Beecham’s Lonely Elijah
by Charles A. Hooey
Early in March 1918, it was business as usual for an active Sir Thomas Beecham, especially at Drury Lane where he had his hands full guiding his opera company through its paces. That meant an Aida on 2 March, The Marriage of Figaro on the 6th and the double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci on the 7th, all of which he conducted. He was also busy recording. On top of all this, he was due in his home city of Manchester for a concert of Handel’s music on 9 March.
When he arrived, he found there was no music for either orchestra or chorus and planners had arranged a substitution. Fortunately the Musical Times sent a critic who provided the following review on 1 April 1918:
“The novelties this season have been uniformly well-played, and this was no exception to the rule. For the expected performance of selections from Handel’s Solomon on March 9, there was substituted `Elijah‘, with Misses Caroline Hatchard and Margaret Balfour, and Messrs Walter Hyde and Norman Allin as soloists. If Sir Thomas Beecham aspires to the dramatization of concert performances of certain oratorios he will find it necessary to rehearse for these as fully as for opera. However well choral-singers may know their parts, new ideas cannot be instilled at one rehearsal. Some of his intentions were realised, but more were not, and very uneven results in actual performance ensued. `Lift thine eyes‘ was heard `off,’ but here faulty pitch spoiled a good idea. Miss Gwladys Roberts as the Youth got as far away as she could short of going into the organ loft, and here the lontano effect was realised. `Thanks be to God’ was exciting; was it not rather meant to be noble? The most superb singing was in the Sanctus, where, for once, we got a perfectly blended and balanced double quartet. Miss Caroline Hatchard and Mr. Norman Allin clearly revealed themselves as being in the true succession of oratorio soloists, if the future should hold any hope for this type of choral work.”
In truth, there were rough edges due to a lack of rehearsal time, but under the circumstances it was amazing things went so well. Afterwards in high excitement, the maestro scribbled a note on a programme (see left) and sent it to his soprano, “To my charming friend Caroline Hatchard (after my first Elijah).” His first Elijah! Imagine that! No mere mortal could prepare and present a major work like this at more or less the drop of a hat, but there was nothing ordinary about Tommy Beecham. Afterwards he hustled back to London and at Queen’s Hall on 11 March he led a concert of music by Beethoven, Elgar and Dvorak together with the first performance of Julius Harrison’s tone poem, “Rapunzel“. All within nine days.
In this Elijah it was the vocalists who excelled so let’s meet them. The soprano was none other than Caroline Hatchard (right), now a familiar figure. She was born in 1883 the fourth of five daughters of Lillian and George Hatchard. They grew up within sight and sound of the mighty warships anchored in Portsmouth harbour. Although both parents were non-musical, four of the girls were decidedly gifted, especially Caroline whose beautiful voice was a source of wonder to all. She began in opera in Hänsel und Gretel, Tannhäuser, Faust, La Traviata and Armide, and in all four operas of Wagner’s Ring when it was given in English at Covent Garden early in 1908. Always eager to support English composers, she sang in such diverse works as Liza Lehmann’s `In a Persian Garden,’ Coleridge-Taylor’s `Hiawatha‘ and `A Tale of Old Japan,‘ Parry’s `War and Peace,’ Sullivan’s `Golden Legend‘ and Elgar’s `Spirit of England.‘ In oratorio, judge for yourself from these words by the Manchester Guardian’s fire-breathing Samuel Langford after a Messiah in 1926: “It was one of those fortunate evenings when we may think the voice of Miss Caroline Hatchard the only soprano voice in England.”
The principal contralto on this occasion was Margaret Balfour (left) who is believed to have taken her first breath in 1892. She was no stranger to Elijah, having appeared in it in Nottingham in 1914. This city was also the scene of a Faust in concert on 16 November 1916 in which Margaret doubled as Siebel and Martha, acquitting herself well in both, vastly different though the music was. And Marguerite? Why she was the ever-charming Miss Hatchard!
More opera in concert was in the cards on 2 March 1923 when, with the Hull Harmonic Society, she sang in Aida as Amneris with Carrie Tubb, Webster Millar and Frederick Ranalow. By and large, though, her calendar bulged with Handel and Bach. She can be heard in the first recording of the latter’s Mass in B Minor from 1929 and in excerpts of a live Dream of Gerontius conducted in 1927 by the composer, Sir Edward Elgar. In the Elgar, “her `Farewell’ is sung with gorgeous, velvety tone. The timbre of the voice itself is of a type which is rarely heard these days.” Both works were reissued on CD by PEARL. She also recorded several songs including two of Elgar’s Sea Pictures and `The sands o’ Dee‘ by Clay.
In the 1940s, Caroline Hatchard was visiting her son Ewen in hospital when a rather petite lady, crowned by a dazzling headpiece, swept in and headed for the chap in the adjoining bed. Looking up, Caroline leapt up and embraced the newcomer who was of course none other than a cheery Margaret Balfour. The old campaigners happily reminisced while the patients, now totally ignored, looked on in amusement.
