Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough


York Bowen: Piano Music

Now that the century which only lived for tomorrow can see its last tomorrow approaching, and its fiercest modernism seems old-fashioned - the three-day shadow of its angry young men being a whiter shade of grey - it is time to reexamine a figure like York Bowen. He is one of those artists who begin writing in the style of their time, and, feeling comfortable and inspired in that style, are reluctant to change. Unfortunately the sell-by date of the late nineteenth century's harmonic language seemed to be 'up' alarmingly soon, an expiring lease threatening homelessness to so many composers. There is something inherently superficial about modernity's obsession with fashion and disdain for tradition - "the democracy of the dead" (G. K. Chesterton). After all if you can only mine a piece of ground for a short time you will never get very deep. Bowen was a composer who loved the ground he dug, and found a lifetime of contentment in sifting through its contents.

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 24 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, Rachmaninoff, 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 judgment, 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 Rachmaninoff 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 with 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.

Like Medtner, whose music is similar in some respects to Bowen's, 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. Doesn't this remind us of another, older world? Mr Bowen's music will always respond better when addressed by its 'surname'.

Edwin Yorke Bowen (the 'Edwin' and the 'e' of Yorke were later dropped) was born on 22nd February 1884 at Crouch Hill, London. His mother was a musician and his father a founder-partner in Bowen & McKechnie, the whisky distillers. After early studies at the Blackheath Conservatoire with Alfred Izard, the boy won the Erard Scholarship of the Royal Academy in 1898 where he became a student of the famous pedagogue Tobias Matthay (whose other students included Myra Hess, Moura Lympany, and Eileen Joyce). He won a string of prizes and scholarships during his time there in both piano and composition, and in 1905, at the age of 21, he completed his studies. That same year he was invited to play at the London Promenade Concerts. Prior to this, he had already had many London performances of his works, including his first Symphony, and a symphonic tone-poem The Lament of Tasso, both given at the Queen's Hall, the latter a Promenade Concert conducted by Henry Wood. During the next ten years he appeared all over Britain and in Germany playing his own compositions as recitalist, and with such partners as Fritz Kreisler, Lionel Tertis, Joseph Szigetti, Hans Richter, and Landon Ronald. Three Piano Concertos and two Symphonies were performed in this period, all with the finest orchestras at the large London halls, and in 1908 Tertis premiered his Viola Concerto at a Philharmonic Society concert conducted by Landon Ronald. It was probably at this time that Saint-Saens described Bowen as "the most remarkable of the young British composers".

Although the performances continued after the First World War - (he was in the Scotch Guards and invalided home from France in 1916) - the momentum had been lost, and, from his early successes, it is hard to explain fully Bowen's eventual slide into obscurity and routine. Changing fashions, a splintered, post-war world and the composer's modest nature could all have played a part in Bowen's relegation to the sidelines of musical life; furthermore, that strangely 'English' suspicion of the home-grown professional musician and the whiff of vulgarity which the post-Victorians found in a stiff collar moistened by the sweat of enthusiasm could have contributed to the neglect. He continued writing music which increased in inspiration and craft in the post-war years, and artists such as Beatrice Harrison, Aubrey and Dennis Brain, Leon Goosens, and Carl Dolmetsch performed his works, but teaching (fifty years at his alma mater, the RAM) and examining (for the Associated Board) took up most of his time. Although he played quite frequently, (most notably some fairly regular Wigmore Hall recitals), and a number of his works were included in the Proms, (his Second and Fourth piano concertos with Adrian Boult conducting) the years passed, and the invitations to compose or perform became less and less frequent.

Sorabji, Clinton Gray-Fisk, and Jonathan Frank were three prominent critics who constantly championed his cause in these years, puzzling in print why he was so inexplicably neglected; but by the time of his death on 23rd November 1961 he was a name from the past, and an obituary in The Times, under the heading: MR YORK BOWEN, COMPOSER OF ROMANTIC LYRICISM, was inaccurate and condescending. In reply, Jonathan Frank wrote an article for Musical Opinion on Bowen, and made the following observation:

"[...] the greatest music of York Bowen is written with a conviction, mastery, and individuality that make considerations of 'modern' or 'old-fashioned' completely immaterial."

