Cowen, Frederic


Cowen, Frederic

The Language of Flowers, Suite de Ballet No. 1

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Frederic Hymen Cowen

(b. Kingston, Jamaica, 29 January 1852; d. 6 October 1935, London)

The Language of Flowers

Suite de Ballet No. 1


Late Victorian Britain saw a desire to create a ‘national’ school of music to rival the German tradition. As with the Mighty Handful in Russia, though working separately, five composers were at the forefront of this move: Arthur Sullivan, Frederic Hymen Cowen, Alexander Mackenzie, Charles Villiers Stanford, and Hubert Parry. They achieved varying degrees of success with their own music (one commentator said that it would have been greater had they been called ‘Sullivanski, Cowenkoi, Mackensikoff, Stanfordtscheff and Parrykine’) but they did lay the foundations for the next generation of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bax, Ireland and the like. The least well remembered of these musicians is Cowen.

He was born at Kingston, Jamaica, the fifth child of Frederick Augustus Cohen, his birth being registered in the name of Hyman Frederick Cohen. Frederick Augustus later moved to London, changed the family name to the less Jewish ‘Cowen’, and became treasurer of Her Majesty’s Opera and subsequently of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The brothers and sisters were all gifted, and included a recognised artist, Lionel, and an accomplished actress, Henrietta. Frederic showed an early aptitude for music, being encouraged by Sir Henry Bishop, taking lessons with John Goss and Julius Benedict, before eventually studying at Leipzig and Berlin with Ignaz Moscheles, Carl Reinecke, Louis Plaidy and Friedrich Kiel. His career was to be mainly as a conductor, notably of the Royal Philharmonic Society, the Halle, Liverpool Philharmonic and Scottish orchestras, and of the Handel Triennial Festival. It was through his conducting that Cowen became acquainted with Liszt, Rubinstein, Brahms, Grieg, Dvořák and many other contemporary musicians.

Throughout his life Cowen produced pieces that might today be called ‘light classics’. The Language of Flowers dates from 1880 and is called a Suite de Ballet, though there is no suggestion it was ever intended to be staged. The Language of Flowers was a philosophical idea in which different flowers were associated with different human emotions; rather like an early feng shui. It had its roots in the Ottoman Empire but captured European imaginations to the extent that many gardens were laid out according to its principles. By the second half of the 19th Century it had been embraced wholeheartedly by the Victorian British, so that it is no surprise that Cowen used it as the basis for a suite. The five movements are Daisy (Innocence), Lilac (First Emotions of Love), Fern (Fascination), Columbine (Folly), and Yellow Jasmine (Elegance and Grace). The last movement (Yellow Jasmine) was also published separately. It is not known when the suite was first performed, but within 15 years it was well enough known for Henry Wood to include it, or parts of it, in seven Promenade Concerts from 1895 to 1900. Frederic Cowen also conducted Yellow Jasmine in a 1912 recording for HMV.

Cowen wrote a second Suite de Ballet on The Language of Flowers in 1916.

Phillip Brookes, 2012

For performance material please contact Novello, London. Reprint of a copy from the collection Phillip Brookes, Roxas City

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