York Bowen Viola Concerto (1907) The Centenary of a Minor Masterpiece

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York Bowen

Viola Concerto (1907)

The Centenary of a Minor Masterpiece

The fundamental problem with the viola is that there are few well known pieces written for it. Any listener would be able to reel off a dozen or so great violin concertos that are well established potboilers for radio producers, concert promoters and CD manufacturers. However, ask the same listener to name one viola concerto and I guess they would be stumped. Someone who was well versed in British music may well suggest Walton’s fine essay, another may recall concertante works by Ralph Vaughan Williams or perhaps even Herbert Howells. In fact there are a few dozen examples of the genre in the catalogues from a number of countries but it is fair to say that no single Viola Concerto has caught the public imagination. It is not a genre that is likely to feature in ‘One Hundred Best Tunes’ or on ‘Classic FM ‘Disc of the Month.’

However, in the past few years a couple of major early twentieth century British Viola Concertos have been presented for the first time to the CD buying public. Strangely, there are now no less than three recordings of the York Bowen work and one of that by Cecil Forsyth. These have been well received by both listeners and critic alike.

There is no doubt that we are dealing with a minor masterpiece in Bowen’s Viola Concerto in C minor Op.25. Critics have almost universally praised the appearance of this work in the concert hall and on CD. Rob Barnett writing for MusicWeb is typical. He states that the piece “exudes an opulent grandiloquence…the overriding impression is of a work of overpowering confidence.” Another on-line reviewer wrote in glowing terms that the Concerto was “…just fantastic; compelling, ceaselessly interesting from moment to moment, showing incredible imaginative resources.”

From my own point of view I recently wrote that it was “a supremely confident work” and that it is “an exceptional and deeply moving concerto which deserves to be in the repertoire.
This is not the forum to provide a detailed biography of York Bowen. However a thumbnail sketch may be of interest to those readers who may be less than familiar with this composer.
York Bowen was born in Crouch Hill, London on 22nd February 1884. He was a child prodigy, being a fine pianist at the age of eight. After studying at the Blackheath Conservatoire he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy where he studied piano and composition. At the age of twenty five he was appointed to a professorship at the Academy. Bowen managed to juggle performance, composition and teaching for the rest of his career. Until the end of the First World War he was regarded as one of the most important and influential composers in the country. York Bowen was seen to have arrived on the musical scene and nothing but triumph and success were forecast for his future career.
It seems strange, therefore, that for the past forty or years since Bowen’s death on 23rd November 1961 so little has been heard of him. In fact until the past few years only a small number of piano pieces had appeared on vinyl or CDs. I was introduced to his music by a fine old Lyrita LP of the composer playing a selection of his great Preludes for piano.

However in recent years quite a considerable part of his large catalogue of over 160 works has been released by a number of CD companies. Pride of place for this endeavour must go to Dutton Epoch.

Bowen wrote four symphonies, a similar number of piano concertos, a violin concerto, a large amount of chamber music, many piano pieces and of course the present work. Yet his name is not well known to the general listener. This is strange as once he was feted as the ‘English Rachmaninov’ – a gross over-simplification of his musical approach but nonetheless a useful stylistic marker. He was praised by Saint-Saëns and managed to impress the eccentric Sorabji. By any account he ought to be one of the better appreciated composers in the United Kingdom. Certainly his music is approachable and does not over challenge the listener. But this approachability is the problem. It could be argued that York Bowen never really changed his compositional style. He did not join or father a ‘school.’ He was not an experimentalist, a serialist or a modernist. His music is fundamentally romantic. And that was enough to consign him to oblivion long before his death.

The sleeve notes for the Hyperion recording by Lewis Foreman quotes Lionel Tertis’ memories of his first meeting with the composer, “…a talented boy in knickerbockers turned up one day with his first orchestral work.” Apparently there were some errors in the manuscript and these were picked up by the then Royal Academy principal, Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Tertis recalls that the older man “exploded in wrath…going for the boy so furiously before the orchestra that the poor little composer went away in tears.” It is interesting to recall that the instrumentalist was only eight years older than the humiliated young man.

Yet in spite of this less than auspicious first meeting Bowen and Tertis went on to become firm friends and partners in the concert halls and recital rooms.
By the time that Bowen wrote the Viola Concerto in 1907 he had performed a number of works together with Tertis – including the composer’s Romance in D for viola & piano. Recently they had toured Germany and had been a stunning success in Berlin with a concert of music by Brahms and B.J. Dale. On that occasion Bowen’s first Viola Sonata had been played to great acclaim. So it is no surprise that the 23 year old composer turned his hand to a large scale work for his friend and musical partner.
In the opening years of the 20th century Lionel Tertis lamented that there was little else for viola soloists to play other than “the inevitable Harold in Italy of Berlioz.” Unfortunately Tertis did not like this work so had to play violin concertos instead. Of course he was also an accomplished violinist and gave fine performances of the inevitable Mendelssohn and the once hugely popular Wieniawski concertos. In fact, his playing at the regular Academy Fortnightly Concerts attracted so much good attention that he was appointed Professor of Viola at the Royal Academy where he taught for many years.

