Lionel Tertis is acknowledged the world over as the father of modern viola playing. His virtuosity and his personal vision of a warm, vibrant viola tone, derived from his close study of his idol Kreisler’s playing, amazed his contemporaries and stimulated others to carry on his work. Through his teaching and his collaboration with Sir Thomas Beecham, he raised the standard of orchestral viola playing – before his time, the viola section was regarded as a refuge for failed violinists. Although his own experiences of professional string quartet playing were of relatively short duration, Tertis was a magnificent chamber music coach, his most successful pupils being the Griller Quartet. He also acted as an invaluable stimulus to modern luthiers, in their search for a viola that looks good, sounds good and is playable.
Tertis was the ‘twin’ of Pablo Casals, sharing not only his birth date, 26th December 1876, but also his single-minded, selfless devotion to elevating a previously unsung instrument to solo status. The two were friends but unlike the Catalan, Tertis was a late starter. Born in West Hartlepool, County Durham, the son of Jewish immigrants, his father Russian, his mother Polish, he was brought up in the East End of London.
His earliest musical impressions were gained from the singing of his father, a synagogue cantor. There was a piano in the house and Lionel played it from the age of three, eventually leaving home at thirteen to earn his living on this instrument. He was almost sixteen before he had saved enough money, playing in anything from a ‘Hungarian’ band to seaside shows, to fulfil his dream of learning the violin. Studies at Trinity College of Music, an ill-fated spell at the Leipzig Conservatory and a stint with Hans Wessely at the Royal Academy of Music were financed by performing in such places as Madame Tussaud’s and a lunatic asylum. He was nineteen when a student friend at the Royal Academy, Percy Hilder Miles, asked him to play the viola in a quartet and he met his true destiny. As a violist he was virtually self-taught. In 1902, by which time he was viola professor at the Academy, Tertis heard Kreisler and knew he had found his ideal. He took the Kreisler vibrato and adapted it to the larger viola, keeping the fingers of his left hand continuously alive and virtually overlapping the vibrato from note to note.
Soon he was working at the highest level with colleagues such as Rubinstein and Casals, and just before World War I he toured America with a piano quartet featuring Bauer, Huberman and Salmond. During the war he often made music with Ysaÿe, and he and Charles Woodhouse played in the Allied String Quartet with two other Belgians who were marooned in Britain, Désiré Defauw and Emile Doehaerd. In the 1920s he made many recordings, including a number with Sammons, and he was one of Britain’s best-known soloists.
In 1937 Tertis retired, selling his Montagnana viola, and although he made a comeback during the war and continued playing almost to the end, he devoted most of his energies in later life to developing and propagating his Tertis Model Viola, from which he took no financial reward. Lionel Tertis died on 22nd February 1975.
In his heyday he was a remarkably vigorous virtuoso and, though small in stature, had a compelling platform manner. As a player he extended the effective range of the viola at both extremes, but particularly relished its middle and lower registers – he played Elgar’s Cello Concerto, in his own viola version, with the composer conducting. To give him a full-bodied C string sound, he used a large viola, biased towards the tenor end of the range. Among the works he inspired were Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi, Bax’s Sonata and Legend, Bliss’s Sonata, Holst’s Lyric Movement, Dale’s Suite, and Walton’s Concerto (which he initially rejected but later championed). He himself enriched the viola repertoire with miniatures and transcriptions.
Tertis played Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante with Ysaÿe, Thibaud, Primrose (a performance in Paris which stimulated that great player to take up the viola), Goldberg, Busch and Kreisler, but his most frequent partner was Sammons. Their recording, the first to be made of this beautiful work, featured Beecham’s new London Philharmonic with Sir Hamilton Harty conducting. Although he was a devoted Mozartian, Harty did not think to remonstrate with Tertis over the changes that the violist made to the score. The most radical was to throw out Mozart’s cadenza for the first movement and replace it with Tertis’s own, based on one by the older Joseph Hellmesberger, who composed an equally ill-judged cadenza for the last movement of Bach’s Double Concerto. Despite the tamperings, and the soloists’ all-pervasive portamento, the performance has always been valued for the superb interplay between Sammons and Tertis and the stylish accompaniment.
Role: Classical Artist