Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham debuts with Seattle Symphony Orchestra on October 20, 1941.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 7/04/2002
  • Essay 3877

On October 20, 1941, world-famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) makes his debut with Seattle Symphony Orchestra. After leading a week's worth of rehearsals at Seattle's Eagles Hall, the famously temperamental British star disappoints no one with a well-attended concert -- the opening event of the orchestra's 28th season -- at the Music Hall Theater.

World-Class Music, World-Class Tantrum

In addition to leading a fine concert, Beecham also treated that night's audience to one of his famous outbursts. As the Post-Intelligencer noted, in reaction to the minute sound of a newspaper photographer's shutter clicking, mid-song:

"Sir Thomas" celebrated baton cracked smartly against a music stand and deathless silence descended on orchestra and audience alike. Sir Thomas whirled toward the odious sound. His goatee quivered and his eyes flashed. 'You can go home, now!' he barked at the hapless photographer, 'you are an insult to the audience!' [Art] French sat stunned for an instant. 'You go home!' Sir Thomas barked again. Muttering 'I'm sorry,' French gathered his equipment and left that place fast. 'You ought to be sorry,' Sir Thomas shot after him. Then turning to the audience he made a courtly bow and said with wonderful restraint after the bad moment: 'With your kind permission, ladies and gentlemen, I will play this piece again.' The audience burst into applause" (P-I, October 21, 1941).

A Cultural "Dustbin"

Widely known for his sharp tongue, Beecham's most infamous local quip was one directed towards his own audience -- Seattle's arts patrons. There has been much debate over the years as to what he said exactly, but original news coverage of the incident was quite consistent in quoting his remarks.

On the evening of Friday November 14, 1941, the British-American War Relief Association held a benefit event at Seattle's Washington Athletic Club on behalf of the Ormond St. Children's Hospital in London. It was during Beecham's after-dinner speech there that he "took the opportunity -- one he seemed to relish -- to tell Seattle what's wrong with their music," as the Post-Intelligencer put it.

The Seattle Star chimed in, noting that:

"It was inevitable that Sir Thomas BeechamĀ  would comment some time on this city's musical culture. Always outspoken, it is customary for him to tell most cities he visits what is wrong with them from an artistic standpoint. 'If I were a member of this community,' Sir Thomas said, 'really I should get weary of being looked on as a sort of aesthetic dustbin'" (Seattle Star, November 15, 1941).

Ever helpful, Beecham further stated that if locals chose to increase their support of the symphony, he would happily lead it to greatness.

The Post-Intelligencer quoted his offer to Seattle:

"Here you are young, fresh, with something of the spring of life in your blood. Make yourselves a little model unto this country. Set your shoulder to the task. If you are willing to do this, I am prepared and willing, not thinking of reward or return, to give you the benefit of my experience. When it is finished there will be nothing superior in this country. Think it over" (P-I, November 15, 1941).

A War of Words

Almost from the very moment he arrived in Seattle, the opinionated conductor managed to ruffle feathers all around town. In particular, his comments aimed towards music critics at various local newspapers were correctly taken as insults. A battle soon commenced.

Beecham's mercurial nature was noted in articles that bore headlines along the lines of" New Symphony Leader Man of Many Moods and Fire" and "Beecham, Bad Boy of Baton." Another -- an editorial in ETC. magazine titled "COLOR ... or Bad Temper" -- really took him to task:

"Sir Thomas is here because, in his estimation, he is playing his roadshow to the sticks. He's a one-man roadshow, and he has a new audience. He can do his podium rhumba, and it's the talk of the town. He can bid the local citizens to jump through a hoop, and they do. His pajamas and his goatee, his temper and his gestures, are front page news, and Sir Thomas is undoubtedly having a whale of a good time about it all. All these goings-on come under the heading of 'color,' and no director, no matter how good a musician, ever got anywhere without color. It's a good thing, because when a conductor has the goods to deliver -- and Beecham has -- the personal slapdashery comes as an added bonus to the audience. Unfortunately it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between 'color' and just plain bad temper..." (Etc.)

In the midst of international headlines about Beecham's tax problems in England and news of his failing marriage, the maestro suddenly resigned from the symphony in the middle of the 1943 season and departed the Pacific Northwest.

Sir Beecham's Return

Two decades later, in February 1960, he returned to Seattle to lead a couple of concerts while the current conductor, Milton Katims (1909-2006), was off guest-conducting in Europe. During those years away, Beecham's attitude and opinions apparently hadn't softened one bit, though his general disdain had apparently broadened. During an interview, he stated that the entire United States is "an esthetic dustbin."

He did, however, deign to offer an apology of sorts to his host city even though he couldn't resist lobbing yet another barb towards his old foes in the media, saying "I withdraw my remark about Seattle. But, sir, the damn town would still be a musical dustbin if those ignorant, nasty critics were about."

One year later, Sir Thomas Beecham died at the age of 81 in London, England.


The Seattle Times, October 12, 1941, p. 1; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 14, 1941; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 21, 1941; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 15, 1941, p. 5; Seattle Star, November 15, 1941, p. 5; ETC., Vol. 3, No. 8 (October 11, 1941), p. 2-3; Sunday Oregonian, February 22, 1942; The Seattle Times, March 8, 1961, p. 20; Esther W. Campbell, Bagpipes In The Woodwind Section (Seattle: Seattle Symphony Women's Association, 1978), 38-39, 122, 130; Hans & Thelma Lehmann, Out Of The Cultural Dustbin: Sentimental Musings on the Arts & Music in Seattle from 1936 to 1992 (Seattle: Crowley Associates Inc., 1992), 23-24.

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