However Tertis primarily wanted to make his career as a violist, yet in this aspiration he faced huge challenges. At about the turn of the 20th century he wrote, “I gave lots of [viola] recitals but the prejudice I came up against was extraordinary. Everybody seemed to be up in arms at my daring to play solos on the viola.” Tertis stated that the critics “declared that it was never meant to be, and could never be, a solo instrument…” However he was able to finish his letter positively, “…the public in general is at last beginning to take more kindly to the viola” and he concluded that “it is still much neglected as a solo instrument, but I hope some day it will find its rightful position as such. But of course there are great difficulties in the way.”

The first of the difficulties was the shortage of repertoire. In the early 1900’s Tertis had secured promises of new works from Ravel, Glazounov and Delius. However these did not materialise. He is quoted as having said that if just one of them had kept his promise it would have advanced the viola twenty five years in a single night.
Of course a number of concerted works for viola and orchestra have been composed over the years. For example J. S. Bach uses two solo violas in his Sixth Brandenburg Concerto. George Philip Telemann’s Concerto in G has a select following. Later works include those by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Carl Stamitz. The romantic era was represented by the Berlioz piece noted above and a couple of minor compositions by Max Bruch.
But finally it was British composers who began to write works specifically for Lionel Tertis. Edwin Evans quotes a list of some 21 works - both chamber and concerted - which were inspired by his magnificent playing and enthusiasm. The list reads as a desideratum for all devotees of both the viola and British music.

Evans mentions our Concerto but also includes B.J. Dale’s Suite and Arnold Bax’s Phantasy for viola and orchestra (1920). Enthusiasts are surely teased by the potential of revivals of large-scale works by J.B McEwen and Adam Carse. I guess that virtually no-one alive will have heard these two concertos and one hopes that soon an enterprising CD producer will dig out the scores and consider the possibility! Interestingly Evans omits to mention Cecil Forsyth’s Concerto in G minor which preceded Bowen’s by some five years. This work was premiered by another famous violist of the day Émile Férir. In our own day this work has received stunning reviews from music critics.

As an interesting footnote to this essay we think of one of the great ironies of musical history – William Walton’s Viola Concerto. This work was composed in 1929 at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham. The completed work was duly parcelled up and sent to Lionel Tertis who unfortunately returned it to the composer by the next post. His covering note told Walton that he deemed it too modern! Fortunately for posterity Paul Hindemith agreed to play the work and it has become established a possibly the most important Viola Concerto of the 20th century. Tertis apparently later rued his hasty error.

The present Viola Concerto in C minor of 1907 was the largest and most impressive contribution to the instrument’s literature by York Bowen. However the composer also wrote a number of chamber works for the instrument. The earliest appears to be a Fantasie for viola and organ dated 1903. In 1905 he wrote his Sonata No.1 in C minor, the same key as the concerto and the following year Sonata No.2 in F major was also performed at the Aeolian Hall. In the same year as the Concerto Bowen composed a Quartet for four violas. At the end of the First World War the Phantasy in F major appeared. Most of these works are now available in fine recordings on Dutton Epoch recordings. Every one of these pieces demands our attention and deserves to be included in the current repertoire of all viola players.

The Viola Concerto is scored for a large orchestra and is laid out in three movements.

1. Allegro assai

2. Andante cantabile

3. Allegro scherzando

It is dedicated to Lionel Tertis.
The opening is impressive – after a few bars the soloist enters with a fine theme that is both rich and lyrical. Bowen makes use of a romantic palette of orchestral colouring before the gorgeous second subject makes its appearance. The soloist muses and reflects on this lovely music before the development begins. The composer gives the soloist complex passage work supported by transparent scoring: it is a fine balance of pyrotechnics and lyricism. The two principal subjects are recapitulated in order (classically) before the movement closes with viola’s singing tune.
The Andante cantabile is basically in ternary form. The long orchestral introduction certainly has something of Debussy about it. But soon the viola enters with a heartfelt melody in the lowest register: the orchestra picks up and contemplates on this theme. There is a faster section but the music never really ceases to be reflective. A fine climax for the orchestra precedes a deep meditative soliloquy by the soloist. Soon the opening theme returns but this time it is more complex. The movement ends after a delicious little flute figure.
The last movement is really an interesting combination of scherzo and finale. Yet there is no way that the listener could regard the scherzo theme as a ‘joke.’ It requires a brilliant technique from the soloist which is wonderfully contrasted by some effective scoring. A great and quite intense orchestral passage is followed by a long cadenza. Bowen did provide a written out cadenza for this work, but recently the violist Helen Callus composed her own version. Yet it is believed that the cadenza in the score is by Lionel Tertis himself so there is good precedence for this version being used.

When the orchestra returns there is a reprise of the first theme from the first movement although this convention does not necessarily make the concerto cyclic.

