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York Bowen ranks as one of the greatest virtuoso pianists England has seen. His vast output of piano compositions stands comparison with that of Rachmaninov and yet has remained largely neglected: he was a figure who wrote the the sort of music he loved – not the new 'trendy' music his own generation demanded.
"York Bowen is master of every kind of piano writing, which, great artist that he is, he uses not to the ends of trumpery and empty virtuoso affichage, but to the purposes of the powerful brilliant glowing and rich expression of a very individual beautiful and interesting musical thought … York Bowen is, at the present time, the one English composer whose work can justly be said to be that of a great Master of the instrument, as Rachmaninov was or as Medtner is." (Sorabji).
Born on 22 February 1884 at Crouch Hill, London, Edwin Yorke Bowen was the youngest of three sons. His mother was a musician and his father a founder of Bowen & McKechnie, whisky distillers, thereby conferring a pedigree comparable with that of Sir Thomas Beecham and the eponymous tablets (of which the conductor did not care to be reminded) or Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. After piano studies with Alfred Izard at the Blackheath Conservatoire the boy won the Erard Scholarship of the Royal Academy of Music in 1898, having already accumulated numerous other prizes and medals. Despite an initial reluctance to leave Izard, he became a devoted student of the famously eccentric Tobias Matthay. Already a talking point among his peers and his seniors, he was to form a reputation as ‘a pianist of remarkable brilliance’ (Grove) which, thirty-four years after his death, continues to eclipse his prestige as a composer, great though the latter was during his apprenticeship at the RAM under Frederick Corder. He was also an accomplished horn player and violist.
It is a mistake to assume that what we now accept as a British ‘renaissance’ in music, namely the awakening of a nationalism rooted in folk-song and sixteenth-century hymnody, marked the earliest rebirth in our century of indigenous creative fervour or high purpose. This is merely to perpetuate the obscurity from which the youthful Bowen and other more or less significant figures have suffered without stopping to question its justice. While it is true that teutonic influence still dominated the British musical establishment during Bowen’s student years, this in itself was divided into mutually inimical factions of either a Brahmsian or a Lisztian and Wagnerian tendency, as if in emulation of the slightly earlier status quo in Europe. As Lewis Foreman has pointed out in his definitive biography of Sir Arnold Bax (Scolar Press, 1983 & 1988), this divergence was epitomized by the RAM (then still in Tenterden Street, off Oxford Street, where it occupied three houses amalgamated in bizarre and labyrinthine fashion) and its junior cousin, the Royal College of Music in South Kensington. The RCM, whose staff both Parry and Stanford had joined in 1883, espoused Brahms (though this does scant justice to Parry’s personal liberality of outlook, which admitted the influence of Liszt). The RAM, directed from 1888 to 1924 by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, was of the other hue. Exceptions, such as the RCM-trained arch-Wagnerite Rutland Boughton, retained their identity despite rather than through Stanford’s ministrations.
When Bowen left the RAM in 1905 Liszt had been dead for only nineteen years and the reputations of many of his illustrious pupils were at their zenith. One must consider Liszt’s impact in terms both of pianistic innovation and personal charisma, adding to that a sense of the heady aesthetic which had led to such conceptions as Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Wagner’s Tristan and the early tone poems of Richard Strauss. It is then easy to sense the zeal and excitement from a shared ideal which gripped many of Bowen’s generation. (‘Superb! I feel like climbing up the pillars’, exclaimed Holbrooke to the Bantock family after a London appearance by Strauss conducting his own music.) Disillusioning obscurity had not yet confronted them with Debussy’s prophetic rejection of the Wagnerian ideal as ‘the twilight mistaken for the dawn’. Formal portraits for publicity purposes reflected these things, tending often towards an either ‘soft-focus’ or studiedly farouche romanticism. Image-consciousness shows too in the names: Bowen dropped ‘Edwin’ and the ‘e’ of ‘Yorke’; Holbrooke teutonized himself to ‘Josef’. A photographic study of the young Bowen depicts a distantly high-minded gaze and a strong-featured man not unlike that doyen of later Bloomsbury, Osbert Sitwell. At this point he was on the crest of a wave. Bax, one year his senior, was known at the RAM at this stage mainly as a pianistic and orchestral sight-reader of incomprehensible brilliance, but not yet as a composer. Bowen was esteemed ‘the most remarkable of the young British composers’ by Saint-Saëns. The stage was his and, lest it be thought that he squandered opportunity by confining himself to the piano solo output of which this recording provides a timely view, he responded with three piano concertos between 1904 and 1908, performing Nos 1 and 3 under Hans Richter in the Promenade Concerts at Queen’s Hall. By 1912 two symphonies had received favourable public notices. A fourth piano concerto followed in 1929. His pianistic distinction, which embraced the formidable demands of Liapunov’s Transcendental Études and of Liszt and Chopin with aristocratic ease, remained a focus for adulation in many quarters.