Tenor Walter Hyde (1875-1951, right) was a hugely popular figure in English music, then in his prime. He had been plucked from musical comedy to sing Siegmund in the English Ring so no wonder everyone was overwhelmed by how ideal he was. He excelled in many operatic roles – the epitome of the Hyde and Jekyll pairing – almost but as there was no malice, not really so. He was truly a chameleon, the heroic Siegmund one evening, the next a comic Pedrillo in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. Amongst his 173 records, “Winterstürme” from Die Walküre sung in English, recalls his halcyon days. It can be found in Pearl’s Covent Garden CD collection and on the Hyde CD issued by Cheyne Records.
Basso Norman Allin (1884-1973, left) was starting to make his presence felt, having “arrived” at Covent Garden as the Old Hebrew in Samson et Dalila on 15 October, 1916. For awhile he deferred to the famous Robert Radford, but gradually the two became equals and friends, even appearing together as Fafner and Fasolt in The Ring and as Dodon and Polkan in Rimsky Korsakoff’s Golden Cockerel. Gurnemanz, Ochs and Ramphis were Allin’s most frequent assignments. Another great effort came with the British National Opera as Arkel in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with Walter Hyde and Maggie Teyte. His 168 records include Bartolo in the famous Glyndebourne recording of Le Nozze di Figaro. On CD, Cheyne has more opera than Greenhorn with its array of delicious ballads – “The Diver,” “Asleep in the Deep” and the like.
Gwladys Roberts (1882-1957) was from Llanelli in Wales. When still a young artist, Gwladys’s talent was noticed by the legendary Australian soprano, Nellie Melba who urged her to go to Italy to study, even offering to look after her living expenses. Gwladys was a comely miss and perhaps her man frowned upon the idea for she rejected the offer in favor of his hand in marriage. The diva never spoke to her again. Well known as a ballad singer and in oratorio, she occasionally had a turn in opera. For the 1909 revival of the English Ring, she was Grimgerde in The Valkyrie, a role she repeated in German that summer and again in 1912. Among a few records she left, look for “Violets” by Ellen Wright, “Still as the Night” by Böhm and “Prayer to St. Valentine” with Denise Orme.
As for Elijah, I became curious about Beecham’s involvement with this music. Just how often did he conduct it? Seeking an answer, I consulted the monumental research of Messrs Parker and Benson and to my utter amazement, I found no other performance! It seems he was set to conduct Elijah in Liverpool on 20 March 1934 but at the eleventh hour he withdrew in favor of the chorus master, Dr. J. E. Wallace. Possibly, aware how versed choral societies were in this music, Beecham felt his action would promote the local cause.
With no other Elijahs, what can be made of Beecham’s apparent exhilaration in his words to Caroline? It must have been the heat of the moment and in fact, he didn’t care for Elijah at all. The composer’s other music fared better.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was a precocious lad who by his wizardry at the pianoforte brought hours of pleasure to the aging Goethe. In his teens, he was blown away by the imagery in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in a burst of creative energy, he penned an overture with a unique silken texture. It became instantly popular. A few years later, he visited Fingal’s Cave in the Hebrides, and again inspired by the magical enchantment of the Celtic atmosphere and its legends, he completed incidental music for Night’s Dream and an overture to celebrate The Hebrides. No wonder this music appealed to British audiences.
Intriguingly, Beecham used a Mendelssohn overture, in this case Ruy Blas to open the first concert he gave in St. Helen’s on 8 November 1899. He also ushered Osbourne Edmundson on stage to play Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto.
Once the maestro realized Mendelssohn’s overtures were sure-fire crowd-pleasers, he began opening his concerts with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Hebrides – I counted nineteen times for each – along with Ruy Blas. The Scherzo from “Dream” was also prominent, first in 1909 and subsequently in at least eight other concerts. Later, he evinced an interest in the overture “The Fair Melusine,” introducing it on 14 September, 1947 at Southend-on-Sea and then giving it six more times in rapid order. For meatier Mendelssohn, he selected from the following music:
Concerto in e for violin and orchestra, Op. 64
Beecham first offered this music on 4 May 1907 at a Queen’s Hall Concert under the patronage of HM Queen Alexandra with a pint-sized Hungarian prodigy, Franz von Veczey, then a wiry 14 year old, as soloist. Under Beecham’s baton, a parade of famous and not-so famous fiddlers tackled the concerto: Mischa Elman (1908), Margaret Fairless (1917), Erica Morini (1934), Adolph Busch (1935), Nathan Milstein (1937), Samuel Dushkin (1938) and Lyndall Henrickson (1940 in Sydney, Australia). Albert Sammons played the finale when he auditioned for the post of First Violin in Beecham’s new orchestra, then faced the complete work in 1911. Beecham chose to record the concerto late in September 1933 with Joseph Szigeti as soloist, producing a piece of magic that George Szell viewed as classic. But in June 1949, he chose to record it again this time with Jascha Heifetz.
