Obituary: Christopher Cowan

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor