About this Recording
8.223273 - COWEN: Symphony No. 3 / Indian Rhapsody

Frederic Hymen Cowen (1852- 1935) The Butterfly's Ball, Concert Overture Indian Rhapsody

Frederic Hymen Cowen (1852-1935)

The Butterfly's Ball, Concert Overture

Indian Rhapsody

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor "Scandinavian"


Frederic Hymen Cowen was a figure of considerable importance in English music in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and in the earlier years of the twentieth. He excelled particularly as a conductor, was a not insignificant pianist and won wide respect as a composer. His reputation in the last capacity has proved unfairly ephemeral. It might seem that in the year that sees the centenary of his opera Thorgrim, described by a recent writer as negative, colourless and insipid, the time has come to listen again to music that found much favour in its own time but has subsequently often been disparaged unheard.


Cowen was born in Jamaica in 1852 and moved with his parents to England four years later. He showed an early talent for music and published a waltz at the age of six, following this two years later with an operetta on the subject of Garibaldi, with a libretto written by his elder sister. At the same age he became a pupil of Goss, a pupil of Mozart's pupil Attwood, and of Julius Benedict, a pupil of another disciple of Mozart, Hummel. He gave his first public piano recital in 1863 and the following year was the soloist in Mendelssohn's D minor Piano Concerto in a concert at Dudley House for the Earl of Dudley, to whom Cowen's father was private secretary. Joseph Joachim and the singer Charles Santley played on the same occasion and in 1865 Joachim and the cellist Alessandro Pezze joined the 13-year-old Cowen in a performance of his own Piano Trio in A major.


In the same year Cowen was taken by his parents to Leipzig to study at the Conservatoire, where his teachers included the violinist turned piano teacher Louis Plaidy, Moscheles, Reinecke, Hans Richter and Spohr's former pupil Moritz Hauptmann. War interrupted his studies, and after a brief period in England, he moved to Berlin as a pupil of Friedrich Kiel at the Stern Conservatory. Before the year was out he was back once more in London, performing regularly at concerts as a pianist. His first important exposure as a composer came in 1869 with performances of his first symphony and his piano concerto.


Embarking on a professional career, Cowen was first employed as an accompanist for James Henry Mapleson's opera company and under the famous conductor Sir Michael Costa at Her Majesty's Theatre. His first opera, Pauline, based on Edward Bulwer Lytton's The Lady of Lyons, was successfully staged for the first time in 1876 by the Carl Rosa company at the Lyceum Theatre, while Costa arranged a commission from the Birmingham Festival that brought in the same year the cantata The Corsair, based on Byron's poem of that name. It was, however, the Scandinavian Symphony, first performed at St. James's Hall on 18th December 1880, that established Cowen as a composer of importance in English musical life. The inspiration for the symphony had come from a tour of Scandinavia as accompanist to the French contralto Zélia Trebelli, prima donna in a number of seasons with Mapleson's company. The work won remarkable popularity at home and abroad. Further commissions and compositions followed, with increasing activity as a conductor. In 1888 he followed Sir Arthur Sullivan as permanent conductor of the London Philharmonic Society, interrupting his tenure for a lucrative six-month visit to Melbourne for the Australian Centennial Exhibition, where he conducted daily concerts. From 1896 until 1899 he was conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, employed, some suggested, as a temporary substitute for Hans Richter. At the same time he held an appointment with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which he relinquished in 1913. In Bradford he was conductor of the Festival Choral Society and Permanent Orchestra and for ten years, from 1900, was conductor of the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow. Other engagements included the direction of the Cardiff Festival from 1902 until 1910 and the direction of the triennial Handel Festivals, starting in 1903.


He was knighted in 1911 and received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh.


Cowen wrote six symphonies, works that he considered his most considerable achievement. He provided an abundance of choral music, particularly for the festivals with which he was concerned, operas that enjoyed some contemporary success and 300 or so songs, many of which have retained a continuing place in more popular repertoire. It has been suggested that, like Sullivan, his gift lay rather in the composition of light music. The symphonies, at least, would suggest a more substantial talent. The Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick, indeed, who counted Cowen among the amiable and cultivated gentlemen dominating music in London, found that his works showed good schooling, a lively sense of tone painting and much skill in orchestration, if not striking in originality. He went on to suggest that the more concise forms of instrumental music and serious choral works might be the field best suited to his gifts.


