Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen: British Composer

An Almost Forgotten British Composer

Although only five years older than Edward Elgar, Frederic Hymen Cowen had, by the 1880s, become a world renowned composer of operas, cantatas, oratorios, overtures, a popular song, and at least five symphonies with the young Elgar still frustratingly struggling to get half an hour of time during the London Philharmonic Society concert season to rehearse his first oratorio, Caractacus. When the music half of Gilbert and Sullivan, Sir Arthur Sullivan, heard about this he told Elgar:

“ My dear boy, why didn’t you come to me, I’d have rehearsed it for you.”

The same generosity came from Frederic Hymen Cowen who, apart from composing all those operas and symphonies, also became the principal conductor with the Philharmonic Society (after Sullivan left in a bit of a huff)) who, once he’d met Elgar and looked at the score of Caractacus (he thought it very good), supported Elgar thereafter, introducing the Worcester composer to several music publishing houses, as well as arranging for some of the first performances of Elgar’s King Olaf.

He may have regretted that generosity when Elgar eventually eclipsed him in the popularity stakes, but he only ever spoke of Elgar with the pride of a surrogate elder brother. The two men also had lunch together when they were both in London.

Cowen had the ability to put his musical hand to pretty much any musical genre, and when not composing and conducting he also performed regularly as a concert pianist. He was a professional musician to the core.

His symphonic work has the same broad musical brush strokes as many British composers of the last quarter of the 19th century, with the older Arthur Sullivan (still the best known) an undoubted influence on Cowen in the latter’s use of Beethovenesque heavy chord sequences often counter-balanced by the use of delicate musical pastoralisms that often conjure up the English countryside, which can, as suddenly, turn into deeply moving passages (especially in Symphony No. 3) that, in part, foreshadow Elgar’s heart-breaking largo passages, most notably in The Apostles and The Kingdom, and his two symphonies.

Cowen was born Hymen Frederick Cohen, on the 29th January, 1852, at 90 Duke Street, Kingston, Jamaica, the youngest child of Frederick Augustus Cohen and Emily Cohen (née Davis).

At the age of four Frederic and his family (he had one brother and three sisters)moved to England, where his father had become treasurer at Her Majesty’s Opera (later His Majesty’s Theatre). The family changed their name soon after.

Frederic’s first teacher was the musician, singer, pianist and composer, Henry Russell. Frederic’s Minna-waltz was published when the boy was only six, with his first operetta, Garibaldi, performed two years later.

Later he studied piano and composition in the UK, and at Leipzig, with his first public appearance as a piano accompanist (to one of his own songs) at a concert in Brighton in either 1861 or 1862, followed, in 1863, by a piano recital at the old Opera House in London. In the following year he performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in D Minor at a concert given at the home of the Earl of Dudley in Park Lane, London.

Unlike Elgar, who was self taught, Cowen was rather burdened from a young age by academic teaching methods which often smothered his emotional integrity and poetic nature. But within his music there are wonderful examples of his true creative nature rising brilliantly to the surface.

Cowen worked with many British orchestras in his career, not least the Hallé Orchestra, and the original Liverpool Philharmonic Society orchestra.

Is he an almost forgotten British composer? Well, in a way yes, with his name hardly of the household variety. But if we look at his influence on, and encouragement of other composers, his legacy is still very much alive, with Elgar acknowledging and suggesting, at a dinner in honour of Cowen in 1925, that without Cowen’s encouragement his own career as a composer might have been very different, or not at all.

Then again, when we look at the ever growing amount of Cowen’s work that has, and is being newly recorded, he is obviously not forgotten by musicians, conductors and record producers.

Frederic Hymen Cowen was knighted in 1911, published his autobiography in 1913, and kept on working almost until the end, with his last two orchestral pieces published and performed in 1934.

Cowen died in October 1935, and is buried at the Jewish Cemetery, Golder’s Green.

He’d married Frederica Gwendoline Richardson — thirty years his junior — in 1908, and by all accounts they had a happy, yet childless, marriage, with Lady Frederica dying in 1971.

Cowen’s output is too vast to list here, but very much worth listening to if you get the chance.

Listen to Cowen’s Symphony №5

Sources: Cambridge Companion to Elgar (Edited by Daniel Grimley and Julian Rushton). Wikipedia, Britannica, and Edward Elgar: A Creative Life by Jerrold Northrop Moore.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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