In the intervening years since 1912 Bowen’s position as a composer had changed drastically. The European musical establishment had been rocked by the scandalous 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris and by the advent of Schoenberg’s then notorious Pierrot Lunaire the year before. Britain’s insularity might have put off the evil hour for latter-day romantics such as Bowen but for the apocalyptic shadow of the Great War, which effectively silenced even so great a voice as Elgar’s. Those who could not—or would not—swim sank, while, perversely, a man with the moral courage and creative toughness of Frank Bridge must find himself ultimately marginalized for his newly uncompromising utterance by a society still unable to bear very much reality.
The Great War had seen Bowen (as horn player) in the regimental band of the Scots Guards, with which he served in France before being invalided home with pneumonia in 1916. He had probably confronted already the fact that his creative impulse turned upon abstract poetic romanticism rather than unflinching human and social commentary. His remaining decades (lived out in an almost wholly uneventful domesticity in the impersonal environs of Finchley Road) are portrayed in Monica Watson’s York Bowen—a Centenary Tribute (Thames, 1984). Later years were to be clouded by financial anxieties not unconnected with Bowen’s son Philip, whose supposed healing gifts are ominously reported by Watson as having been ‘controlled’ by an Indian doctor. Philip subsequently lost these gifts and drifted into a variety of professions until his death in 1970. York Bowen himself continued to serve the Royal Academy faithfully as a Professor until 1959.
The sense of virtual exile which this melancholy summary conveys must invite passing comparison with the fate of the composer Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951), himself a refugee from Revolutionary Russia and domiciled in North London for the last sixteen years of his life. Like Bowen, Medtner was a pianist of the highest distinction. The piano is central to the output of both (especially to Medtner, who wrote for it almost as exclusively as Chopin). Moreover, both composers still espoused the same idiom and aesthetic in the middle of this century as they had at its outset, and neither was afraid to air in print some serenely unrepentant views on the relative modernists of his time. Bowen’s music evinces a variable but still significant debt to the Russian Romantic piano tradition of Balakirev, Liapunov, Rachmaninov and Medtner (whose G minor Sonata was in his repertoire), and it is possible to advance the Medtner comparison further on purely technical grounds: ‘… Too generous with his substance. He never seems to appreciate the value of repose’, reported the critic for The Spectator upon hearing Bowen’s Third Concerto in 1907. His colleague with The Sunday Times had already complained mildly of themes being ‘over-developed’ in the First Concerto (1903). Such criticisms have been levelled at Medtner’s tendency to pursue every contrapuntal consequence of a theme to its ultimate conclusion, notably in such works as his Sonata in E minor, Op 25 (‘The Night Wind’). While Medtner remains a composer of greater melodic distinction and structural resource, these similarities may go some way to explain the continuing obscurity of Bowen’s large-scale works and the virtual disappearance of Medtner’s from his adoptive (and his native) country until quite recently. Both composers were stridently championed by Kaikhosru Sorabji, himself the iconoclastic composer of some of the most fearsome piano music ever written, to whom Bowen dedicated his Twenty-four Preludes in 1950.
