Walter Willson Cobbett And The Chamber Music Phantasy

The strange story of how a wealthy industrialist invented his own chamber music form.

“Tallinn String Quartet in Tel Aviv” by Estonian Foreign Ministry. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

I reflected that in literature there are the lyric and epic poem, the short story and the long novel; in the orchestra, besides the symphony, the overture and the symphonic poem; but that in chamber music there is only one form that counts […] and I concluded that a new type suited to the needs of the chamber music composer was needed.

These words, spoken in 1911 in an address to the Royal College of Music, are something you don’t hear every day. The speaker describes inventing a new musical form: a short chamber music piece of just one movement, rather than the usual three or four. But traditions of composition, like forms in any art, don’t tend to come about in such a planned-out way. Had a composer uttered these words, we might think it arrogance. In fact, this boldness came from the confidence of a man with a lot of money.

Walter Willson Cobbett (1847-1937) made his fortune away from the marbled halls of the Royal Academy of Music, in the less glamorous world of transmission belting manufacturing. Yet like so many of us, a lucrative livelihood did not align with his life’s passion. In his own words he was ‘a very humble devotee’ of the ‘infinitely beautiful art’ of chamber music.

For Cobbett, an epiphany came upon hearing a performance of a Beethoven string quartet. He took up the violin, and though he began too late to achieve technical mastery, he was described as ‘an extremely competent amateur’, leading orchestras and playing quartets with professionals.

His passion was manifested in an impressive array of philanthropic projects to further the cause of chamber music. The mammoth reference work Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, and the founding of both a Free Library of Chamber Music and the Chamber Music Association, were just a few of these.

Clearly, Cobbett was a music lover of unusual dedication. His observation in the address – that in chamber music only one form counted – was perhaps based on a keenly felt sense of injustice, that the music he loved so dearly was missing out on something.

And indeed it is an intriguing point, one that’s easy to overlook: why did composers like Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms, who wrote single-movement works for orchestra, not do the same for chamber ensembles like string quartet? The absence of such a tradition in chamber music, for such a long time, is surely one of the stranger quirks of classical music history.

But this unfortunate deficit gave Cobbett an idea. In 1905, he announced a prize for British composers to write what he called a ‘Phantasy’ for string quartet. The criteria were as follows:

The parts must be of equal importance, and the duration of the piece should not exceed twelve minutes. Though the Phantasy is to be performed without a break, it may consist of different sections varying in tempi and rhythm.

In fact the Phantasy was not an original invention. It would be a modern equivalent of the works by 16th and 17th-century British composers for viol consort, short pieces normally called ‘fancies’, ‘fantasies’, or the more specific In Nomine. This school of music died out in the 17th century, but the discovery of these works had sparked Cobbett’s imagination; he was fascinated by their ‘naïvetés of construction and tonality’. As he saw it, there was a practical virtue in such brief musical forms:

There is a grain of truth in the frivolous saying, ‘those fiddlers never know when to leave off.’ They love it all so much that even the chamber works of Schubert are too short for them. But they are long for the average listener, and so I thought there might be a place in the scheme for shorter works.

The 1905 competition was won by a young composer called William Hurlstone, his Phantasy String Quartet described by Cobbett as an ‘ingenious mosaic of themes’. Winning a prize would be a helpful step up for any young composer, but tragically Hurlstone died the next year of bronchial asthma, aged only 30.

The young composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941) also entered the 1905 competition. He went on to win the 1907 competition for a Phantasy Piano Trio, and Cobbett then commissioned him to write a Phantasy Piano Quartet in 1910. Bridge came up with an elegant symmetrical form, and produced a truly stunning solution to the Phantasy challenge. Its autumnal, elegiac sweep is as emotionally wrenching as any multi-movement composition, but all the more satisfying for its single span. Cobbett regarded it as ‘among the most thrilling pieces of chamber music’ he had heard.

However, a 1912 commission for Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) gives a different insight to what Cobbett was looking for. His Phantasy String Quintet consists of four movements run together, ‘each coming to a definite close, though designed to follow on without appreciable pause’. It was this piece that gained a special accolade from Cobbett: ‘so exactly the Phantasy as I conceived it that it may well serve as a prototype to those who care to write in this form in the future’.

