William Primrose


Born: August 23, 1903 Died: May 1, 1982
One of the most famous -- and best -- violists of the recording era, William Primrose was well schooled, diligent, highly musical, and accomplished in all areas of the repertory. His art was as direct and unassuming as his personality. Lacking application to his studies as a youth, he firmed up under the influence of one of history's most influential violinists; under that direction, he switched instruments and applied himself to viola, whose darker coloring had always appealed to him. Primrose had soon gained a reputation that placed him among the greatest violists of his day. Reared in a musical household, Primrose began violin lessons at four years of age. His father, who privately taught violin and was a member of the Scottish Orchestra, thought it better to place young William in the care of Camillo Ritter, an Austrian who had studied with Joseph Joachim. By the time he was 12, Primrose had made several modest appearances in his native Glasgow and had already absorbed much from listening to the Scottish Orchestra. Summers spent on the Isle of Man brought exposure to the art of singers such as Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso and many of the finest violinists of the day, from Mischa Elman to Eugene Ysaÿe. In 1919, the Primrose family moved to London to enroll William in the Guildhall School of Music, which had awarded the youth a scholarship. Despite his having been given a gold medal at graduation in 1924, Primrose later recalled that he had been anything but an exemplary student, skipping his theory and counterpoint lessons in favor of perusing a collection of concertos and hearing more great artists firsthand. Two years after graduation, Primrose found himself in some technical difficulty and was urged by Ivor Newton to study with the elderly Ysaÿe. Under the Belgian master, Primrose not only made his technique secure, but also resolved to devote himself to the viola. The move was made official when he joined the London String Quartet in March 1930. Touring brought exposure to international audiences as founder and leader Warwick Evan's intuitive musical understanding opened new vistas for Primrose. The quartet disbanded in 1935, and for the next two years, Primrose performed whenever and wherever possible, playing engagements from La Scala to Berlin. Primrose decided in 1937 to seek a position in the NBC Symphony being formed under Arturo Toscanini. Although not offered the principal chair, Primrose appeared as viola soloist on several occasions and in 1939 was invited by NBC to form the Primrose Quartet. In the years after his NBC orchestra tenure, Primrose performed as soloist throughout America and Europe, invariably under the leading conductors of the time. He was active in chamber music, performing with such celebrated ensembles as the Heifetz/Primrose/Feuermann Trio and the Schnabel/Szigeti/Primrose/Fournier Piano Quartet. His commission produced from Béla Bartók one of the great concertos for viola (completed by Tibor Serly after Bartók's death) and many other leading composers, such as Milhaud, Britten, and Rubbra, produced works specifically for the violist. After suffering a heart attack in 1953, Primrose concentrated on teaching, beginning at Indiana University (1965-1972). At the time of his death, he was teaching at Brigham Young University. His memoirs, Walk on the North Side, published in 1978 afford an honest and amusing look at a great artist. Many first-rate examples of his elegant, shimmering work remain on disc.