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There was one concert where it was announced that Beecham was ill. 'A Royal Philharmonic Society event at the Queen's Hall with the LSO and Casals as soloist, when John stood in. He was always close to the orchestra, and they wanted him to join them on several occasions. But he never wished to leave the Hall. It became his musical child.' The Barbirolli photo at his desk at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden that appears in a biography published some years back was taken when he was their Guest Conductor. 'Later, he conducted Callas in performances there, but in the 30s he had British singers, mainly.' There was Puccini's Tosca, Turandot and Madame Butterfly. And he directed a performance of Smetana's The Bartered Bride, the first ever in English!

'That's when I had my audition! After a stint conducting for Carl Rosa, it became known for a short time as the Covent Garden Touring Orchestra. But the whole thing collapsed -- a shame, because we had some quite good singers, like Percy Heming, Gladys Parr and Heddle Nash.' ... And Tudor Davies, Miriam Licette. A conducting career so brimful with incidents, that I find it hard to document it accurately, or sort it into strict running order. 'That's right; and there were the seven years he spent in America. Most people didn't realize just how long he was there. He went to the New York Philharmonic after they agreed to release him from the Scottish. And we had George Szell for half that season.'

'That was a change. And he asked me to marry him.' Good Heavens! 'Yes, he took me out to dinner on several occasions. It was rather nice in those days, as I hadn't much money. He wrote me a piece of music. Rather Straussian. When John came back, he tore it up. (Regretfully.) I think he was rather bothered by it. It was no relationship at all. I was only just a kid in the orchestra, and I think he was just lonely. A strange man -- a very good musician, and intelligent.' Part Czech, part Hungarian. 'He always said he was Czech, but I doubted it. He could be difficult.'

'Did you know I was offered the job of Principal Oboe in Beecham's London Philharmonic Orchestra? It was because Leon Goossens was away so much doing solo work. Of course, what it meant was that I was able to take over when he wasn't there, but Leon might not have given me any notice. I hadn't been playing that long. Anyhow, I decided not to accept, as I didn't know the repertory. And, Beecham's conducting? -- Ha, if you didn't know, it was enough to put the fear of God up you! I did a couple of concerts with him in Brighton. Semi-amateur -- that sort of thing. And I was always terrified, as I never knew what he was doing! But it was always lovely, as long as you knew.' And he had this enormous talent. 'Oh, yes ... John always called him "That Amateur of Genius". Both of us realized that he never fully used the talents he was given, and if Beecham sometimes didn't feel like it he didn't care and the performance was terrible. If he cared, it would be wonderful. A strange man.' Orchestra members loved him, especially Jack Brymer, Geoffrey Gilbert and Terence Macdonagh -- all, sadly no longer with us.

Gwydion Brooke recounted several affectionate memories after a concert, recently. 'We gave a series of talks together -- but I haven't seen him since then.' I related (to her amusement) the story of Gwyd shifting the microphone away from above his head during the EMI Mozart Bassoon Concerto recording, with an unconcerned Beecham conducting. 'He is obviously very old; we must be about the same age, more or less. Bassoonists can also be difficult. Cecil James was another. I was very fond of Cecil because his wife, Natalie and I were so close. But, my goodness, he could be awkward.'

'They married in the Glyndebourne days and stayed at The White Hart. They both played in the orchestra, so I too lost a friend as we also shared a room. I went to see her the other day, but oh, dear, I won't go again. She's so senile, but very sweet ... and very happy. I talked to her about old times -- as I thought this might get her going. But she kept saying: 'Now, I have forgotten who you are!' She obviously didn't know me, and it didn't mean anything to her when I'd gone. She is perfectly content. I had taken a taxi over there, and I thought we would just happily reminisce. Perhaps, take her out for a meal. Hopeless ...'

Lady Barbirolli with her gardener John. Photo © Bill Newman
Lady Barbirolli with her gardener John. Photo © Bill Newman

'Is that you, John? Come in!' Enter Gardener John (you will see him in the photo with some courgettes he has just gathered, his back pocket stuffed with beans).

Having established that no further copies of the ten minute Szell piece for oboe and piano exist, the Rubbra Sonata is still highly thought of. 'Benjamin Britten promised me a work, but it never materialized. We were at college together. Meditations on Ovid came later -- I used to play it a lot. Joy Boughton did the first performance, and then the composer wanted them to be played on the lake at The Snape, Maltings. Joy eventually got on a raft, and it was rocking all over the place. Anyway, she was very determined. Eventually, they compromised -- she played on one bank to the audience on the other. Playing across the water, so to speak! Of course, Britten had to give in. Joy died far too young. I went through them with Ben. He didn't put in any metronome markings. Heinz Holliger then performed them, and Ben complained that they were all at the wrong tempi. Eventually he submitted, and Boosey & Hawkes republished them with the correct indications. This gave them their true character, which was generally helpful to performers. As usual, Britten did his job very skilfully.'

'Gordon Jacob wrote me a fine Oboe Concerto which is seldom played nowadays'. Jacob is unjustly neglected as a composer. 'I cannot think of anyone else at the moment.'

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Copyright © 26 December 2004 Bill Newman, Edgware UK


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