The concert overture, The Butterfly's Ball, written in 1901, is a well crafted work, making delicate use of a large orchestra. It is dedicated to the Queen's Hall Orchestra, managed and later financed by Robert Newman. In 1895 the first promenade concerts had been given in the hall, under the direction of Henry Wood, who was to continue the series there until 1940. While not a particularly substantial composition, the overture shows Cowen's facility in handling the orchestra and his gift for pleasing melody, the whole suggesting the ephemeral Cinderella existence of the butterfly, fated to enjoy only one day of life.


The Indian Rhapsody was written two years later and dedicated to "my Scottish Orchestra", the orchestra established in Glasgow to supersede the Choral Union Orchestra. It was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford the same year. The work makes use of a number of themes suggesting something of India, although the opening pentatonic material might now imply music from further East. A theme of more characteristic outline is followed by a viola solo, moving forward to another melody, now entrusted to the cor anglais, accompanied at first by the harp, in music of a Scottish colour. A novel percussive effect that follows is heard in a repeated rhythm played by beating one drumstick against another, over an insistent accompaniment to an energetic new melody. The Rhapsody shows a certain superficial kinship with Russian exoticism of the same period in its use of melodies of oriental flavour, deftly orchestrated, to which material of more obvious European contour provides a contrast.


The Scandinavian Symphony was written in 1880 and dedicated to Francis Hueffer, who in 1878 had succeeded Davison as chief music critic of The Times. In 1885 Hueffer, an influential Wagnerian, was to provide Cowen with the text for his cantata The Sleeping Beauty. The Times, in fact, was warm in its approval of the new work as the most important English symphony for many years. The score was first published in Vienna in 1882. The first movement opens with a first theme played by clarinets and bassoons to which the strings add a second subject in music tautly constructed according to classical principles. The second movement, the only one with a descriptive title, makes use of four off-stage horns to provide the pictorial effect suggested in the title. The horns are first heard after the moving opening section, their sound punctuated by the harp. As the distant music dies away the first theme re-appears, with delicate filigree accompaniment. The horns are briefly heard once more, before the movement comes to an end. The strings open the third movement Scherzo, a lively movement, with a contrasted Trio into which the clarinet leads. The sound dies away, to be followed by the irregular rhythm of the main theme of the last movement, forcefully announced by the strings, and bringing changes of mood before the final triumphantly emphatic C major conclusion.


Czechoslovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice)

The East Slovakian town of Košice boasts a long and distinguished musical tradition, as part of a province that once provided Vienna with musicians. The State Philharmonic Orchestra is of relatively recent origin and was established in 1968 under the conductor Bystrik Rezucha. Subsequent principal conductors have included Stanislav Macura and Ladislav Slovák, the latter succeeded in 1985 by his pupil Richard Zimmer. The orchestra has toured widely in Eastern and Western Europe and plays an important part in the Košice Musical Spring and the Košice International Organ Festival.


For Marco Polo the orchestra has made the first compact disc recordings of rare works by Granville Bantock and Joachim Raff. Writing on the last of these, one critic praised the orchestra for its competence comparable to that of the major orchestras of Vienna and Prague, and for its willingness to undertake repertoire of this kind without condescension. The orchestra has contributed several successful volumes to the complete compact disc Johann Strauss II and for Naxos has recorded a varied repertoire.


Adrian Leaper

Adrian Leaper studied conducting with Maurice Miles at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he was trained also as a horn-player, later appearing with the London Sinfonietta and the English Chamber Orchestra, as well as serving eight years in the Philharmonia Orchestra, five of them as co-principal. At the same time he undertook a variety of conducting engagements with amateur and professional orchestras, in particular with the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, of which he was appointed Musical Director and Principal Conductor in 1982. He has more recently been appointed to the new position of Assistant Conductor with the Hallé Orchestra. Adrian Leaper has appeared at a number of major festivals including Edinburgh, Bonn, Bath, King's Lynn, Greenwich, Cambridge and Henley.


In a busy career in the recording studio Adrian Leaper has directed releases of music by Granville Bantock for Marco Polo, and for Naxos a Scandinavian series that includes the complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies and the violin concerto. His Naxos recordings also include a wide range of English music, from Dowland to Elgar.

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