Apr 292019
 

I should just call today Musical Birthdays Day because three popular singer-songwriters were born today (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/skiffle-pop-country/ ) and, to add to the coincidences, two of the most famous British conductors of all time, Thomas Beecham (1879) and Malcolm Sargent (1895), were also born on this date. I was more aware of Sargent than Beecham during their lifetimes, because Sargent was the lead conductor of the Proms until his death in 1967, and that was right around the time when I became aware of them. His death actually caused considerable debate concerning the future of the Last Night of the Proms which had become uproariously patriotic under his baton, with mass singing of Rule Britannia and Jerusalem and the like, at a time when naked jingoism was giving way to public hand wringing concerning the evils of empire and colonialism. The patriotism survived some stormy years – now tempered with flags of all nations being waved and a general air of irony mixed in with the jingoism. Of the two I tend to see Sargent as more devoted to English music and Beecham as more international. The two men were close friends and colleagues most of their lives.

Thomas Beecham inherited a baronetcy from his father but was also knighted in his own right for his work as a conductor and impresario, best known for his association with the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic orchestras. He was also closely associated with the Liverpool Philharmonic and Hallé orchestras. From the early 20th century until his death, Beecham was a major influence on the musical life of Britain and introduced audiences to works from continental Europe that had hitherto been unknown, particularly Richard Strauss, Berlioz, and Sibelius.

Beecham was born into a rich industrial family in Lancashire famous for Beecham’s pills. Although in secondary school he had shown strong interest in a musical career, his father insisted he study Classics at Oxford, which he did for two years, before leaving without a degree and pursuing conducting piecemeal. He began his career as a conductor in 1899 as an amateur (with no formal training), and as a professional in 1902. He used his access to the family fortune to finance opera from the 1910s until the 1930s, staging seasons at Covent Garden, Drury Lane and His Majesty’s Theatre with international stars, his own orchestra and a wide repertoire. Among the works he introduced to England were Richard Strauss’s Elektra, Salome and Der Rosenkavalier and three operas by Frederick Delius.

Together with Malcolm Sargent, Beecham founded the London Philharmonic, and he conducted its first performance at the Queen’s Hall in 1932. In the 1940s he worked for three years in the United States where he was music director of the Seattle Symphony and conducted at the Metropolitan Opera. After his return to Britain, he founded the Royal Philharmonic in 1946 and conducted it until his death in 1961.

Harold Malcolm Watts Sargent began his musical career as an organist and composer but eventually became widely regarded as Britain’s leading conductor of choral works. The musical ensembles with which he was associated included the Ballets Russes, the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Royal Choral Society, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and the London Philharmonic, Hallé, Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Symphony and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. Sargent was held in high esteem by choirs and instrumental soloists, but because of his high standards and a statement that he made in a 1936 interview disputing musicians’ rights to tenure, his relationship with orchestral players was often uneasy. Despite this, he was co-founder of the London Philharmonic, was the first conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic as a full-time ensemble, and played an important part in saving the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from disbandment in the 1960s.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Sargent turned down an offer of a major musical directorship in Australia and returned to the UK to bring music to as many people as possible as his contribution to national morale. His fame extended beyond the concert hall: to the British public, he was a familiar broadcaster in BBC radio talk shows, and generations of Gilbert and Sullivan devotees have known his recordings of the most popular Savoy Operas. He toured widely throughout the world and was noted for his skill as a conductor and his championship of British composers.

If I had to pick between Beecham and Sargent as personal friends there would be no contest. Both men were lifelong philanderers, which I find distasteful, but at least Beecham was discreet about his affairs, whereas Sargent flaunted them. Also, Sargent was a flagrant snob, and Beecham often chided him about his posturing. For example, Beecham once described the rising conductor Herbert von Karajan as “a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent” (translation: “like Sargent only with decent musical tastes”).  In the same vein, on learning that Sargent’s car was caught in rifle fire in Palestine he noted, “I had no idea the Arabs were so musical.” Beecham did describe Sargent as “the greatest choirmaster we have ever produced.” And on another occasion he said that Sargent was “the most expert of all our conductors – myself excepted of course.”

Both Beecham and Sargent were born in the Victorian era, so you have a wide set of options for recipes. Here is a video for a nut and cream cheese sandwich, that is not commandingly brilliant, except that instead of instructions you have classical music accompanying the process: