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Bowen, York (1884-1961)

York Bowen

born: 22 February 1884
died: 23 November 1961
country: United Kingdom

York Bowen was born in a North London suburb – Crouch Hill – on 22 February 1884. Born into a well-off family, his was a comfortable and privileged childhood; his father was the owner of the firm of Bowen & McKechnie whisky distillers. Bowen’s musical talent was encouraged from the outset and he was recognized as an up-and-coming performer, as he quickly worked his way through various local musical establishments. When still only fourteen he won the prestigious Erard Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Lionel Tertis tells how Bowen, ‘a talented boy still in knickerbockers, turned up one day with his first orchestral work’. There were some mistakes in the manuscript and Mackenzie, Principal of the RAM, ‘exploded in wrath … going for the boy so furiously before the orchestra that the poor little composer went away in tears’.

Bowen was three months younger than Arnold Bax, an Academy alumnus later to be much more famous than Bowen, but when Bax arrived at the RAM in September 1900 Bowen was already well-established and soon started making a reputation in the wider musical world. Both remained students until the summer of 1905. It would be many years before Bax established himself, but Bowen quickly built a big reputation while still a student, and for long he overshadowed Bax. Only after the Great War did Bowen’s name go into decline as Bax’s was sharply in the ascendant. Strangely, apart from Bax and later Eric Coates, very few of the Academy composers at that time prospered in the longer term in quite the same way as did their contemporaries from the Royal College of Music.

In his teens, already experienced as a concert pianist, Bowen was a fluent composer, and he was becoming a familiar name. Sir Henry Wood conducted his youthful tone poem The Lament of Tasso at a Promenade Concert in September 1903, and Bowen first appeared at the Proms as a pianist in his own first piano concerto when he was nineteen. His first symphony in G major was heard at Queen’s Hall and at Eastbourne, and Bowen was also given his opportunity by Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth, where his early Concert Overture was heard in October 1904 and his first piano concerto in December that year.

A second piano concerto in one movement was programmed by the Philharmonic Society at Queen’s Hall in May 1906, and a Symphonic Fantasia was taken up by Hans Richter the same year, and played in London and Manchester. Bowen returned to the Philharmonic Society at Queen’s Hall for the first public performance of his viola concerto on 26 March 1908, when the soloist was Tertis and the conductor Landon Ronald (who replaced Richter, the intended conductor). In September that year a third piano concerto appeared at the Proms. Bowen, in his twenties, was a draw, and Dan Godfrey also continued to play Bowen’s music at Bournemouth, choosing the second piano concerto three times and the third twice. He also gave Bowen’s Concertstücke for piano and orchestra in 1909, but never programmed the viola concerto. Later, in 1912, Bowen’s big-boned romantic second symphony which he had been working on since 1909 was heard at Queen’s Hall. All this was a remarkable early career, for in February 1912 Bowen was still only twenty-eight. He married two months later.

Bowen continued composing throughout his life, and as well as a large body of piano music and much chamber music, he later produced a violin concerto, a third symphony (a fourth existed in short score) and a fourth piano concerto. As a pianist, in 1926 he made the first ever recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 with his own idiosyncratic romantic cadenzas. Nevertheless, the world moved on and by the time he died his music was largely forgotten by music lovers.

from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2005


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