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frederic cowen

Frederic Cowen

Frederic Hyman Cowen was a British pianist, conductor and composer whose talents embraced songs, symphonies, oratorio and opera. He was born at Kingston, Jamaica, on 29 January 1852 and brought to London as a child when his father secured a post at Her Majesty’s Opera. His parents recognized his remarkable musical gifts – he was a child prodigy - and arranged tuition with Henry Russell, Julius Benedict and John Goss. Further training followed at Leipzig and Berlin. He was initially seen as a solo pianist but by the 1870s he had achieved a reputation as a composer. He was known to Carl Rosa as they both moved in London musical circles and were also neighbours in Warwick Crescent in the Little Venice area of London. Their social relationship became a professional relationship in 1875 when Rosa approached him to provide a new opera for his company.

Rosa’s first commissioned opera, based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s romantic melodrama The Lady of Lyons, had a libretto by Henry Hersee, and named Pauline after the heroine. The world première took place in London at the Lyceum on 22 November 1876 with Rosa conducting and Cowen joining him on stage at the end of the evening. Twelve performances followed during the rest of the season with Cowen conducting in Manchester and Birmingham. Rosa continued to commission new works but he did not approach Cowen again until early 1889. It was one of Rosa’s last managerial acts as he died suddenly in April of that year. Thorgrim was based on an Icelandic saga with a libretto by Joseph Bennett. The premiere took place at Drury Lane on 22 April 1890 with Cowen at the rostrum. He also conducted some provincial performances. Both operas were respectfully received but made no lasting impression upon the public. They had novelty value which sustained them for a season but nothing more.

Cowen’s final work for the company was A Memorial Ode To Carl Rosa, a choral work in memory of their former chief. It was given on 5 March 1891 at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre at a special performance to mark the unveiling of a memorial bust of Rosa by the sculptor Walter Merrett. The company gave what was probably the only performance together with operatic extracts. The bust was placed in the foyer of the theatre but its present whereabouts are unknown.

Cowen’s distinguished musical career continued and he received a knighthood in 1911. However his compositions are largely forgotten today although some of his music has been recorded. His Carl Rosa compositions survive solely as manuscripts in the Rosa Opera Archive. He died in London on 6 October 1935 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery at Golders Green.

© 2019 John Ward

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