(Not so) slow moments with SW: York Bowen – a near-forgotten master


York Bowen

York who? Some of you may be asking. I say some, because I suspect many viola players will think “Ah yes. Good stuff.” Having only recently been introduced to his piano music through the excellent recording of his set of Preludes made by Stephen Hough, I can say I was in woeful ignorance of his supreme mastery of the instrument. It is nigh-on tragic that his music has been so badly neglected – when did you last hear a work by him at a concert? Yes, I thought so, the show of hands is non-existent. But who was he?

First a little biography. Edwin Yorke Bowen – multi-talented virtuoso pianist, horn and viola player (although not at the same time…) was born in 1884 (he dropped the Edwin and the ‘e’ early in his career), the youngest of three sons of the Bowen of whisky distillers Bowen and McKechnie. His musical ability was evident from an early age and won him a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at 14 where he studied piano with Tobias Matthay and composition with Frederick Corder. He maintained his association with the RAM all his life as a professor of piano there, regarding his teaching and examining as a vital element of his life. By the turn of the century, he was a regular presence on the concert platform as both pianist and composer. 

Let’s have our first musical interlude: 

I’ve chosen the Horn Concerto here performed by David Pyatt and the LPO and Nicholas Braithwaite. Lovely, idiomatic horn writing. The slow movement begins at 7 minutes in – three and a half minutes of continuous cantabile…but do, please, listen to the whole work! His compositions for horn were written with both Aubrey and Dennis Brain in mind – it shows (h’mm, or should that be you can hear it). There are Richard Straussian moments too.

Sadly though, after the First World War and the change of gear, as it were, in music heralded by works such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Bowen’s unashamedly tonal and indeed Romantic ‘voice’ became passé. Elizabeth Lutyens would probably have included him in her (in)famous ‘cow pat’ school of composers along with Vaughan Williams and John Ireland! Despite the changing fashions, Bowen continued to compose in an unashamedly tonal and romantic style and his performing life was as full as ever, working with many of the renowned musicians of the day (Dennis Brain, Lionel Tertis to name only two) to great acclaim, but the wind had shifted to the north and as a composer, interest in him waned. He died in 1961 leaving a substantial legacy of compositions.

Back in the 1940s, he did have a champion though, in the shape of the splendidly eccentric composer and pianist Kaikoshku Sorabji who devoted one of his essays in the equally eclectic Mi Contra Fa to his piano works: “A note on York Bowen”. Not one to mince his words, Sorabji consigns virtually all his contemporaries to the musical dustbin:

” …through those stagnant morasses of clotted sedge and seaweed that form so large a part of the pianistic efforts of one, to the whirling dust storms of another, and the rant and magniloquent bombast of a third, the story is the same; a complete lack of sympathy with and insensibility to the potentialities of the instrument, except as tom-tom.”

Time for another musical interlude, I think in the form of Bowen’s Fantasia for four violas – a gloriously, unashamed rich texture to relish here, surely exploring the full potential of the instruments. 

Back to Sorabji, who cannot speak highly enough of Bowen. Following a private performance given for Sorabji and the music critic Clinton Gray-Fiske by Bowen himself of his 24 preludes for piano, Sorabji writes: 

“York Bowen in his preludes certainly works within the framework of the key system, but this he does with such freedom, such flexibility and elasticity, such delicate and richly resourceful harmonic piquancy and colour that all lingering suspicion, if ever there were any, of academicism or scholastic pedantry melts from the mind as soon as the preludes start….Inexhaustible pianistic invention, endlessly fascinating and imaginative harmonic substance and raffinement, a musical substance elevated and distinguished, a perfection and finely poised judgement, combined to produce an aesthetic and artistic experience as rare and delightful as it was exciting.” 

In short (as Hans Keller would have said) he liked them very much. As indeed do I, but my prose is nothing like as “delicate and richly resourceful” to convey my pleasure I’m afraid. But when push comes to shove, it’s his music that counts and I hope this little selection of some slow and not-so-slow moments has awakened your interest.

We’ll close with Zazra. A charming little piece for piano in ternary form, and a calming slow moment on which to end.




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2 Responses to (Not so) slow moments with SW: York Bowen – a near-forgotten master

  1. kenpat2404 says:

    Nice to see YB getting a mention.
    Can I also recommend a couple of Dutton cd’s by the
    Endymion Ensemble and Danny Driver playing The Piano Sonatas on Hyperion.


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