The first public performance of the Viola Concerto was given on the 26th March 1908 at a Philharmonic Society concert in the Wigmore Hall. It is interesting to note the programme:-

Overture ‘Oberon’ by Weber

Viola Concerto by Bowen

Lyric Scene ‘Cleopatra’ by Berlioz

Symphony No.4 by Tchaikovsky.
The concert was due to have been conducted by the great Hans Richter, but he was indisposed and at the last minute Landon Ronald took the baton in his place.

An unsigned reviewer in the Musical Times states that the “interest of this concert centred on the new concerto,” which is no small praise when the qualities of the first and last works are considered!

A contemporary reviewer noted that unlike “a number of modern composers Mr. Bowen has not aimed merely at orchestral colouring, but has packed all his movements with melodies.” In particular he notices the lovely second subject of the first movement and the main theme of the ‘Andante.’ He further suggested that one of the skills that Bowen had as composer was the ability to devise themes and subjects “that were good for development…”
The Morning Post wrote that Bowen’s Concerto was reminiscent of Debussy and that “…the solo instrument is treated with great effect and thorough knowledge, and if the first movement seems a little unduly spun out, the ‘Andante’ is very expressive and the Finale very quaint and animated. The solo part was superbly played by Lionel Tertis.” Quaint is not an adjective that I would wish to use for any part of this work.
The Concerto was given a number of performances by the dedicatee over the following few years. As late as 1923 the work was being played at the Wigmore Hall. Tertis gave the American premiere in Chicago. However the Concerto seems to have subsequently disappeared from the repertoire.

It was revived in 2000 by Ronald Corp and the New London Orchestra and was given a memorable performance at St John’s Smith Square on 19th January. The soloist that night was Martin Outram.

Subsequently three fine recording of the work have been made and are all currently available on CD. These are cited at the end of the article.
It is never a particularly good idea to play ‘hunt the influence’ with a piece of music such as Bowen’s Viola Concerto, although it can be helpful to situate an unknown work in the listener’s mind. It is very easy in this piece to see intimations and allusions to Korngold and Bax: there are also references to Saint-Saëns, Richard Strauss and even Debussy. Nods to Elgar can be detected - but it does not really matter. It is almost always a case of ‘influence rather than imitation.’
Many years after the work was first performed Tertis was to write that he “shall always feel indebted to [York Bowen] for [his] generosity in writing compositions for the viola. [He] wrote amongst other works two sonatas, a concerto, and a quartet for four violas. Bowen was always full of exuberance and this characteristic permeated his works.” It is a worthy tribute of a great artist to an equally great composer.
The Viola Concerto is a minor masterpiece that ought to have a life of its own. Bowen was often known as the ‘English Rachmaninov’ – but it is infinitely better to take the composer on his own terms. Of course no-one writes or composes in isolation or eschews referential markers. York Bowen is a composer who well rewards exploration. He is very much his own man. The present work is a fine romantic addition not only to the catalogues of viola music but to the much wider field of British Music in particular and orchestral music in general. It demands our attention, our understanding and elicits our praise and admiration.

York BOWEN Viola Concerto in C minor Op. 25 (1907)

Viola Sonata No. 2 in F major (1911) Melody for the C string op. 51 No. 2

Doris Lederer (viola)
Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/Paul Polivnick
Bruce Murray (piano)
Recorded on 19th & 20th Nov 2004, Prague Radio Studio 1; 7 June 2004, LSU Recital Hall, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.

MusicWeb Review by Rob Barnett

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Suite for viola and orchestra (Group I only) (1934) [7:53]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra (1917) [10:37]
William WALTON (1902-1983) Viola Concerto in A minor (1928-29, rev 1962) [27:31]
York BOWEN (1884-1961) Viola Concerto in C minor, Op.25 (1907) [31:51] (cadenza by Helen Callus)
Helen Callus (viola) Solo string quartet (principals of the NZSO): Vesaa-Matti Leppanen (violin); David Gilling (violin); Vyvyan Yendoll  (viola); David Chickering (cello) New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Marc Taddei
Recorded at the Michael Fowler Center Auditorium, Wellington, New Zealand, 9th-11th February 2005. DDD

MusicWeb Review by John France

York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Viola Concerto in C minor (1907) [35:55]
Cecil FORSYTH (1870-1941)

Viola Concerto in G minor (1903) [26:25]
Lawrence Power (viola) BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Recorded at the Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland, 11th & 12th Dec 2004. DDD
HYPERION CDA 67546 [62:28]

MusicWeb Review by Rob Barnett

Select Bibliography
York Bowen - A Centenary Tribute Monica Watson Thames Publishing London 1984

Lionel Tertis: The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola John White The Boydell Press London 2006

Pen Portrait: York Bowen Clinton Gray-Fisk Musical Times December 1957

British Players and Singers III. Lionel Tertis Edwin Evans Musical Times March 1922

Various reviews in Musical Times etc.

Programme Notes from the above CDs

Programme Notes to English Music Festival Concert John France [thanks to Em Marshall for permission to use]

English Music Festival

Reviews by Rob Barnet and John France on MusicWeb

The York Bowen Society

John France 10th February 2007 

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