Obituary: Christopher Cowan

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE many hundreds of people going about their lives today who were at one time quietly but indelibly influenced in their love of music by Christopher Cowan. Some of his pupils have become composers - like Gerard McBurney. Some are notable performers - like Peter Phillips, founder and conductor of the Tallis Scholars, or Steven Isserlis, the cellist. Some are distinguished academics - like Hugh MacDonald; or craftsmen and technicians - like Mark Venning, head of Harrison & Harrison, the organ builders.

Most, necessarily, are not professional musicans at all, but have taken their love of music into ordinary life, where they play as amateurs, just for the pleasure of it, or simply participate as listeners. Then there are those who were never Cowan's pupils, but sang or played for him in the many amateur orchestras and choirs he trained and conducted throughout his career, and who carry the memory with them of what it was like to learn and perform the great works of the classical canon under his measured and sensitive direction.

As a musician who dedicated his life to mediating the traditions of Western classical music, Cowan was particularly conscious of his links to the past. He was born in 1908, so had a natural affinity with the music of the 19th century. In later life, he loved to point out that, as a pupil of the pianist Frank Merrick, he was only four removes from the wisdom of Beethoven (who had taught Czerny, who taught Leschetizky, who was Merrick's teacher); and through friendship with the violinists Jelly D'Aranyi and her sister Adila Fachiri - grandnieces of Joseph Joachim - he gathered fascinating anecdotes about Brahms, one of his favourite composers, who had died only 11 years before he, Cowan, was born. Yet, throughout his life, he kept keenly abreast of the latest developments in the music of his time (indeed, shortly before his death, he astonished his granddaughter by asking her quizzically: "What exactly is hip hop?").

Cowan received his first serious musical education at Winchester College, where George Dyson was a formative influence. In 1927, he won an organ scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, and studied for a BMus, which he took in 1932. Conducting lessons with Malcolm Sargent taught him a strong and elegant stick technique, which, when combined with his magisterial physical presence (he was six foot four, well-built, athletic and good- looking) gave him an authority on the rostrum that was irresistible.

If he seemed in many ways cut out to be a professional conductor, Cowan lacked the ambition and egotism typical of that breed. Instead, he turned to teaching, taking his first job in 1932 at Tonbridge School. This was followed by a string of posts as Music Director: first at Dover College (1935), then at Sedbergh (1938) and Uppingham (1950), and finally as Master of Music at Winchester College (1953), where he remained until he retired in 1970.

At Winchester College, Cowan took his place in a distinguished line of educators that had included George Dyson, Sydney Watson and Henry Havergal before him. There was a large and busy music department to be run; piano, organ and harmony lessons to give; the school orchestra and chapel choir to train and conduct (Winchester College was one of the very few schools to have its own choir school); and the Winchester City Music Club (choir and orchestra) to organise and direct.

In these copious capacities, Cowan had responsibility for the musical life of the whole Winchester community for the best part of two decades. During that time, he presided over an immensely rich variety of musical events, and attracted a steady stream of top ranking musicians to play in them (Jelly d'Aranyi, Leon Goossens, Isobel Baillie, Alfred Deller, Peter Wallfisch and Bernard Michelin, to name only a few).

The powerful influence which Cowan exerted as a musician and teacher flowed from his exceptional personality. Rarely can the quality of magnanimity have been expressed so steadfastly in any single human individual. Physical and ethical attributes simply reinforced each other in him: largeness of spirit residing as though by nature in his large, upright frame. As a schoolmaster, he commanded respect at all times, but tempered his unforced authority with unfailing kindness, patience and humour.

Cowan lived out the last 29 years of his life at the family home in Edrom, Berwickshire, in the area where he had been born and where he grew up, and which he loved so dearly. In retirement he continued to lead a vigorous life, travelling widely as an examiner for the Associated Board, teaching harmony at the International Cello Centre (where his wife, Jane, was Director), playing the organ on Sundays at Edrom Church, and pursuing his lifelong interest in photography (by the end of his life he had a library of 16,000 slides).

His great talent for health and happiness was sorely tested towards the end of his life by the deaths in quick succession of his wife and his son, Francis.

Christopher Home Cowan, musician and teacher: born Dalkeith, Midlothian 13 November 1908; married 1937 Jane Harvey Webb (died 1996; two daughters, one adopted son, two adopted daughters, and one son deceased); died Galashiels, Borders 19 May 1999.