From Monica Watson’s observation of Bowen we gain insight into a stoically humorous personality who bore the undoubted bathos of his later years without bitterness and retained the affection and gratitude of many up to and beyond his death. As a pianist he belonged to the twilight of a romantic tradition which prized tonal beauty and patrician elegance in the face of all challenges and which had been able to embrace the theatrical instincts of a Liszt at the same time as the sober obsession of a Tausig with concealment of all physical effort.
The duality of such an inheritance can be documented: Bowen recorded a selection of his own piano music for Lyrita in 1960, and despite some understandably strenuous moments (he was then in his mid-seventies) his playing reveals an honest clarity and strength which must have been the more vivid in his younger days. Such virtues are the antithesis of mere posturing, and yet an anecdote told by the distinguished British pianist Hamish Milne hints at underlying eccentricities: ‘I remember being taken as a fourteen-year-old to a soirée at his house where his pupils performed and he himself played Glazunov’s Theme and Variations in F sharp minor. He enunciated the theme (in single notes) with the second and third fingers of both hands on each note. Even at fourteen I thought this rather odd, although I sensed that it added a certain grandeur. His reply to my shy question was, “Four horns in unison, dear boy—how else could one score it?” This piece of baroque eccentricity rooted in musical percipience may be a legacy from student days with Matthay.
Bowen died suddenly in November 1961, active as a musician to the very last. The ensuing generation was, if anything, unkinder to his reputation than his last decades had been, and it is only very recently that a more liberal and curious musical establishment has begun to rehabilitate him and many of his contemporaries.
Twenty-four Preludes Op 102
The Preludes, bearing the dedication ‘To Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, 1950’, adopt the ascending key scheme used twice over by Bach in Das Wohltemperirte Clavier. Nonetheless Bowen’s line of descent is from Chopin’s Preludes and Études, comparable cycles under the latter title by Henselt, and, most directly, the Preludes and Études-Tableaux of Rachmaninov (who esteemed Henselt’s and Chopin’s Études almost equally). Rachmaninov is the most detectable and recurrent model: Bowen’s opening Prelude may enjoy a perceptibly different harmonic vocabulary but its rhythmic and pianistic resources spring clearly from the piece in the same key which opens Rachmaninov’s Thirteen Preludes, Op 32. Coincidence of key and of a particular blend of pianistic and emotional resonance is yet more obvious in the case of Bowen’s Prelude in E flat major and its counterpart, Rachmaninov’s Op 23 No 6. Significantly, perhaps, the E flat Prelude is one of Bowen’s happiest inspirations. Elsewhere, as in the C minor and G minor pieces, there is an intermittent modality much more in line with certain piano miniatures by Moeran, Ireland or Baines. These movements exhibit a welcome restraint and economy, thereby lending balance to a highly eclectic and atavistic but still imposing overall conception. The overt moments of virtuosity noticeably call forth a heightened terseness and astringency, typified in the present selection by the piece in B flat minor and by the startling ferocity of the technically demanding octave study in G sharp minor which provides a fitting conclusion to the group.
Ballade No 2 in A minor Op 87
The second Ballade was published by the Anglo-French house in 1931. It would be surprising if the mere title did not remind one of Chopin, whose imaginative response to its narrative connotations remains unique. In the event Bowen seems intent upon evoking specifically the rhythmic momentum with which the second of Chopin’s four Ballades opens. Harmonically Bowen’s richly opulent inspiration may recall variously Delius, Ireland, or the Delius-inflected accents of Moeran in his solo piano idyll Summer Valley. A notable fondness for non-cadential dominant ninth formations reveals also the composer’s awareness of Debussy, this being confirmed by subsequent filigree writing arising from the whole tone scale. An early climax proves to have been merely the shape of things to come. A prolonged central passage of considerable force encompasses figurations recognizably and deliberately arising from stormier moments in Chopin’s second and third Ballades, these being persuasively recreated on Bowen’s own terms. After a temporary lull this material regenerates itself in music of formidable momentum and pianistic virtuosity, subsiding only as the work’s opening theme reappears beneath gradually dwindling right hand arpeggiation. A full (though varied) recapitulation of the first section brings this imposing work to an enigmatic end not unlike that with which Bowen was later to crown the last of his Twenty-four Preludes.
