Obituary: Watson Forbes

Watson Forbes, that distinguished veteran of the viola, was known to most people as a soloist and member of the Stratton - later Aeolian - String Quartet; but he was also a teacher, arranger, producer, adjudicator and for many years Head of Music for the BBC in Scotland.

Forbes was born in St Andrews, the son of a Scottish country fiddler. At the age of five, he had some lessons from his father and the lady who played in the local cinema orchestra, and later from H. Everett Loothby in Dundee. At 12 he made his first successful appearance in a school concert, but confessed that at the time he was far more interested in the yellow stockings and red garters that he proudly wore with his kilt.

After winning first prize in the Perth Festival, he decided it might be fun to take up music as a career. So, at 16, he was sent to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music, where he had violin lessons from the legendary teacher Editha Knocker, and with Raymond Jeremy on the viola. He played in the Academy Orchestra under its conductor Henry Wood and was also second violin in a student string quartet.

It was quite by accident that he took up the viola. The viola player in the Academy quartet had been offered a job in the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra and, viola players being thin on the ground, there was no one to replace him. So Forbes was persuaded to take a viola with him during the summer holidays and on his return, performed so successfully in an Academy concert that he decided he preferred that instrument to the violin.

He subsequently auditioned for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the violin but mentioned that he also played the viola. As a result, he was offered a "gig" at the Queen's Hall and had to play "a terrible part" in the Beethoven Coriolan overture, having to memorise the part because he still could not read the viola clef.

In 1930, Forbes went to Pisek in Czechoslovakia to study with the legendary Otakar Sevcik, whose intricate system of exercises revolutionised string playing; he felt he had benefited enormously from this period of tuition: "Sevcik taught me how to practice and how to tackle difficult passages." Following this concentration on technique, Forbes was fortunate in having some lessons from Albert Sammons, one of the great string players of the time. "He was marvellous. He taught me how to perform - how to put music across to an audience."

At this time, Forbes became a member of the Stratton String Quartet, led by George Stratton, and stayed with them throughout the Thirties. One of Forbes's particularly cherished possession was a signed copy of the famous picture of Elgar on his death-bed listening to the first recording of his Piano Quintet played by the Stratton with the pianist Harriet Cohen, the artists chosen personally by Elgar. In October 1933, Elgar had an operation from which he never recovered and HMV made the recording as a Christmas present to the dying composer.

At the onset of the Second World War, Forbes was joint leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, but from 1940 onwards he joined the famous RAF Orchestra which contained a number of small groups of chamber music players, all famous soloists in their own right. Forbes toured the UK in a piano quintet which included Denis Matthews, Frederick Grinke and James Whitehead. With the exception of Gerald Moore, he also made more appearances than any other musician in Myra Hess's legendary concerts at the National Gallery.

After the war, Forbes returned to Czechoslovakia to appear with the quartet - now renamed the "Aeolian" - in the first International Music Festival in Prague. From this time onwards, Forbes continued to play in a number of small chamber groups and also as a soloist in the concerto repertoire for viola. In 1954, he became professor of viola and chamber music at the Royal Academy of Music in London, served on the music panel of the Arts Council and was also an examiner on the Associated Board, which he gave up only in 1985.

In 1964, Forbes moved to Glasgow to take up the post of Head of Music for the BBC in Scotland. He always felt that this decision had brought his career full circle. He oversaw the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and a number of other organisations connected with broadcasting in his native land, and was Chairman of the Sir James Caird Travelling Musical Scholarships - which had enabled him to go to Sevcik so many years before.

He also found time to organise a viola competition in London in 1969/70 at which William Primrose adjudicated. Forbes's Competition for Scottish Violinists attracted over 150 entrants and Yehudi Menuhin came to judge the finals.

In the late 1960s he directed the Montrose Festival; in 1970 he was made an honorary doctor of music by Glasgow University and in 1972 was awarded the Cobbett Memorial Prize for services to chamber music.

In 1978, he and his second wife, Jean, a professional singer, moved to Warwickshire, and in no time a local string quartet was in evidence. In his latter years, Forbes devoted his time to making arrangements for a number of different instruments. His published works are in demand the world over; in fact when William Primrose first went to Japan, he discovered his fellow Scot was better known than he because the students all played Forbes's arrangements.

Watson Forbes was extremely well read and was not only an entertaining and witty conversationalist but also a good listener. He was admired and respected by his students because he was always positive in his judgements, giving constructive criticism in order not to undermine the individual's confidence. He is survived by his wife Jean, and by his two sons, the composer Sebastian and the singer Rupert.

Watson Douglas Buchanan Forbes, viola player: born St Andrews 16 November 1909; married 1937 Mary Hunt (died 1997; two sons; marriage dissolved), secondly Jean Beckwith (three stepsons); died Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire 25 June 1997.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments