Born in Crouch Hill London in 1884, Bowen was the youngest of three sons of the owner of the Whisky distillers Bowen & McKechnie. He received his first piano and harmony lessons from his mother and after they became aware of his remarkable talent his parents enrolled him at the North Metropolitan College of Music, where the principal was C.J. Dale, the father of Benjamin Dale, Bowen's close friend. He made rapid progress and at the age of eight was the soloist in a performance of Dussek's piano concerto. He went on to study at the Blackheath Conservatoire with Alfred Izard where he won several scholarships. At the age of fourteen he won the Erard Scholarship to The Royal Academy of Music, where he studied piano with Tobias Matthay and composition with Frederick Corder. He had a very successful time as a student, winning many prizes for piano and composition, including the Worshipful Company of Musicians' Medal. He also became an accomplished organist, viola and horn player, considering the viola to be superior in tone to the violin. His talent as a pianist was gaining recognition and he was invited to play his First Piano Concerto at the Proms under Henry Wood when only 19 years old. Saint - Saens, on hearing him described him as "the most remarkable of the young British composers". After graduating from the Royal Academy in 1905 he continued to appear at the Proms and appeared under the baton of Dr. Hans Richter, who conducted his First and Third Piano Concertos in London and Manchester. He performed his suite in D Minor for Violin & Piano op 28, with Kreisler (to whom it is dedicated) and many renown violinists of the time gave performances of the work, notably Szigetti, Zacherewitsch and Zimbalist. He also collaborated on many occasions with the great viola player Lionel Tertis for whom he wrote several works. At the age of 23 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and at the age of 25 became a Professor.
In 1912 Bowen married Sylvia Dalton, the daughter of the vicar of St. Michael's Creech in Somerset. She was a singer and Bowen often accompanied her in recitals. Their son, Philip was born in 1913.
On the outbreak of the First Word War, York Bowen served in the Scots Guards, playing the horn in the regimental band. He contracted pneumonia whilst in France and was brought back to England by his wife who was an ambulance driver. After the war Bowen resumed performing and composing and it was this period that produced his most notable work, the set of 24 Preludes in all major and minor keys for piano. He also made the first ever recording of Beethoven's fourth Piano Concerto. However, Bowen's romantic style was not in keeping with the mood of the times and refusing to revolutionise his writing he fell into decline. Further, he was experiencing financial difficulties forcing him to sell his house and take up rented accommodation. During the years that followed, Bowen was continually active. He composed many very fine works for well known musicians of the day, such as Dennis Brain, Carl Dolmetsch, Leon Goossens, Beatrice Harrison, Pauline Juler and Gareth Morris. He also formed a two-piano duo with fellow professor at the Royal Academy, Harry Isaacs, which proved to be highly successful and lasted until Bowen's death in 1961. He considered his teaching, examining and adjudicating to be an extremely important part of his life and inspired the utmost loyalty and affection from his pupils.
Following his death in 1961, Bowen's music is now largely out of print, very few works appear in concert programmes and his chamber music is hardly played. However, there is a revival underway and thanks to recent recordings and Monica Watson's book "York Bowen - A Centenary Tribute" (1984), (Thames Publishing), listeners and performers are becoming aware of a wonderful musician and some truly extraordinary music.
Lionel Tertis was certainly a great influence on the young Bowen and his two viola sonatas and the viola concerto must reflect something of the power & virtuosity of this great viola player. It was said that Bowen could play every instrument of the orchestra and he had an amazing ability to really understand what each instrument could do. The piano parts are always big but never dominate. Influences include Rachmaninov (he is often referred to as the English Rachmaninov), Brahms, Chopin, Dvorak, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Strauss, but his music is very much his own.
© G Ballard
Courtesy of www.yorkbowen.co.uk July 2026