Thursday, 17 July 2014

York Bowen: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery'

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of musicians and authors. Clearly he had met these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests. Sir Granville Bantock endorsed Composer’ Gallery by insisting that it ‘will be welcomed by music lovers and the larger public throughout the civilised world.
On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second hand books about music that I bought in the days before the internet, it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music. Back, then, in 1972, it seemed unlikely that I would have the opportunity to hear many of the works alluded in the text. Fortunately, in the case of York Bowen, the listener has been blessed by a wide range of recordings examining the orchestral, chamber and piano music achievement by this once-forgotten composer. I present Brook’s pen-portrait without comment or commentary.

The late Sir Henry Wood used to say that York Bowen was one of the British composers who have never taken the position they deserve. I am not going to suggest any reasons for this, because I have insufficient space here to indulge in musical controversies, and besides, the recognition of contemporary British composers is likely to remain a painful subject until as a nation we finally rid ourselves of our shop-keeping reputation. As a pianist, however, York Bowen's brilliance is generally acknowledged, and if we don't hear him often enough in the concert hall or on the radio, the explanation is that he is engrossed in his work as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music.
He was born at Crouch Hill, London, on February 22nd 1884, and gave his first public performance at the age of eight and a half when he played a Dussek piano concerto at Camden. He certainly had remarkable ability as a child, but he is profoundly thankful that his parents did not exploit him as an infant prodigy; and instead, encouraged him to make a thorough study of music before attempting any more public work.
From the Blackheath Conservatoire he went to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied for seven years, gaining two scholarships for the piano, and several prizes for performance and composition. He attributes much of his success to the superb teaching of Tobias Matthay, and he is proud that all his musical education was gained in this country.
He gave his first recital as an adult at the Wigmore Hall, and was still in his ‘teens’ when Sir Henry Wood invited him to play his own first piano concerto at a Promenade Concert. Thus before he reached manhood he succeeded in establishing himself both as a composer and a pianist. His second piano concerto had been completed but a little while when the Royal Philharmonic Society invited him to play it at one of their concerts; then Richter became interested in his Symphonie Fantasia and in 1906 performed it in London and Manchester. Two years later Bowen conducted his third concerto at the Queen's Hall.
It was at about this time that he wrote his Symphony in E minor, a work that was particularly well received when Sir Landon Ronald performed it at the Queen's Hall in 1912, but which is rarely heard to-day.
Then he married Miss Sylvia Dalton, daughter of the Rev. J. P. Dalton, Rector of Creech St. Michael, Somerset. His wife at that time was making a reputation as a singer, so they started giving recitals together and continued to do so for twenty years.
Although he has frequently directed his own works, Bowen admits that his skill as a conductor is not great. When he took the Queen's Hall Orchestra through a rehearsal for the first performance of his Violin Concerto in 1914 he discovered that he was moving his arms in yards when inches would have been far more appropriate. Sir Henry Wood, who had been listening, put him right on many points before the concert.
One of his happiest memories is of the occasion when Camille Saint-Saens attended a performance of one of his piano concertos at the Queen's Hall and sent him a personal message expressing his appreciation of it.
During the Great War, York Bowen served in the Scots' Guards. His first thirteen weeks ‘on the square’ brought on a serious illness of which the outcome was his transference to the regimental band to play the horn and the viola. The balance of the string ensemble was not all that one could desire: he was the only viola in it!
During the past twenty-five years he has given recitals in all parts of the country and on several occasions has played abroad. In more recent times he has been associated with Harry Isaacs in the performance of works for two pianos.
Like one or two other composers of his type, Bowen's lesser works are far more popular than his major compositions. He has, for instance, written a considerable number of pleasant little works for the piano which are original, beautiful and soundly constructed. These are all popular, but they do not form an adequate basis for an assessment of his ability as a composer.
He objects strongly to modern compositions which throw all the laws of music to the winds, and he dislikes the ‘extravagant nonsense’ that frequently enjoys ephemeral popularity during a whim of musical fashion.
‘Some of the things we are expected to digest to-day are audacious insults’ he says, ‘they may be clever, but these effusions which have no sense of key, melodic line or shape of any kind, cannot be regarded as music. I have always tried to compose modern music that is still music.’
‘Throughout my career I have endeavoured to appreciate the beauty of other people's music all the more because I am a composer myself, and 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.’
York Bowen believes that much of the cacophonous music we hear to-day is unworthy of serious attention, and that it does definite harm because it takes the place of more wholesome music.
More often than not it is promoted by irresponsible coteries of silly people who delude themselves with the notion that they are being ultra-fashionable and progressive.
Bowen's best-known works are undoubtedly his many excellent compositions for the piano, but up to the present time he has written no less than four concertos for piano and orchestra, and one each for violin, viola and 'cello. His sonatas include four for piano, two for viola, and one each for 'cello, horn, clarinet and violin. The last-named was completed quite recently.
He has written two symphonies and several shorter orchestral works of fine craftsmanship, and among his other compositions we also find some unusual chamber music, of which his two quintets for horn and strings, and the two for bass clarinet and strings are the most notable.
Apart from being a composer and pianist, York Bowen is an accomplished horn player, and has also a ‘working knowledge’ of the viola and organ. He has never regretted the time spent on these instruments, because he believes that it is desirable for a composer to have a fair knowledge of the instruments he intends to use in his works.
Donald Brook: Composer’s Gallery, Rockcliff, London, 1946

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