Sonata in F minor Op 72
Bowen composed no fewer than six solo piano sonatas, of which three remain unpublished. The Sonata in F minor, his fifth, was published in 1923 by Swan & Company and has some claim to be the most successful of the group. Its arresting triadic opening generates material not only for the first movement, a spaciously dramatic conception with an angular melodic principal subject, but also (in altered guise) for the driving rhythms of the finale. Between these turbulent utterances comes a fragile idyll whose irregular five quavers to the bar cannot wholly dispel reminders of Edward MacDowell’s lyrical simplicity in similar contexts. (Indeed, the four sonatas of MacDowell bear comparison on other grounds, though relatively innocent of Bowen’s pianistic and harmonic sophistication.) The design of the Sonata as a whole might suggest an attempt to mirror the dramatic progress of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ in entirely personal terms (the two works are in the same key and both feature slow movements deliberately cowed into submission by what surrounds them). Bowen yields little to Beethoven in the sheer fury of his finale’s climactic coda (heard after a valedictory reappearance of the work’s opening triadic material), and the ending of this work is no less stirring than that of the G sharp minor Prelude. Presumably by coincidence, this peroration bears a strikingly close resemblance to the final pages of the Sonata, Op 25 of 1954 by Bernard Stevens, a similarly neglected British composer of the generation after Bowen.
Berceuse in D major Op 83
The choice of title here and the lilting character of the triple rhythm, combined with intermittent quasi-improvisatory arabesque, suggest initially an intended homage to Chopin’s solitary essay in the genre. However, the earlier part of the piece contains transient hints of Ravelian harmony, as does the gently mesmeric insistence on various pedal points heard as repeated off-beat monotones (perhaps an anodyne transformation of that device as heard in ‘Le Gibet’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit?). At times the ambience resembles also that of the mature Arnold Bax, Bowen’s student friend and contemporary at the RAM, whose Fourth Sonata (written some six years later) embodies a similar conception in its slow movement. The dynamic level remains restrained throughout.
Moto perpetuo Suite Mignonne, finale, Op 39
The Suite Mignonne is the fourth of Bowen’s five (many other sets of miniatures would qualify equally for the title). The Moto perpetuo succeeds a Prelude and a Valse and preserves their attractive lightness of compositional touch. Again a passing resemblance may be pertinent: among the composers said by Watson to have been admired by Bowen is Frank Bridge (presumably through knowledge only of the latter’s more accessible works before the late 1920s). Bridge’s brief mood piece Fireflies, written in April 1917, post-dates the Suite Mignonne by two years and is directly comparable in figuration and harmonic resource. It seems entirely possible that the sheer pianistic elegance and ‘inside knowledge’ of Bowen’s writing may regularly have placed composers of lesser performing accomplishments in his unacknowledged debt, though the formidable pianism of Bax here excepts him. In wider terms the Moto perpetuo extends the nineteenth-century ‘encore’ tradition typified by the ‘humoresque’ style of Moszkowski and others.
Toccata in A minor Op 155
Bowen composed a toccata in 1901 while still a student. Another constitutes the finale of his Suite No 3, Op 38 of 1920, and his third and last, heard here, dates from 1957. It remains unpublished. The piece shows its creator’s accumulated wisdom in its highly successful fusion of unaccustomed textural economy and an undiminished taste for exciting pyrotechnics. The effect is thus of notable cumulative force enhanced by a relentless rhythmic drive. The final assault on the piano’s lowest note by the player’s right hand may perhaps be an enthusiastic nod in the direction of Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse and its identical closing device.
