When I’ve been asked what I’m playing on Viola Day 2014 and I reply that I am playing the York Bowen Fantasy for 4 Violas, the most common response that I receive is a quizzical expression followed by the question, “Who?” York Bowen was an English composer, born in 1884; a contemporary of Arnold Bax and Benjamin Dale, with whom he was close friends. He is often referred to as the “English Rachmaninoff; ” he wrote romantic-style music much after a time when it was considered fashionable and remained true to his own voice and style throughout his life. His talent as a pianist was recognized as a young age, and he began composition early in his life as well. Camille Saint-Saens hailed him as “the most remarkable of the young British composers.” He had a long career at the Royal Academy of Music, teaching both piano and composition. He was also an accomplished violist and horn player, and evidently could play most instruments for which he composed. He was the first pianist to record Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. After his death, most of his music went out of print and performances of his music were rare.
Lionel Tertis was responsible for many of Bowen’s viola works. In Tertis’s autobiography “My Viola and I” he writes, “From the beginning of my campaign to create a library of solo viola music I begged for viola compositions from the younger English composers; and great is my debt to them. Such was their response that the British library of viola music looked like becoming the most extensive in the world.” York Bowen’s viola concerto was written with Lionel Tertis in mind, and the two Viola Sonatas are also dedicated to Lionel Tertis, works which York Bowen and Lionel Tertis often performed together. The Fantasy Quartet for 4 Violas Op. 41 #1 (1907) was written for Lionel Tertis to perform with his students. Tertis includes in his autobiography a review of a 1972 concert (on the occasion of Tertis’s 96th birthday!) that included a performance of the Fantasy Quartet which read, “Tertis persuaded York Bowen to write a Fantasie for a string quartet of violas, which was played in this concert. The bass line cannot descend farther than C below Middle C, but the limitation is barely perceived, so rich and multifarious are the textures available. This is a finely imagined movement in several sections, often twilit and nostalgic (with a touch of modality that doffs the cap to Debussy’s quartet), worth hearing several times.”
If you would like to hear this finely imagined movement live, join Utah Symphony viola section members Brant Bayless, Roberta Zalkind, Scott Lewis, and Julie Edwards on March 22, 2014 as they present the York Bowen Fantasy Quartet as part of V!ola Day 20!4!!!