Listeners are destined to have a challenging time trying to get to grips with the music of Frederick Hymen Cowen.
Firstly, there are precious few recordings of his music available on CD or download. The current Arkiv catalogue lists the Concertstück for piano and orchestra (1900) on Hyperion (CDA 67837), the tone poem Butterfly Ball on Chandos (CHAN 10797), a piano reduction of this work on NMC (NMC D 136) and a single song performed by Dame Clara Butt on Nimbus. The back numbers of The Gramophone provide the listener with information that Kenneth McKellar recorded the ‘Border Ballad’ in 1955. The major project was Marco Polo’s release of the Symphony No. 3 (Scandinavian), the Indian Rhapsody and the Butterfly’s Ball. (8.223273). Another important release was from Classico (CLASS CD 84) which coupled Cowen’s Symphony No.6 (Idyllic). with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Symphony in A minor. There are a number of downloads available on Internet Message Boards, most important of which are the Four English Dances. YouTube will harvest a couple of songs. I doubt there is much else, although I look forward to being corrected.
The second test is that Cowen composed a vast amount of music. There are a number of ballets, operas and operettas, six symphonies, various orchestral tone poems and suites, a raft of cantatas and oratorios as well as some chamber works and piano music. And then there are some 270 songs. Without recordings, it is difficult to gain a rounded understanding and make a provisional assessment of the music. As an aside, there are many Cowen printed scores available on-line.
And a third problem the listener is faced with is the fact that although Cowen was an integral part of the British Musical Renaissance he has been largely eclipsed by the other composers in this group. There is a view that his music was uneven and that his more serious works were overshadowed by his easy facility in writing ‘light music.’ At the moment, he has yet to receive the reassessment that Parry, Stanford, McEwen et al. have had in recent decades.
Frederick Hymen Cowen was born in Kingston, Jamaica on 29 January 1852. When he was four years of age he was brought to England. A precocious child, he is reputed to have composed a ‘waltz’ aged only six. His first opera, Garibaldi was to follow before Cowen reached double figures. He studied with Sir John Goss and Sir Julius Benedict before being taken to Leipzig by his parents to enrol at the Conservatoire where he studied with Ignaz Moscheles and Carl Reinecke.
On return to England, he held a number of senior posts. From 1888 to 1892, and again from 1900 to 1907, he was conductor of the Philharmonic Society. Other appointments included the Liverpool Philharmonic between 1896 to 1913, the Hallé from 1895-99 and the Scottish Orchestra (1900-10). Frederick Hymen Cowen was knighted in 1911. He died on 6 October 1833 in London.
I do not propose to discuss each song in this review. A number of general points can be made. Firstly, there is a problem in assimilating the sheer quantity of songs that Cowen composed. An unsigned article in the Musical Times (November 1898) remarks on the ‘No less remarkable is the rapidity with which he throws off these vocal gems: in five weeks he composed three sets of six songs!’ Perhaps this was displaying just a little too much facility for his own good?
Secondly, all but four of the songs presented on this CD come from a variety of albums published by J.W. Williams. These collections are not cycles and are not unified by a common theme: they reflect ‘something for everybody.’ Williams issued 11 books of Cowen’s songs each with six numbers, plus one of vocal duets.
Thirdly, Cowen’s early songs were of often ‘ballads’ which were extremely popular with Victorian singers and audiences. An example is ‘Spinning’ (Track 25) to a text by C.J. Rowe. This was composed/published around 1872. These probably do not raise the same degree of enthusiasm with listeners in 2016, except as period pieces.
The next stage of Cowen’s song writing career was dedicated to ‘lyrics’ rather than ‘ballads.’ As Howell notes, this implies ‘poetic explorations of one particular mood.’ The contemporary master of this genre at the time was Charles Hubert Hastings Parry who issued twelve volumes of ‘English Lyrics.’ (Surely there is an urgent need for a complete edition of these songs: Hyperion released a selection in 1998).
Fourthly, Howell situates Cowen as an ‘earlier’ songwriter than Parry and Stanford ‘whatever their birth certificates say.’ Cowen’s songs, as noted, began with ballads following on from those examples by Sir Arthur Sullivan. His later ‘lyrical’ songs ‘hover between the drawing room and the concert hall.’ Parry and Stanford belong fairly and squarely in the recital room.
