Until a few years ago York Bowen would have been a name known to precious few listeners, even those committed to British music. A number of people may have recalled his sterling work as a teacher and examiner at the Royal Academy of Music: a few will have known a handful of piano pieces that survived on the periphery of the repertoire. However, this ‘English Rachmaninov’ as he was rather lazily dubbed, was once widely feted by the musical cognoscenti. He was particularly lauded by Camille Saint-Saëns and also impressed the enigmatic Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. His music was widely performed and at the height of his career he would have been tipped as an up-and-coming master of British music. However he had a problem which was ultimately his downfall: his music is approachable and does not challenge the listener with stylistic extremes. He was not a radical composer: he did not experiment with popular and ‘essential’ new fashions such as serialism. Bowen’s music is basically romantic, and was gradually perceived to be out-of-date and passé. His reputation as a composer was largely gone by the time of his death in 1961.
Yet in recent years the listener has been able to hear a wide range of York Bowen’s works on CD. This has included symphonies, concertos and a large portion of the catalogue of piano music. His star is once again rising and he is being revealed as an important composer who wrote great, if not ground-breaking music.
Bowen’s Second Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.31 was composed between 1909 and 1911 and was first performed by the New Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Landon Ronald at the Queen’s Hall on 1 February 1912. It did not gain a place in the repertoire and it has been suggested that the recording sessions for the Classico CD in 2002 was only its second outing in some ninety years.
The writer of the ‘Musical Gossip’ column of The Athenaeum (Feb 10 1912) summed up the symphony in remarkably few words: his key point is the pervasive influence of Tchaikovsky throughout the work. He also notes that the ‘more elastic form of the symphonic poem tempts many rising composers’ however he suggest that Bowen ‘deserves praise for adhering to the older and severer form’. He insists that there is much to praise in the symphony, especially in the first and second movements. The only down side seems to be his opinion that the ‘working up to a climax is at times spoilt...’ due to an extrovert ‘rhythmic life’. Finally he acknowledges the ‘clever workmanship and orchestration’.
The reviewer in The Academy (Feb 17 1912) makes a prescient point: he suggests that this is not ‘a great symphony’ and wonders if it will go down to posterity as such. It didn’t. However, he goes on to say that Bowen has ‘written a work of remarkable cleverness and brilliancy’ and develops his point with a lovely analogy. He writes that ‘it is rather like a scintillating after-dinner speech in which nothing particularly new is said in such a way as to keep the listeners entertained without taxing their brain-power too much, and yet in such a way as to appeal to thoughtful and cultivated hearers’. One criticism is the eclectic nature of this work: ‘The source of origin of almost every page can be traced, and the fountains from which he has drunk inspiration are well enough known’. He concludes by suggesting that ‘Most people will arrive at the conclusion that Mr. Bowen gives but small hope of even developing an individuality of his own’.
Some of the influences of the Bowen symphony are suggested by the Manchester Guardian (Feb 2 1912) critic – ‘...it is strangely reminiscent in mood and treatment throughout. It is full of Tristan, of the Ring of Parsifal, of Tchaikovsky, of Debussy, of the symphonic poems of Strauss, of [his] Salome, and of Elgar’. However this does not matter very much for two reasons: ‘the mixture is so cleverly made’ and ‘it is only out of such mixtures that an original style is ultimately made’.
However, in spite of this, the reviewer felt that there was much originality in the work. There appeared to be ‘an element of bigness in the whole, not only in the skill in which he handles big masses of sound but in the design of the separate movements and in the outlines of the ideas themselves’.
Of interest is a modern review of this work cited in The Gramophone. (Oct 2002) Andrew Achenbach notes that the work is ‘Confidently plotted and colourfully scored for large orchestra...’ He suggests that it has ‘a distinctly Russian tang’ and cites both Borodin and Glazunov as being influences in the first and second movements respectively. Yet it is the slow movement that impresses him which ‘boasts a horn melody of which Bax would have been proud, as well as some imaginative touches of orchestration’.
Certainly, the general tone of recent reviews tends to concentrate on what the Symphony owes to other composers, whilst recognizing the workmanship and orchestral technique as being well above average.
Whether the listener will regard this as a great symphony or not is probably a matter of personal predilection, however critics seem to demand that it holds its place in the symphonic repertoire.
York Bowen's Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.31 can be currently heard on YouTube