Saturday, 25 July 2009

Walter Wilson Cobbett: Apostle of Chamber Music.

I recently read this (another!) excellent article about the great champion of chamber music in the United Kingdom Walter Wilson Cobbett, by the great critic Marion M. Scott. It orignally appeared in the Chrisitan Science Monitor in March 3, 1923.

To an imaginative student of musical history the great Viennese composers appear to move against a background of cultivated appreciation, sympathy, and encouragement supplied by the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. Prince Esterhazy, the Archduke Rudolph, Prince Lichnowsky, and many others are indissolubly linked with one of the greatest periods in music by the support and close cooperation they gave to the musicians of their day. They literally helped to make the period. Later, times changed. It became fashionable to repudiate patrons and to assert instead the Spartan value of independence. What did musicians want with patrons! But further experience of modern conditions shows that patrons can be as useful as ever provide they are of the right sort, and British music owes much to the beneficent activities of some distinguished amateurs who have patiently devoted themselves and their wealth to helping music.
Lord Howard de Walden, Sir Ernest Palmer, Bart, and Walter Wilson Cobbett, are some of the men whose names should stand beside those of Archduke Rudolph and Prince Lichnowsky for their fruitful work. Not long ago a music correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor sought an interview with Mr. Cobbett. It was given at his home one December morning, when the garden – in London as rare luxury –showed still green through the window of the drawing room. And what a characteristic room it was: large, but not over large, furnished in the French style; a room that might well have formed the setting for Prince Lichnowsky’s weekly quartet parties and which, in fact, is constantly used for chamber music.
All the best known British professionals and amateurs are welcome guests here, besides many distinguished foreign players and composers. As an instance of this it may be mentioned that Mischa Elman had his first experience in quartet playing when with Mr. Cobbett.
In Mr. Cobbett’s study were further signs of his tastes. Two violin cases containing his favourite instruments, books on music, a desk –and (typical of his alert outlook on modern music) the score of Zoltan Kodaly’s Quartets lying on the table. At every turn one felt the culture, wise eagerness, enthusiasm, and generosity of this man, who has spent long years in evangelising England for chamber music. His artistic creed is simple and conclusive. If, as practically all musicians agree, chamber music is the purest, most altruistic from of the art, then the more widely it is known and practiced the better for everyone. “There must be something in it, for every year it seems more wonderful to me,” he said. The interviewer was anxious to know what had first turned his thoughts toward it, and gathered that the old ‘Monday Pops’ at St. James Hall had been responsible. He had not learned music as a child, and consequently when he began to study the violin comparatively late, he had to practice doubly hard to attain his technique.
His love of chamber music has splendid results. Though prepared to find the list of his activities as long one, the interviewer was amazed as item was jotted down in the catalogue- even then left incomplete, for, as Mr. Cobbett said with a laugh, “I’ve forgotten a lot of them myself.”
To enumerate them in a single article is impossible, but, broadly speaking, his work (beyond home) has run in three channels: (1) Promoting composition and performance of chamber music, and the construction of instruments for the string quartet; (2) literary work; (3) work on committees. Everything he has done has been done thoroughly. Take for instance his Chamber Music, a paper which, though nominally a supplement to The Music Student, was practically a separate magazine, and was the only thing of its kind in the world. His chamber music competitions, however, are the things by which he is best known. The wise lines on which they are planned, and the liberal prizes offered, have attracted the right sort of competitors: and to be a Cobbett prize man is recognised as a distinction of lasting value. The first of the competitions was organised in 1905, in conjunction with the Worshipful Company of Musicians, an old London City guild of which Mr. Cobbett is a member. It was for a phantasy string quartet, and this revival of the old English form of the ‘Fancy’ was also due to Mr. Cobbett’s recognition of the need for short chamber works which should be complete in themselves.
The competition in 1907, for a phantasy trio, was carried off by Frank Bridge. Later came one for a sonata (in full sonata form) which went to John Ireland.
Then followed a most interesting set of commissions for chamber works, of which one of the most notable results was the exquisite Phantasy String Quintet by Vaughan Williams.
Despite the war and despite much work designed to meet the special needs of the time, Mr. Cobbett carried on his main activities, and latterly has enlarged their scope by various competitions for different teams of chamber music players at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal college of Music.
M.M.S London February 24th

Marion M. Scott (MMS) The Christian Science Monitor March 3, 1923, p. 16 (with a few minor edits)
[With thanks to Pamela Blevins]


S.Connor said...

Thank you for resurrecting this article on W.W.Cobbett.I have been trying to find out the background to the Phantasy / fantasy quartets written for the competition, and am delighted to have something contemporary about the founder. So interesting and useful to me too!

S.Connor said...

Thank you for posting this article. I have been searching for what seemed to be elusive information, and suddenly you have given me so much in this article. I am very grateful.
The background to the competition is perfect. What a great man Cobbett was to have done so much lasting good.
S. Connor

S.Connor said...

Thank you or posting this informative article.
I have been hunting for background material on the founder of the competition for some time!