With the revival of much English romantic music in the last couple of decades, composers such as Bax, Bliss, Bridge, Finzi, and Ireland are now represented in numerous recordings. Although the best of York Bowen's music easily belongs in this company, he has been unjustly ignored. However the tide seems to be turning, there is a spring of tonality blooming in much contemporary music, and the next century may be kinder to him than this one has been. His Horn Concerto was recently recorded, a CD of piano music (including the 24 Preludes) was issued in France, where there is a considerable interest in his music, and I was told recently that six piano students at the Juilliard School are presently learning and playing his Toccata op. 155.

Listening to the pieces themselves for the first time, we are conscious of many musical influences which appear regularly like familiar threads in an otherwise original cloth - echoes of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Debussy, Ravel, Delius and John Ireland can be heard fairly frequently; and yet, like a master chef who combines diverse ingredients to create a new and unique taste, Bowen concocts his own personal musical dish with a deliciously distinct flavour.

The 24 Preludes in all the Major and Minor keys op 102, referred to with such ecstatic praise in Sorabji's quote above, were written in 1938 and published in 1950 with a dedication to that admiring critic. They follow the key scheme used by Bach in Das Woltemperierte Klavier and encompass a vast range of moods, from the first in C major, a soaringly romantic piece full of ardour, to the mysterious humour of the E minor Will o' the Wisp; from the dramatic intensity of the Scriabinesque G sharp minor, an astonishing tour de force of virtuosity, to the tenderly lilting lyricism of the D minor; and from the whiplash of the 'furioso' B flat minor to its musing major counterpart.

The Ballade no. 2 in A minor op 87 is one of the more 'English-sounding' works on the record. The siciliano rhythm of the opening theme, with its gently haunting chromaticism, reoccurs throughout this sonata-form piece. Although the title is an obvious tribute to Chopin, in Bowen's work the climax occurs in the centre of the piece, and the coda explores the earlier material as if in a dream, winding down in a trance of improvisation.

The Sonata in F minor op 72 is one of Bowen's finest works (he wrote six piano sonatas of which this is the fifth) and it was written in 1923. The material is inspired and memorable, and its tightly argued development dismisses any suspicion that Bowen is merely a lightweight miniaturist. Of particular note is the opening triadic fanfare motive, a most arresting flourish, which is transformed into the lyrical second subject of the first movement (I'm not aware of a similar device in any other composer - introduction becomes second theme). This motive returns at the end of the third movement, firstly as a misty memory, and then, on the last page, as a triumphant paean before the final tumultuous octave passage. And, in case we miss it, the very last bar of the piece reproduces again, in four ferocious F minor chords, the rhythm of this fanfare.

The Berceuse op 83 was published in 1928 and its title again comes from Chopin. Although it is of encore length, it seems to inhabit an unusually private world, - reflective, restrained and intimate. Its harmonic world is rich and chromatic, but nevertheless cool and distant. It is dedicated to Bowen's only son, Philip.

The Moto Perpetuo (Suite Mignonne op 39), from 1915, is very much the encore, a vivaciously virtuosic note-spinner, reminding us of so many salon pieces from the period. Bowen wrote five 'Suites' - collections of three to seven small pieces of a generally light mood.

The Toccata op 155 was written in 1957 when the composer was seventy three years old. It is truly astonishing that a man of his age could conceive a work of such manic energy and brilliance, let alone play it, as he did at the Wigmore Hall in 1958. Although his subsequent recording of it (on Lyrita in 1960) sounds rather laboured and tired, the piece itself has a vision and a dazzling display of pyrotechnics which is truly invigorating and an eloquent witness to the composer's undaunted perseverance in the face of discouragement and lack of recognition.

The Romance no. 1 op. 35 no. 1 and the Romance no. 2 op. 45 were written in 1913 and 1917 respectively, and were both dedicated to his wife, the singer Sylvia Dalton. They are in an ABA form, and are full of the characteristic Bowen harmonic puns and twists supporting the loveliest melodies. They both shine with a most touching sentiment and warmth, the first exploring a more level plain, the second reaching a passionate central climax reminiscent of Tristan.

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Stephen Hough