Rediscovering the Viola Music of York Bowen
A new late-Romantic English viola concerto has been added to the repertoire—late-Romantic because it was written in 1906, and new because it has just been published for the first time. The composer was York Bowen (1884–1961), for many years Lionel Tertis’ regular recital pianist. The Viola Concerto in C Minor, Op. 25 (published by Josef Weinberger, available for £14.95 with piano reduction from 12–14 Mortimer St., London W1N 7RD, England;  20-743-71246; www.josef-weinberger.co.uk), calls for a full complement of woodwind and brass, strings, harp, and percussion.
It was premiered on March 26, 1908, at the Queen’s Hall in London, with Lionel Tertis as soloist. The Morning Post found the work "very modern in spirit" and "admirably scored," with "effects here and there which remind one of Debussy." (The critic probably had in mind Bowen’s occasional use of the whole-tone scale.) In conclusion, he noted that "the solo part was superbly played by Lionel Tertis." Harry Danks, former principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and one-time student of Tertis, recalls that Tertis held Bowen in high regard and often spoke of the work. In fact, Tertis gave the concerto its American premiere in Chicago on his 1923–24 tour, but there is no record of any public performance after 1925.
I am indebted to John White, whose biography of Lionel Tertis is in preparation, for information about Tertis and Bowen; his article "York Bowen’s Viola Music: a Centenary Tribute" is published by Bärenreiter in The Yearbook of the International Viola Society, 1983–. His talk on Bax, Bowen, and Dale, given at the 19th International Viola Congress in 1991, is published by the American Viola Society (contact the AVS at www.viola.com/avs). And an article entitled "The Viola Music of York Bowen" appears in An Anthology of British Viola Players, edited by John White (Comus, 1997). For further information on Bowen and his work, visit the York Bowen Society or contact founder and administrator John Lindsay at Cairnbield, Gordon, Berwickshire TD3 6JT, England; (44) 1573-410380.
However, the work was resurrected and performed in 1993, during the 21st International Viola Congress at Northwestern University in Illinois, with the late Rosemary Glyde as soloist. England had to wait a few more years to hear it, but on January 19, 2000, it was performed by Martin Outram and the New London Orchestra under Ronald Corp at St. John’s, Smith Square, London.
Despite the scoring for large orchestra, the solo part predominates—a tribute to the quality of the orchestration. Bowen’s sensitivity to instrumental color and the timbre of different registers makes his music especially rewarding to play. He himself played two orchestral instruments, horn and viola, and was also an accomplished organist. On one occasion, standing in for a colleague at short notice, he improvised an entire organ recital. He used fictitious composers’ names to disguise the feat, and apparently no one realized what he’d done! It seems that he was as shy as an improviser as Fritz Kreisler was as a composer.
Kreisler, incidentally, was one of several distinguished violinists who knew and performed Bowen’s music. According to York Bowen: A Centenary Tribute (Thames Publishing, 1984), an engaging and eminently readable biography by Bowen’s friend and former pupil Monica Watson, he played the Suite for Violin, a work that also found its way into the repertoire of Joseph Szigeti and Efrem Zimbalist and reportedly attracted the enthusiasm of Leopold Auer. Saint-Saëns described Bowen as "the most remarkable of the young British composers.
"Watson’s book lists some 300 orchestral, chamber, and vocal compositions by Bowen. Most of them are no longer in print—or were never published—but the Royal Academy of Music (Marylebone Rd., London) houses many original Bowen autograph manuscripts. A complete list of Bowen's viola works appears at the end of this article.
The meager 11 lines accorded to Bowen in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians do scant justice to his stature as a musician. He was a pianist admired as much for his musical feeling as for his fluency of technique, although his daily bread was earned at the Royal Academy of Music, where he taught for 50 years (1909–59). When he left it was not to retire from music, for he went on to give the first performance of his Fourth Piano Concerto, a work composed 30 years earlier, at a Promenade Concert in London.
The London Times critic wrote, "No contemporary British composer has been as prolific, we believe, as York Bowen, whose 75th birthday earlier this year was recognized at last night’s Prom in the Albert Hall, when he played the solo part in his own Fourth Piano Concerto. It is a post-Romantic concerto in the Rachmaninov tradition, with a flamboyant piano part which the stalwart veteran played clearly and restfully, in a manner that many younger pianists might envy."
Bowen never aspired to write in an avant-garde style. Nor, however, was he happy to be labeled a Romantic. A review of his Organ Fantasia in G Minor drew forth the frosty comment, "I refuse to take any notice of ordinary newspaper critics—and no wonder! I don’t think my organ piece is ‘romantic’ at all anyway—it is quite severe in parts! Silly asses!" An interview published in Donald Brook’s Composers’ Gallery (Rockliff, 1946) throws light on his philosophy of contemporary music. "I have no use for the arguments of people who try to excuse ugly music on the grounds that it expresses the ugly age in which we are living at the present time. If modern life is ugly, then there is all the more reason why music should bring beauty into it."
Bowen’s C-Minor Viola Concerto not only is a work of beauty, but also demonstrates a technical skill remarkable for a 22-year-old composer. It is in three substantial movements, totaling about 30 minutes. Bowen observes the principles of classical concerto form, but broadly rather than slavishly. The first movement has no separate orchestral exposition. The solo viola enters after one bar to state the main theme, which rises from an open C. The second subject is in D major, and with this climate change comes a new warmth and sense of ecstasy.
At the emotional heart of the work lies the slow movement: 15 beautifully scored introductory bars, culminating in a horn solo, set the scene for a deeply expressive melody, played on the viola’s C and G strings. Many different moods are present in this movement, which come to fruition in an intense and impassioned climax. The Finale introduces pungent and witty motifs, changing the musical character yet again. A fine cadenza places new demands on the soloist in the final moments of the work.
Those looking for influences in the music of the concerto may detect traces of Wagner or Strauss, especially in the lush orchestration, but the strongest element is the genuine originality of Bowen’s style. The piano reduction made by the composer is magnificent; it would be hard to find a more rewarding piano version of a concerto. It is hardly a transcription, more a viola and piano work in its own right that would not be out of place in a recital, in accordance with the habit of the day.
Bowen’s repertoire for viola is beginning to attract the attention of performers. There are two lively and imaginative Sonatas, Op. 18 and Op. 22 (Schott, $40 for the first), and a spacious Phantasy in F Major, Op. 54 (available from Josef Weinberger, £9.50), all early works. There are two small Melodies, Op. 47 and Op. 51, No. 2, first published in 1923 and soon to be available from Josef Weinberger (£9.50 each, with piano part). And there is a vigorous Rhapsody with a touching slow section dating from 1955 (Josef Weinberger, £9.50 with piano). More unusual are works available only in manuscript: the 1957 Three Pieces for Viola d’Amore and Piano, Op. 153, and a Fantasia for Four Violas Op. 41, No. 1, composed in 1907. There also exist duos for two violas and for violin and viola, as well as a fragment of a viola obbligato to the first movement of Beethoven’s "Moonlight" Sonata—an intriguing pre-echo of the Shostakovich Sonata.
Musical fashion has not been favorable to romantic expression in the 20th century. But the new millennium offers an opportunity to consider whether, as victims of our self-imposed restraint, we may not have denied ourselves some fine, artistic works. Those who have experienced York Bowen’s music have found that its feeling and emotion reach beyond its own era.