome regard for economic limitations. He had his first music lessons from a rural organist. From 1892 to 1897 he attended the Rossall School at Lancashire, and later went to Wadham College, Oxford. He did not have any formal music school. Musically he was an autodidact and taught himself everything. Later on he studied composition in London with Charles Wood and in Paris with Muszkowski.
In 1899 Thomas Beecham organised, mainly for his own delectation, an amateur ensemble, the St. Helen's Orchestral Society. Also in 1899 he conducted a performance with the prestigious Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. In 1902 he became conductor of K. Trueman's travelling opera company, which gave him valuable practical experience with theater music. He led this ensemble until 1904. In 1905 he gave his first professional symphonic concert in London, with members of the Queens Hall Orchestra. In 1906 he became conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra, which he led until 1908. Then formed a group in his own name, the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, which presented its first concert in London in February 1909.
In 1910, financially backed by his family, Thomas Beecham took over the creative and business management of Covent Garden in London. In subsequent seasons conducted there and at other London theatres. He was the first in England to perform The Mastersingers of Nüremberg by R. Wagner, Elektra and Salome by R. Strauss and thus enriched the musical life of the English capital. He invited Fyodor Shalyapin, the Ballets Russes, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, in other words everyone of repute, to give guest performances in London. In 1915, during World War I, he organised the Beecham Opera Company by which time his reputation as a forceful and charismatic conductor was securely established in England. His audiences grew; the critics, impressed by his imperious ways and his unquestioned ability to bring out spectacular operatic productions, sang his praise; however, some commentators found much to criticise in his somewhat cavalier treatment of the classics.
In appreciation of his services to British music, Thomas Beecham was knighted in 1916. With the death of his father, he succeeded to the title of baronet. But all of his inherited money was not enough to pay for his exorbitant financial disbursements in his ambitious enterprises, and in 1920 his operatic enterprise went bankrupt. He rebounded a few years later and continued his extraordinary career. In January 1928, lie made his USA debut as a guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, at which concert Vladimir Horowitz also made his USA debut as soloist.
In 1929 Thomas Beecham organised and conducted the Delius Festival in London, to which Delius himself, racked by tertiary syphilitic affliction, paralysed and blind, was brought from his residence in France to attend Beecham's musical homage to him. From 1932 to 1939 he conducted again at Covent Garden. In 1932 he organised the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which also played at Covent Garden. Contemptuous of general distaste for the Nazi regime in Germany, he took the London Philharmonic Orchestra to Berlin in 1936 for a concert, which was attended by the Führer in person. As the war situation deteriorated on the Continent, Beecham went to the USA in May 1940, and also toured Canada and Australia. In 1941 he was engaged as conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, retaining this post until 1943; he also filled guest engagements at the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1942 to 1944. In America he was not exempt from sharp criticism, which he haughtily dismissed as philistine complaints. On his part, he was outspoken in his snobbish disdain for the cultural inferiority of England's wartime allies, often spicing his comments with mild obscenities, usually of a scatological nature.
After his return to England he was no longer able to resume his work at Covent Garden; his former orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, chose self-administration and rejected Beecham as its sole manager. As a result he founded, in 1946, still another orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which he managed until the end of his days. In 1950 he made an extraordinarily successful North American tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He continued to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra until ill health led him to nominate Rudolf Kempe as his successor in 1960. In 1957 Queen Elizabeth II made him a Companion of Honour.
Thomas Beecham was married 3 times: to Utica Celestia Wells, in 1903 (divorced in 1942); to Betty Hamby (in 1943), who died in 1957; and to his young secretary, Shirley Hudson, in 1959.
Thomas Beecham published an autobiography, A Mingled Chime (London, 1943), and also an extensive biography of Delius (London, 1959). To mark his centennial, a commemorative postage stamp with Beecham's portrait was issued by the Post Office of Great Britain in September 1980. In 1964 the Sir Thomas Beecham Society dedicated to preserving his memory, was organised, with chapters in America and England. The Society publishes an official journal, Le Grand Baton, devoted to Beecham and the art of conducting.
In spite of the occasional criticism directed at him, Sir Thomas Beecham revealed a remarkable genius as an orchestra builder. In addition to his outstanding interpretations of Haydn, W.A. Mozart, and Schubert, he had a particular affinity for the works of French and Russian composers of the 19th century. He was always an advocate of English music, particularly Frederick Delius, whose main works he was the first to play. He fought for the works of Jean Sibelius in England and defended those of Richard Strauss, to whom he felt greatly attached. In the field of old music he had affection for the oratorios of Georg Frideric Handel, which he performed in highly personal and surprising arrangements. He was also attracted by French music and it is to him that we owe gramophone recordings of the major symphonies of the 19th century and a trend-setting Carmen by Georges Bizet. His humour is legendary and his style of conducting, which tended to be based rather on instinct than on intellect, may be termed characteristic of a generation of musicians, to whom enthusiasm was more important than unrelenting strictness.