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FREDERICK COWEN

Frederick Cowen was born Hymen Frederick Cohen in 1852 in Jamaica, but was brought to England at the age of four when his father became treasurer to the opera at Her Majesty’s Opera (now Her Majesty’s Theatre).  The boy was something of a child protegy, his first composition being published when he was just six years old, and an operetta following two years later; as a pianist, he gave his first public recital in 1863, and his concerto debut the following year.  In 1865, he gave the première of his own Pianoforte Trio in A major with Joseph Joachim playing the violin part.


With such a rapid flowering of his talent, it is not surprising that, by the time Cowen had reached the age of 13, his teachers in piano and composition both felt that they could do little more to further his musical education and recommended that he undertake a period of study in Germany.  By coincidence, the second competition for the Mendelssohn Scholarship – which gave its winner three years of tuition at the Leipzig Conservatorium – was due to be held that same autumn.  Cowen attended the examination and was awarded the scholarship, but his parents forbade him to take it up, as the terms of the prize required them to relinquish entirely their parental responsibilities and control in favour of the Conservatorium.  To this they were unable to accede; but, nevertheless, they agreed to send him to the same institution as an independent student.


Cowen’s studies in Leipzig came to an end in 1870 with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, but he returned to Germany for a period of further study in Berlin.  However, he was already becoming recognised in Britain as a composer, his reputation in this field being established by the performances in London in 1869 of his first symphony and his piano concerto in A minor.  His talents as a pianist were somewhat subordinated by this success, although his public appearances as such were numerous for some time afterwards.  His large-scale works continued to find performances during the 1870s, but it was his Symphony nr 3 (the ‘Scandinavian’) that brought Cowen international recognition: appearing in 1880, it quickly established itself as one of the most popular symphonic works in the repertoire, proving to be the most regularly and widely performed British symphony until the advent of Elgar’s First.


Cowen was highly successful as a conductor, following Arthur Sullivan as conductor of the Philharmonic Society, and later holding similar posts for the Liverpool Philharmonic Society and for the Hallé Orchestra, where he succeeded Charles Hallé.  He also conducted the Bradford Festival Choral Society, the Bradford Permanent Orchestra, the Scottish Orchestra (now known as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and the Handel Festivals at The Crystal Palace for some years, as well as being a regular attendee at many British music festivals, both as conductor and composer.


Despite being widely acclaimed during his lifetime, Cowen’s career is now almost forgotten.  He regarded himself primarily as a symphonist, but his lighter orchestral pieces are also extremely successful, especially when their subjects gave him an opportunity to display to best advantage his gifts for graceful melody and colourful orchestration.  His dance music, such as is to be found in various orchestral suites, is refined, original and admirably instrumented; whilst his songs, numbering over 300, include some outstanding examples of art-song, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the English Schubert’.  He received honorary doctorates from Cambridge and Edinburgh in 1900 and 1910 respectively, and was knighted at St. James’s Palace on 6 July 1911.  He died on 6 October 1935 and is buried at the Jewish Cemetery, Golders Green, London.