Symphony No. 3 in a, Op. 56 (Scottish)
TB must have had limited interest in this work for he gave it only in a Seattle concert in 1943, again in London in 1947 and fittingly in Glasgow in 1948.
Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 (Italian)
In 1830, at age twenty-one, Mendelssohn spent several months in Italy. The experience found expression in the “Italian” Symphony that he introduced during a concert in London on 13 May 1834. One hundred years later, Beecham included the Italian in concerts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Dudley, and four days later in Queen’s Hall, London. Over the next few years he offered it in Manchester, at Covent Garden, in Liverpool and in Perth, Australia, culminating in a recording session in New York on 15 June 1942. While in the US, he led the symphony at Salt Lake City, Utah and in Seattle. He revived it on 3 November 1951 in Royal Festival Hall at a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Then on tour, he gave it in Coventry, Bristol, Cardiff, Dundee and Blackburn. Recording continued a week prior to Christmas and in May/June 1952.
Symphony No. 5 in d, Op 107 (Reformation)
During the summer of 1945, Beecham gave the “Reformation” high priority while planning a concert tour with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He gave it first on 10 August for an audience assembled in Central Hall, Bristol, then in Walthamstow on the 16th. Immediately Beecham became involved in recording the Reformation making an initial stab at Kingsway Hall on 17th and 20th August. Three further sessions were needed to complete the task. Then back to live activity he offered the symphony at the Royal Albert Hall in London, in Antwerp, Brussels, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The Concertos for Piano and Orchestra, No. 1, Op. 25 and No. 2, Op 40.
Having included the First Concerto at his debut, Beecham waited until 29 January 1917 to give it again, this time at a Royal Philharmonic Concert in Queen’s Hall with ultra eccentric Vladimir de Pachmann as soloist. He returned to this hall on 11 December 1932 for a Sunday afternoon concert with the London Philharmonic, the highlight being the Second Concerto with Friedrich Wuhrer at the piano.
The crowning moment for this composer insofar as Beecham was concerned came during the Mendelssohn Commemoration Concert at Drury Lane on 2 November 1947. The maestro lifted his baton to conduct the Fair Melusine overture, followed with Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Scherzo, Octet in G Minor, the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Albert Ferber and finally the Scottish Symphony.
With Elijah and Messiah arguably the most popular choral works in Britain, every music society prided itself on their ability to deliver each with ease. With Messiah, Beecham had sheared away centuries of obfuscation to create a sprightly version that re-awakened interest in this hoary work. Not so with Elijah. He had been conducting for twenty years before he came face-to-face with this music and then only because he was maneuvered into the task in Manchester.
In Chicago on 20 March 1960, at almost his last hurrah, he led off with The Hebrides overture. The great feast of music was shared by thousands through the magic of television. So, wonder of wonders, Mendelssohn was on his mind at the outset of his career and at the end! But what about poor Elijah?
I asked onetime Beecham associate Denham Ford to explain the conductor’s apparent disinterest in Elijah. His reaction: “One can speculate forever on why Beecham did not conduct the work more often. Perhaps he regarded it as a bit of Victoriana. It has rarely been performed by professional bodies here though amateur choirs still feature it occasionally.”
While no Beecham Elijah exists, it is possible to hear the first recording (1930) with Isobel Baillie, Parry Jones, Harold Williams, Clara Serena & the BBC National Orch. led by Stanford Robinson. It occupies Divine Art CD 27802.
It is also possible to hear TB’s principal artists on CD in other music:
Bach: Mass in B Minor + other Bach with Elisabeth Schumann, Friedrich Schorr, Walter Widdop and Margaret Balfour; cond. Albert Coates, recorded Mar/Apr 1929 PEARL GEMM CDS 9900*
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius excerpts with Margaret Balfour, Steuart Wilson, Herbert Heyner; cond. Sir Edward Elgar, Royal Albert Hall (live) 26 Feb. 1927 OPAL CD 9810*
Norman Allin “The Mighty Deep” Greenhorn CD 0005
Norman Allin Cheyne Records, CHE 44398
Caroline Hatchard: The Creation aria + The Beautiful Land of Nod. RECORD COLLECTOR CD TRC 18.
Walter Hyde Cheyne Records CHE 44420
Vladimir de Pachmann Pearl OPAL CD 9840
Franz von Vecsey Pearl GEMM CD 9498
The Szigeti/Beecham Recordings Pearl GEMM CD 9377; EMI Classics CDH-64562
Many thanks to Tony Benson, Denham Ford, Ewen Langford, Graham Oakes and Wayne Turner for their helpful contributions. Uncredited quotations are from The Musical Times.
Principal information source
Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart, C.H. (1879-1961)- A Calendar of Concert and Theatrical Performances (1985) by Maurice Parker and Supplement by Tony Benson (1990).