Perhaps a clue to Cobbett’s feelings lies in that observation about ‘naïvetés of construction and tonality’. Like Cobbett, Vaughan Williams was interested in Renaissance music: this commission came just two years after his famous Fantasia on a theme by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. The long, folksong-inspired solos and meditative chords at the opening of the Phantasy Quintet have an expressive simplicity a world away from the sophisticated Romantic language of Bridge.

Another distinct difference is that, while Bridge created an arched structure, Vaughan Williams revelled in the freedom of the form. Each section has its own descriptive title, like a condensed instrumental suite: Prelude, Scherzo, Alla Sarabanda, Burlesca. It is the engaging character of each section, varied in a slow-fast-slow-fast plan, that holds the listener’s attention. The Scherzo is thrillingly energetic, the Burlesca full of red-blooded folksy fun, and the exquisite Alla Sarabanda is, for my money, one of the most heart-breaking things Vaughan Williams ever wrote.

Over the following years, many Phantasies were composed through Cobbett’s competitions and commissions. And though the original time limit of twelve minutes seems to have become stretched, the idea otherwise remained intact. Composers even took to it by their own initiative: Arnold Bax’s Harp Quintet, which appeared in this blog, seems to be a Phantasy in all but name.

So Cobbett had successfully brought about a bite-size chamber music form. But variety, and the short attention spans of listeners, was not the only story here. In the years leading up to the First World War, musical periodicals saw fierce debate on the issue of ‘national’ music, particularly about the revival of interest in British folk-songs and their growing influence on modern composers.

The outbreak of war inevitably gave this debate a boost, and the Phantasies, based on old British models for viol consort, would not escape it: ‘I hope I am not over ambitious when I say that I should like to see this form of writing, translated into modern terms, become a national one once more’, Cobbett wrote. Moreover, he explained that the Phantasy concept contained its own nationalist impulse:

… to call to the attention of native composers the trend of the British mind towards emotional reticence, and to the value of such a mentality in the composition of chamber music, in which the absence of exaggeration is counted a great merit.

Here Cobbett invokes the British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, something that seems quaint now, but was believed by many writers at the time. In explaining the suitability of chamber music to the British mind, Herbert Antcliffe wrote of ‘restraint and self-control’, while Sidney Grew evoked ‘dignity and calmness’ and ‘our great faculty to see things objectively’. Edwin Evans claimed that the most representative British music contained ‘directness of purpose’, ‘an open-air vigour, and a latent sense of fun’.

We Brits tend to be a bit more self-deprecating today. But these are revealing insights into the values by which Cobbett and his contemporaries chose to define themselves, and their Britishness. The Phantasy was in a prime position to embody this nationalist sentiment at a time when political turmoil meant that it was increasingly felt. Impressive, for a mere chamber music form.

But wartime patriotism aside, it’s clear that what drove Cobbett’s initiatives was, first and foremost, a love of chamber music. He believed passionately that it should be practised by amateurs like himself: it was, he said, ‘so conducive to personal happiness as to be of real interest to the community at large’. He went further, describing ‘the dream of my life to see private music making established throughout the country’. The Phantasy, then, had another justification: a less strenuous chamber form would help to foster a culture of amateur musicianship.

Sadly, such a culture has not materialised. If he were alive today, Cobbett would surely regret that most of the Phantasies he brought about now languish in obscurity (some of them have only just received their premiere recordings a hundred years after their composition), but more importantly, he would see the classical chamber music he loved so dearly still remaining, for the most part, the preserve of elite musicians.

Perhaps this is a testament to how uncommon Cobbett’s single-minded devotion to his art form was; even rarer, perhaps, than the enviable economic freedom with which he was able to dedicate himself to it.

The Cobbett Phantasy was very much the product of a time and place, and such a simple premise was inevitably overshadowed by the profound upheavals of musical modernism that followed later. But Cobbett should be remembered for his Herculean efforts of musical philanthropy, and the compositions that he financed from a golden generation of British composers should be far better known.

What’s more, his idea that chamber music should be practised because it is ‘conducive to personal happiness’ and ‘of interest to the community at large’ is still relevant today, and needs to be said. It stands in damning contrast to the political sphere in contemporary Britain which often frames the arts in the joyless terms of being beneficial to the economy.

Cobbett knew better than that. He knew he couldn’t become a professional violinist, but he also knew this didn’t make his pleasure in music any less worthwhile. He was said to still be practising for two hours a day until very near the end of his ninety years. It is this indomitable spirit, as much as the rich and varied body of music he brought about, that makes him one of my musical heroes.

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