This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969
Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen (1852-1935), composer and conductor, was born on 29 January 1852 at Kingston, Jamaica, son of Frederick Augustus Cowen and his wife Emily, née Davis. At 4 he went to England with his parents. He composed a waltz at 6 and at 8 an operetta to his sister's libretto. At 12 he appeared in public as soloist in a Mendelssohn piano concerto and a year later took the keyboard part in his own A major piano trio. At 13 his parents took him to Leipzig for further training, and in 1867 he began to study conducting under Kiel at the Stern Conservatorium in Berlin. He returned to London in 1868 and promptly produced a concert in which a symphony and a concerto of his own were performed. After this London concert he was known primarily as a composer. His later career was long and distinguished until his talents were eclipsed by the more strongly creative spirits of the English musical renaissance.
Cowen's relevance to Australia depends on his organization of the gigantic musical festival that accompanied the International Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne in 1888. The executive vice-president and treasurer was Sir Frederick Sargood, a notable amateur of music who patronized a glee club at his home, Rippon Lea. His influence and that of George Leavis Allan, another exhibition commissioner, induced the whole committee to look to music for the chief ornament of the exhibition. Allan supervised the engagement in England of fifteen leading orchestral players who were to form the nucleus of the exhibition orchestra: Alberto Zelman and George Peake began to train a choir, drawn from all the large provincial cities as well as from Melbourne. Cowen was invited to Melbourne as conductor-in-chief and musical director. At first he was not willing: 'I decided to refuse', he wrote, 'or, rather, I made my fee, as I thought, so prohibitive that I never expected to hear anything more about the matter'. But the commissioners matched Cowen's unspecified demands very closely, and offered him £5000 for the six-month engagement with the voyage and rehearsals taken into account. This might have lengthened into ten months, but it was still an enormous payment at the time, and indicated the strength and confidence of the colony just before the land boom collapsed.
Cowen brought with him fifteen of the best English professionals, among them leaders for all the string sections, first-desk wind players, a harpist and a full quartet of horns. Meantime the commissioners engaged fifty-eight local musicians, making an orchestra of seventy-three which even today would be regarded as the size and constitution of a full symphonic group. In six months Cowen gave 263 concerts at the exhibition, 211 of them purely orchestral, an endurance course which probably remains unequalled in the annals of performance anywhere. He played an astonishing range of music, covering in a remarkably accurate way the standard repertory of the time. The programmes gave Australia its first hearing of a large number of famous works as well as some that have not become famous, like Cowen's own cantata, A Song of Thanksgiving, composed for the occasion and forwarded to Melbourne for rehearsal before he left England.
Perhaps in Europe a gargantuan music festival of this kind might not have been as important as it was to Australia in 1888. To appreciate fully what it meant, the local context must be known. This spectacular affair gave a unique fillip to the uncertain demand for permanent orchestral foundations not only in Melbourne but throughout Australia. Even at the time its importance was realized and some efforts were made to retain the exhibition orchestra after Cowen left. Under the conductor, Hamilton Clarke, and with an unprecedented subsidy from the government, the rechristened Victorian orchestra lurched along for about twelve months before the bloom disappeared in a contracting economy. Although the enterprise failed in the long run, the failure was spectacular and certainly eased the task of later pioneers.
Cowen had no further contact with Australia. In 1908 he married Frederica Gwendoline Richardson, was knighted in 1911, died in London on 6 October 1935 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Golders Green. His autobiography, My Art and My Friends, was published in London in 1913.
Kenneth Hince, 'Cowen, Sir Frederic Hymen (1852–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowen-sir-frederic-hymen-3272/text4959, accessed 5 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969