Romance No 1 in G flat Op 35 No 2
Romance No 2 in F Op 45
The two Romances were published in 1913 and 1917 respectively by Joseph Williams. Both are dedicated to the composer’s wife. The first is an affectingly simple piece in which harmonic ingenuity serves primarily to vary continual reiteration of the gentle opening phrase. It is not hard to imagine this taking on verbal form; indeed, the idea might have been conceived as a wordless cipher for some privately familiar phrase of endearment.
The second Romance, initially more hymn-like or processional in character, rises eventually to an unexpectedly elevated climax enhanced by halved note values from a dotted rhythm in the opening melody. After a recapitulation the piece ends peacefully in a tenderly unhurried coda.
Composers of Bowen’s consistent but conservative virtues may always have been doomed to drift into initial obscurity, depending posthumously upon the dawn of a more liberal and spontaneous—not to say also inquisitive—age for their rehabilitation. In the cases of Bowen and his circle the rapid strides of recording endeavour have combined with a new catholicity of interest to offer ‘time for amendment’. It is now to be hoped that Bowen will soon be assessed on the strength of his more substantial works. While these may arguably lack the unmistakable individuality of a Medtner or a Rachmaninov, they belong in such company and evince a comparable distinction in their witness to a red-blooded imagination illumined by performing virtuosity and insight of the highest order. Probably no other British musician of Bowen’s generation similarly embodied the phenomenon of composer-pianist in the mould of Saint-Saëns or the Russians mentioned above. For this alone Bowen merits historical scrutiny; meanwhile his music, long out of print or else never in it, awaits the determinedly curious.
Francis Pott © 1996
I first came across the name York Bowen as the Associated Board editor of the Mozart piano sonatas, and I also had a copy of his Twelve Studies, Op 46, which had been given to me along with the other musty contents of a deceased lady’s piano bench. Years later I heard a wonderful performance of the Second Suite, Op 30, on the radio played by Philip Fowke. The composer’s name lodged in my memory. Then I read the composer and critic Sorabji’s chapter on Bowen in his Book Mi contra fa and came across the following description of the Twenty-four Preludes, Op 102:
In this work [is] the finest English piano music written in our time … With York Bowen we are in the great tradition of piano writing, the tradition to which, for all their individual and idiosyncratic differences, men such as Ravel, Rachmaninov, and Medtner belong. York Bowen is master of every kind of piano writing, which, great artist that he is, he uses not to the ends of trumpery and empty virtuoso affichage, but to the purposes of the powerful brilliant glowing and rich expression of a very individual beautiful and interesting musical thought.
Inexhaustible pianistic invention, endlessly fascinating and imaginative harmonic subtlety and raffinement, a musical substance elevated and distinguished, a perfection and finely poised judgement, combined to produce an aesthetic experience as rare and delightful as it was exciting … York Bowen is, at the present time, the one English composer whose work can justly be said to be that of a great Master of the instrument, as Rachmaninov was or as Medtner is.
This audaciously enthusiastic opinion certainly piqued my interest in this neglected Englishman, and I resolved to explore all the music of his I could find.
I immediately discovered in Bowen a pianistic craftsman of the highest quality—piano writing so elegant and refined that it seemed to slip around the hand like an old lambskin glove, the curling counterpoint almost nestling between the fingers rather than lying under the hand. Here was a contrapuntal tailor whose voice leading, like an elaborate pattern, always met gracefully and inconspicuously at the seams.
His harmonic language was endlessly inventive too, rich enough for the sweetest tooth, but with enough subtlety to satisfy the more sophisticated palate. A particular characteristic of Bowen’s music is a love (in the less good pieces, perhaps an obsession!) for a melodic idea repeated in changing harmony—like ‘shifting sandals’ which walk the same path but by a different route. A melody will appear and, like a man trying on a handful of ties, Bowen lays many different fingers of harmonic colour over the melody’s crisp, white cotton.
The pieces need time to be known. They let the listener into their world cautiously, with a suspicion which melts into affection as the friendship develops. Does this not remind us of another, older world? Mr Bowen’s music will always respond better when addressed by its ‘surname’.
Stephen Hough © 1996