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Viola Sonata No 1 in C minor, Op 18
1905; first performed by Lionel Tertis and Bowen at the Aeolian Hall, London, on 19 May 1905

'Bowen: The complete works for viola & piano' (CDA67651/2)
Bowen: The complete works for viola & piano
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Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Poco lento e cantabile
Movement 3: Finale: Presto – Allegro molto

Viola Sonata No 1 in C minor, Op 18
The two viola sonatas are examples of the remarkable succession of works that Bowen produced while still a student, and soon afterwards. In fact he was only twenty when he wrote the Viola Sonata No 1 in C minor Op 18 (1905). At this time Lionel Tertis had started a series of London recitals of viola music at which he was regularly accompanied by Bowen, a series that continued for several years. The sonata was first performed by Tertis and Bowen at London’s Aeolian Hall on 19 May 1905. It appeared again on 30 October 1906, and then in Berlin in 1907 when Tertis, Bowen and the work were all enthusiastically received.

This is the first of Bowen’s many instrumental sonatas, and with its traditional exposition repeat it sets the pattern of the ‘well-made’ work which he would follow all his life. To this renewal of an existing idiom Bowen brings a personal voice and authority, especially noticeable in a viola sonata. While some listeners at the time might have looked to Brahms’s then new sonatas for the composer’s model, in 1905 Bowen’s music must have struck many people as a fresh breeze blowing through the British music of the time.

The wide-spanning first movement, lasting more than ten minutes, clearly announces a composer who has arrived. With the busy and idiomatic piano part and the viola part’s singing melody, drama, and distinctive passagework (which was at first thought to be uncharacteristic of the instrument), in this sonata Bowen provided a model for Tertis’s other young collaborators—Benjamin Dale and Arnold Bax. Bowen’s first subject opens with a questioning dotted motif which, at first reflective and questioning, soon becomes dramatic and challenging, especially when running on with flashing semiquavers. The second subject, marked molto espressivo, is lyrical and expansive. The music eventually rises to a substantial climax before the affecting final nine bars, where the opening theme returns, all passion spent, and the music ends on a dying fall.

The slow movement is basically ternary in shape, with a middle section in which the viola sings fervently over rippling piano figurations. The movement is notable for its passionate expression markings—molto espressivo at the outset, and soon appassionato—yet this is a remarkably well-bred passion and the music maintains a poise which rather tempers the emotion the composer seems to be feeling.

The finale is generally carefree, and certainly Tertis referred to the sonata as ‘a vivacious and light-hearted work’. Bowen writes a powerful introduction, though this is soon followed by happy music alternating spirited and dancing passages with typical lyrical invention. Eventually the music reaches a portentous episode when, over pounding sustained chords in the piano, the viola is instructed to summon up all possible tone molto vibrato. Just when we are thinking the music is to end in tragedy after all, the viola’s running semi-quavers announce the throw-away closing bars.

from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2008

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