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Primrose was born on 23 August 1904 in Glasgow, the son of John Primrose, orchestral violinist and violist and connoisseur of string playing and instruments—Willie (or Bill as he became known) used his father’s 1735 Nicolò Gagliano in his early career. There was music on his mother’s side, too: her brother Samuel Whiteside was a distinguished Glaswegian violinist who played several other instruments, but sadly he was drowned when Willie was very young. The lad began violin lessons at four with Camillo Ritter, a pupil of Joachim, Haliř and Ševčík, and would have gone on to study with the latter, had it not been for World War I. He was playing in public at twelve and was able to hear Caruso, Destinn, Elman, Kreisler, Kubelík, Szigeti and Ysaÿe. With Sir Landon Ronald’s help, at fifteen he entered the Guildhall School of Music in London, where he studied with the Dutch player Max Mossel, graduating in 1924 with the gold medal. Meanwhile he made his Queen’s Hall début with Ronald conducting in June 1923, playing Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and Elgar’s Concerto on the borrowed ‘Betts’ Strad. Primrose gained most from Eugène Ysaÿe, with whom he spent several summers at Le Zoute from 1926, and it was the Belgian master who suggested he turn to the viola.

On 30 May 1928 the Scot played the Sinfonia concertante at a Mozart festival in Paris with the 52-year-old Tertis. This performance at the Grande Salle Pleyel, with the Lamoureux Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham, was the crucial event in Primrose’s career (although subsequently he would skate over the Tertis connection, because of their disagreements on viola tone and vibrato, as well as the ideal size of the instrument). Primrose had always felt affection for the viola but Tertis’s huge, warm tone showed him its potential. In the Green Room he told Tertis: ‘I am a disciple of yours from henceforth.’ By 1930 he was playing viola in the London String Quartet, dividing his time between old world and new, as the LSQ was popular in North and South America, but at the end of 1934 the group disbanded. On 27 February 1936 he gave his first performance of Walton’s Viola Concerto, with Beecham for the Royal Philharmonic Society: ‘Well, at least we finished together, dear boy,’ the bearded baronet said, having got lost in the central scherzo. On 5 November that year Primrose made his Berlin Philharmonic début, playing Vaughan Williams’s new Suite in a concert of British music conducted by Leo Borchard. In August 1937 it was announced in the New York press: ‘William Primrose, the English [sic] viola player, has accepted an invitation from the National Broadcasting Company to lead the violas in the new orchestra being formed for Arturo Toscanini’s concerts here, and to broadcast solos.’ Promised the NBC SO principal’s job by Toscanini, Primrose arrived to find that Artur Rodzinski had already hired Carlton Cooley for that chair. So he merely shared the front desk but was able to play the occasional solo. For a few years he organized the Primrose Quartet, with NBC colleagues Oscar Shumsky (later Joseph Fuchs), Josef Gingold and Harvey Shapiro: the group first broadcast on 8 May 1939 (Borodin Quartet in D minor) and made its concert début on 5 November, playing Mozart’s E flat Quintet, K. 614, with William Carboni for the New Friends of Music at Town Hall. ‘New Yorkers have rarely…heard such playing as the Primrose Quartet vouchsafed yesterday,’ reported The New York Times.

In 1941 Primrose took a chance and went solo, touring the United States with the tenor Richard Crooks. He recorded with Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann, joined the reconstituted LSQ for occasional concerts, and in 1947 appeared in London and at the first Edinburgh Festival with Schnabel, Szigeti and Fournier. He had a long collaboration with Heifetz and Piatigorsky, and during the late 1950s and early 1960s took part in the Festival Quartet, with violinist Szymon Goldberg, cellist Nikolai Graudan and pianist Victor Babin. For one season he played in the Griller Quartet. Until a heart attack in 1963 forced him to curtail his activities, he was the undisputed king of viola soloists.

In private life he enjoyed billiards, cricket and swimming. He was made CBE in 1953. After a long illness he died in Provo, Utah, on 1 May 1982. Primrose taught at the universities of Southern California (1961–65) and Indiana (1965–72) and concentrated on teaching in his last years, when his health and hearing were impaired. He left much pedagogical material, such as the Yehudi Menuhin Music Guide to the Violin and Viola (1976) and Playing the Viola (1988). He wrote a readable autobiography, Walk on the North Side (1978).

© Tully Potter

Albums featuring this artist are available for download from ClassicsOnline.com
View by Role: Classical Artist | Arranger
Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
ANDERSON, Marian: Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit (1930-1947) Naxos Nostalgia
BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy / WALTON: Viola Concerto (1946) (Primrose) Naxos Historical
Orchestral, Concertos
PRIMROSE, William: Recital, Vol. 1 (1939-47) Naxos Historical
Chamber Music, Instrumental, Chamber Music, Vocal, Chamber Music
PRIMROSE, William: Recital, Vol. 2 (1939-1952) Naxos Historical
Instrumental, Vocal, Chamber Music, Instrumental, Chamber Music


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