A fifth point of importance are the texts. Parry and Stanford mined the full heritage of British and Irish literature for their inspiration. Cowen typically set living poets, many of whom have been long forgotten. There are examples of setting of Longfellow and Swinburne, but these are relatively rare. The words are very often simply a more or less successful vehicle for his music.
So what is the contribution of Cowen’s songs to the singer’s repertoire? The melodies are memorable and invariably exhibit direction and a sense of purpose. Howell suggests that they often ‘develop naturally to their climax.’ The accompaniments are accomplished and integral to the song, without necessarily being complex: they are less inclined to use musical onomatopoeia to compliment the text.
When the listener accepts that these are typically Victorian songs, and understands that the genre lies closer to the drawing room than to the concert hall, these numbers will be seen to hold magic and delight, musical logic and an often near-perfect synthesis of words and music.
I first came across the gorgeous voice of Elisabetta Paglia in Sheva’s 2013 release My Heart is Like a Singing Bird (SH076) which was an album of settings of poetry by Christina Rossetti. Her CV is wide-ranging, with many performances in operas including Gounod’s Faust, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. She has sung solo parts in choral works, including Haydn’s Nelsonmesse, Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore and has given many song recitals and made a number of appearances with chamber groups. Her speciality is romantic Italian song.
Elisabetta Paglia’s recital of Cowen’s song is superlative. The richness of her voice lends a special charm to these songs which are often demanding. She never sinks into sheer sentimentality which may always be an inherent problem in songs of this period.
Christopher Howell has contributed outstanding and well-judged accompaniments to Cowen’s songs as well as the preparation and sourcing of the performance material. The recording is excellent with singer and piano in perfect combination.
The liner notes, by Howell are first-rate, and present an essential biography of the composer as well as an overview of the entire catalogue of songs and individual comments.
Howell warns against Cowen overdose: the ‘rose tinted regret may seem too much of a good thing.’ He wisely suggests that these songs should be listened to a few at time. The programme has largely been grouped by poet, thus offering the listener some ‘possible pairings’ or short ‘cycles’ that will keep their attention. I certainly took heed of this advice when reviewing this disc and spread my listening over a few days.
The present CD includes 28 songs, largely drawn from the collections published in 1892. This, as noted above, represents just over 10% of Cowen’s song repertoire. So there is plenty of opportunity for Sheva or some other equally imaginative record company to produce further volumes of this largely forgotten repertoire.
Sir Frederick Hymen COWEN (1852-1935)
- Love me if I live (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
- Is my lover on the sea? (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
- The Evening Star (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
- The Stars (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
- The Land of Violets (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
- The First Farewell (Owen Meredith, pseudonym of Robert Bulmer Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton) (1892)
- Thoughts at Sunrise (Owen Meredith, pseudonym of Robert Bulmer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton) (1892)
- Thy Remembrance (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) (1892)
- Snow-Flakes (Mary Mapes Dodge) (1892)
- Nightfall (George Whyte-Melville) (1892)
- Ask nothing more (Algernon Charles Swinburne) (1892)
- He and She (Christina Rossetti) (1892)
- A Bride Song (Christina Rossetti) (1892)
- Sweet Evenings come and go, love (George Elliot, pseudonym of Mary Ann Cross) (1892)
- A Past Springtime (George Elliot, pseudonym of Mary Ann Cross) (1892)
- Lonely (George Elliot, pseudonym of Mary Ann Cross) (1892)
- Day is dying (George Elliot, pseudonym of Mary Ann Cross) (1892)
- Truant Wings (Harold Boulton) (1891)
- To a flower (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
- Cradle Song (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
- Laugh not, nor weep (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
- Far Away (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
- A Song of Morning (Sarah Doudney) (1892)
- Dost thou love me? (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) (1892)
- Spinning (Charles James Rowe) (1872)
- At the mid hour of night (Thomas Moore) (1892)
- The Prisoner (Clifton Bingham) (1892)
- The Promise of Life (Clifton Bingham) (1893)
SHEVA COLLECTION SH158