Walter Willson Cobbett
Born(1847-07-11)11 July 1847
Blackheath, England
Died22 January 1937(1937-01-22) (aged 89)
London, England
  • Businessman
  • amateur violinist

Walter Willson Cobbett CBE (11 July 1847 – 22 January 1937) was an English businessman and amateur violinist, and the editor/author of Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music. He instigated the influential Cobbett Competition for chamber music composition, and endowed the Cobbett Medal for services to chamber music.

Education and career

Cobbett playing with his amateur ensemble. The Concert Party by Frank Owen Salisbury (1929).

Walter Cobbett was born in 1847 in Blackheath, England. He became an active supporter of music, and commissioned numerous works of chamber music from emerging and leading British composers of his time.[1]

An innovative industrialist and astute businessman, Cobbett was cofounder of Scandinavia Belting Ltd (today BBA Aviation Ltd.), which manufactured a new type of woven belting for machinery.

But Cobbett's heart was in music. "It has been humorously remarked that he has given to commerce what time he could spare from music," said an article in a contemporary edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians.[2] However, most of his chamber music patronage took place after his retirement from business at the age of 60.[1] Cobbett played weekly in a number of amateur string quartets, was concertmaster of two amateur orchestras, and was a prolific writer and publicist for chamber music. His two-volume encyclopedia of chamber music, published in 1929, is still considered the most comprehensive work on the subject today.

Cobbett wrote of his own devotion to chamber music that "there opened out before me an enchanted world... I became a humble devotee of this infinitely beautiful art, and so began for me the chamber music life."[3] He died in London, England in 1937 during the influenza epidemic at the age of 89.[4] His legacy was continued by the Cobbett Association (closed 2010), an organization devoted to rediscovering forgotten works of chamber music.

Cobbett Competition

In 1905, Cobbett endowed a competition, initially under the auspices of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, for chamber music composers. The panel of judges included the composer Alexander Mackenzie, Royal Academy of Music professor Alfred Gibson (1849-1924), and the Belgian violinist Hermann Sternberg. Specifically, he asked composers to submit what he termed a Phantasy for string ensemble, meeting the following conditions:

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.[5]

This idea was inspired by examples of British viol consort music from the 16th and 17th centuries that Cobbett had been studying, by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and others.[6] Many new one movement Phantasies were composed as a result over the next few decades. Of them all, the Phantasy String Quintet of 1912 by Vaughan Williams was the closest to Cobbett's ideal: "so exactly the phantasy as I conceived it that it may well serve as prototype to those who care to write in this form in the future", he said.[7]

The Cobbett Competition (1905-1919) was instrumental in advancing the careers of leading composers of the time. However, the very first winner, William Hurlstone with his Phantasy String Quartet in A Minor, unfortunately died following an asthma attack just a year after the prize was awarded.[8] The full list of winners in the 1905 inaugural award were:

There were six competitions between 1905 and 1919, each asking for a specific type of composition. In addition to granting prizes, Cobbett also commissioned eleven Phantasy works.[9][10]

Prize winning works, 1905-1919

Commissions, 1910-1912

From 1920 until 1927 Cobbett began sponsoring a series of annual prizes for various forms of chamber music activity at the Royal College of Music.[4] He awarded fifty guinea prizes for the study of chamber music. In 1928 these prizes were permanently established through endowments.[10]

The New Cobbett Prize was instigated in 2014 by the Berkeley Ensemble to build on the legacy. Sequenza for string quartet by Samuel Lewis was the first winner.[11]

Cobbett Medal and Cyclopedia

Cobbett established other prizes as well. The Cobbett Medal for services to chamber music was established in 1924 - the first recipient was Thomas Dunhill - and continues to be awarded annually by the Worshipful Company of Musicians. He also encouraged British luthiers by granting prizes for outstanding instruments.[12]

Cobbett started a periodical on chamber music, called the Chamber Music Supplement. He established a free library of chamber music and started chamber music concert series in working-class neighborhoods of British cities.

Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (1929) was the result of four years of labour. In addition to his own extensive contributions, the two-volume survey includes articles by leading musicians and musicologists of the time, including Vincent d'Indy, Donald Tovey, Ralph Vaughan Williams and others.[13]

See also


  1. ^ a b Frank Howes and Christina Bashford. 'Cobbett, Walter Willson', in Grove Music Online (2001)
  2. ^ Scott, H. A. (H. A. S.) (1904). "Cobbett, Walter Wlilson". In Colles, H. C. (ed.). Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Volume 1 (Third ed.). New York: The Macmillan Company. pp. 674-5 [pdf 747].
  3. ^ "Chamber Music Life" in Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1929).
  4. ^ a b Obituary, The Musical Times, Vol. 78, No. 1133, July 1937, pp. 175-6
  5. ^ quoted in: Paul Watt, Anne-Marie Forbes. Joseph Holbrooke: Composer, Critic, and Musical Patriot (2014), p. 67
  6. ^ Simon Brackenborough. Walter Willson Cobbett And The Chamber Music Phantasy, Corymbus, 3 November 2015
  7. ^ W.W. Cobbett. Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (1963 edition), Vol. 1, p. 262
  8. ^ Notes to Cobbett's Legacy: The New Cobbett Prize for Chamber Music, Resonas CD RES10243 (2019)
  9. ^ IMSLP: Cobbett Competitions
  10. ^ a b Andrew Harley. W.W. Cobbett's Phantasy: A Legacy of Chamber Music in the British Musical Renaissance, University of North Carolina dissertation (2008)
  11. ^ Andrew Clements. 'Cobbett's Legacy: The New Cobbett Prize for Chamber Music', in The Guardian, 1 August 2019
  12. ^ "The Walter Willson Cobbett Medal", The Musician's Company. Retrieved 28 September 2018.
  13. ^ Homer Ulrich. Review of Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, Second Edition (1963), in Notes, Second Series, Vol. 21, No. 1/2 (Winter 1963 - Spring 1964), pp. 124-126