The Saxophone and Thor- Discover Frederic Hymen Cowen’s opera, Thorgrim

Frederic Hymen Cowen

The English have a long tradition of the saxophone in opera, longer than you might imagine. Before finding Thorgrim, the first English opera I have in my database is Joseph Holbrooke’s The Children of Don, written in 1912. But it turns out the saxophone was heard in the opera house long before 1912. The English composer Frederic Hymen Cowen is one of the first English composers to incorporate the saxophone into opera with his 1890 opera, Thorgrim.

Frederic Hymen Cohen was a popular composer and conductor in London at the turn of the 20th century. He studied composition at the Leipzig Conservatorium under Carl Reinecke. He conducted several of the major orchestras in England, wrote several symphonies and operas, his light orchestral works were popular among the Victorian crowd, but he is now largely forgotten, which brings us to his opera.

Thorgrim debuted at Drury Lane Theatre on April 22nd, 1890. The Daily Telegraph wrote “Here, indeed, we have the handler of the goldsmith’s delicate tools wielding the hammer of Thor and bring it down to some purpose, revealing strength, energy, and decision for the exact measure of which few could have been prepared… There now remains only to congratulate the composer upon a successful achievement, and upon the favour with which the work was obviously received by a profoundly attentive audience.” The Globe wrote “There could be no doubt of the success which Mr. Cowen has in this instance achieved. It is a work which will worthily sustain the great reputation honourably won by its composer.”

After this successful debut, what happened to the opera? Currently, the full score and all the parts are lost. The opera only exists in piano and vocal score. I only found this opera by stumbling upon The Musical World. After a performance of Singelée, the author of the article says, “we may remind our readers that Mr. F. H. Cowen has introduced a saxophone into the score of ‘Thorgrim.'”1 What saxophone did he use? How did he use it? There is no way to know without a recording or the full score.

Listening to other works by Cowen, it’s clear he’s writes in a British style, much like Elgar, Holst, or Vaughan-Williams. With the subject of Thor, and his use of the Icelandic tale “Viglund the Fair,” I am guessing he was trying to copy Wagner, which places him within the Wagnerites of late 1800s. Listening to this Symphony written at the same time as Thorgrim gives us an idea on the style of this period. British, with a hint of Wagner.

Did Cowen write any other works for saxophone? Many of his scores are considered lost so it’s hard to say whether Thorgrim is the only opera with a saxophone solo. Cowen is now in the database, and by researching his operas in the major newspapers of London, maybe there is more information to uncover on Cowen and the saxophone.

Edit: I discovered a contemporaneous review of Thorgrim that gives more detail on the saxophone solo from The Times, excerpt below.

“Mr. Cowen’s New Opera.” Times, 23 Apr. 1890, p. 10. [2]

Looking at the piano score, the possible saxophone solo can be found on pg. 88. Looking at the range of the solo, this solo is most likely written for alto saxophone.

excerpt from Thorgrim, Act II, “Why wanders Thorvald”

This fits within the French style of saxophone solos in opera. Without any recordings, this is the best information I can find. More research needs to be done on this opera.

  1. The Musical World, December 20, 1890, vol. 70-No. 51 p. 1015.
  2. “Mr. Cowen’s New Opera.” Times, 23 Apr. 1890, p. 10. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 27 Feb. 2023.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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