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Local History







LIONEL TERTIS 1876-1975 - by Tony Pickard

Lionel Tertis was the first really great player of the viola. He was born in West Hartlepool County Durham, on 29 December 1876, a birth date he shares with the cellist Pablo Casals. His parents came from Poland and when he was three months old the family moved to Stepney where his father, Alexander Tertis became cantor at the Princes Street Synagogue.

Lionel began playing the piano at the age of three and at six made his public debut. His ambition was to play the violin and at thirteen left home to earn a living playing the piano and to pay for violin lessons. In 1892 he entered Trinity College of Music, London, following six months at the Leipzig Conservatory and from 1895-97 at the Royal Academy of Music where he switched to the viola. This was a neglected instrument and Tertis had to teach himself. However, he fell in love with it and spent the rest of his life promoting it as a solo instrument.

In 1897 he joined the Queens Hall Orchestra under Henry Wood who is now best remembered as the founder of the Promenade Concerts. In 1901 he became the first viola professor at the Royal Academy of Music. By this time he had acquired a considerable reputation and in 1904 he left the orchestra to concentrate on his solo and chamber music career.

He married Ada Gawthorpe in 1913 and in that year moved into a house in the Crescent,
Belmont in south Sutton, where they lived until his retirement from the concert platform in 1937. In his prime he ranked alongside Kreisler, Casals, Cortot, Rubinstein and other star players of the period. He made numerous recordings between 1913 and 1933 which have recently been re-issued on CDs.  He became a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1922.

His promotion of the viola was helped by a number of major composers including Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton, Elgar and Delius who either composed works for him or allowed the rearrangement of existing works. He added to the repertoire with many transcriptions and compositions of his own, some of which have recently been collected and republished.

In the late 1930s he suffered from fibrositis and gave up playing in public to concentrate on developing his ideal viola in collaboration with Arthur Richardson. By the early 1970s hundreds of Tertis Model violas had been made in seventeen countries.

In 1940 he returned to concert playing, initially in aid of the war charities. He lived in Carshalton Beeches from 1940-42 and after the death of his wife in 1951 spent a year with his nephew Harold Milner in Carshalton Beeches before moving back to Sutton. In 1959 he married the cellist Lillian Warmington and they lived in
Wimbledon where he died on 22 February 1975.

In 1980 The Lionel Tertis International Competition was established to honour his memory

In 1951 he was appointed CBE ‘for services to music particularly in relation to the viola’. He was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1964 and received many other honours.

Tony Pickard

Cinderella No More (1953); My Viola and I (1974)


John White, Lionel Tertis, Boydell and Brewer, 2006

Compositions and transcriptions:
Lionel Tertis the early years, Comus Edition, 2006

The Complete Vocalion Recordings, 1919-24. Biddulph 80219-2 (4 CDs)
The Complete Colombia Recordings, 1924-33. Biddulph 80216-2 (4 CDs)
Both re-issued 2006

Images and text Copyright © Tony Pickard and The Friends of Honeywood Museum 2015

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