Cecil Aronowitz: reminiscences

Cecil Aronowitz was born on 4 March 1916 in King William’s Town, South Africa, to Russian and Lithuanian parents; He was the youngest of three children all showing remarkable musical talent. Each in turn won the overseas scholarship to come and study in England.

Cecil came to the Royal College of Music in 1935 to study the violin under Achille Rivarde. During his student years Cecil played in major London orchestras under some of the finest conductors of the day.

In 1939 war interrupted Cecil’s studies and he spent the next six years in the army. When he returned to the RCM he decided to concentrate on the viola.  In 1947 he won the Cobbett Prize for chamber music.

He left the RCM in 1948 and embarked on his extensive career in chamber music. He was a founder member of Musica da Camera (1946), the Melos Ensemble (1952) and the Pro Arte Piano Quartet (1965). For thirty years he played with the Amadeus Quartet as second violist in the string quintet and sextet repertoire and performed on many occasions with Yehudi Menuhin. He had a long association with Benjamin Britten, playing in every Aldeburgh Festival from 1949 until his death. He led the violas of the English Chamber Orchestra from 1949-73 and played regularly with the London Mozart Players as their viola leader.

Cecil was a renowned viola and chamber-music teacher. He taught at the Royal College of Music for twenty-five years before taking up the position of Head of Strings at the newly created Royal Northern College of Music in 1973. Four years later he joined the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in Snape as their first Head of Strings. He died in on 7 September 1978 after suffering a stroke whilst performing on the stage of Snape Maltings.







Nicola Grunberg writes:

I knew Cecil for the last fifteen years of his life, eleven of those as his wife.  Not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but the largeness of his personality and his enormous energy and sense of fun, not to mention his superb musicianship, have had a lasting and profound effect on my life thereafter.

It has been a source of great joy that first Eric Rycroft, a pupil of Cecil’s, then Louise Lansdown, friend and pupil of Eric’s and both from Cecil’s own country of South Africa, have chosen to own and play Cecil’s viola ever since his death over thirty years ago.  Equally thrilling has been Louise’s decision to instigate the 2014 Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition. Inevitably this has caused many memories of the past to be awakened and so I have set down some personal reminiscences of a wonderful partner and friend.




Recently my 11 year-old granddaughter, Natasha, has taken up the viola after six or so fairly painful years on the violin.  The transformation has been astonishing.  What seems to appeal to her is the sound of this most beautiful of instruments.

Looking back, what I remember most about Cecil’s playing was his beautiful sound.  It was a unique and instantly recognisable sound.  I never heard him as a violinist (I don’t even know if recordings exist anywhere – I’d certainly be fascinated to hear them if they did) but I suspect he took to the viola as naturally as his granddaughter has all these years later.  Having taken up the viola Cecil never – as far as I’m aware – touched the violin again.  Natasha’s violin remains firmly in its case, there to stay until her younger sister needs it or it is sold on eBay.

Cecil did indeed love the viola but over and above all he loved music and this love was reflected in both his playing and his teaching.  He also had a huge zest for life and this too was reflected in everything he did, whether it was partying, travelling, performing, teaching, lecturing.  It didn’t matter – he gave himself 1000% and never seemed to be tired, at least not in his younger days.

He had an acute ear which served him well as both performer and teacher.  It also meant you could get away with nothing if you were his student!  As a teacher he could be quite demanding and not everyone could cope with his super-energetic and sometimes bombastic style.  He would sing copiously in the lessons – his singing voice was terrible but you got the idea of what he was after.  As he became older and tired of the ceaseless round of playing and touring he turned more and more to teaching and guiding young talent.  He was delighted to be invited to become the first Head of Strings at the newly formed Royal Northern College of Music in 1973 and accepted the post with alacrity.  At the same time he had his eye on what was going on in Aldeburgh where there were moves to develop a music school and where singing and string classes were already happening in the back rooms at the Maltings Concert Hall.

Cecil had had a long and fruitful association with Benjamin Britten, taking part in every festival from 1949 until his death in 1978.  He got to know Britten well as composer, conductor and pianist – even violist on occasion.  He was involved in many premieres of Britten’s works, notably the War Requiem and the three Church Operas.  Everyone loved going to Aldeburgh and it was a highlight of every year taking up residence in June for the Festival.  In 1970 Britten invited Cecil to give an ‘Artist’s Choice’ recital at the Jubilee Hall.  This meant that Cecil had carte blanche to play what he liked with whom he liked.  He chose me to accompany him for the bulk of the recital but he asked Britten to play ‘Lachrymae’ with him.

Britten had composed ‘Lachrymae’ for the great violist, William Primrose and together they gave the first performance in 1950.  But as Britten and Cecil were rehearsing 20 years later and just a couple of days before the concert, Britten expressed dissatisfaction with the ninth variation. Overnight he rewrote the viola part – the piano part remained unaltered – and this version was given its premiere at the Jubilee Hall on the morning of 22nd June 1970 with Britten at the piano. Several years later, when he was gravely ill and nearing the end of his life, Britten rescored ‘Lachrymae’ with strings accompanying the viola and he dedicated this version to Cecil.  Always self-deprecating Britten used to joke that the best part of ‘Lachrymae’ was the ending when the voice of Britten gave way to the beautiful voice of Dowland.

Britten’s respect for Cecil also manifested itself in his loan to Cecil of his own viola which had been bequeathed to him by Frank Bridge.  Cecil had bought his viola for £25 from the Royal College of Music just after the war.  In spite of the fact that nobody could ever quite agree as to what this viola might be Cecil loved it.  Cecil would bring Britten’s viola out of politeness when performing in Aldeburgh, but he remained faithful to his own instrument right up to the end of his life. His viola is now owned and played by Louise Lansdown – Head of Strings of the Birmingham Conservatoire and founder of the Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition in 2014.

Eventually Cecil’s dream of a school in Aldeburgh, or Snape, came true and in 1977 the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies was founded.  Sadly it was a short-lived triumph for him – the following year he died, in harness at Snape as he would have wanted.  The building wasn’t even complete.  Just seven months later the School was officially opened by the Queen Mother.

I am, of course, deeply honoured to be on the jury of the 2014 Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition.  What Cecil would have made of it I’m not sure.  His attitude to competitions was ambiguous, considering them a ‘necessary evil’.  In 1978 he was on the jury of the first BBC Young Musician of the Year and found the experience not altogether positive.  But he recognised the difficulties young players have getting started in their careers.  A competition is one way of breaking into a cutthroat profession.  I think he would have been proud and moved but nonplussed – he was always modest about his achievements.

So maybe we have come full circle and one or both of Cecil’s grandchildren will carry the torch for him in years to come.  I am sure they will enjoy their music almost as much as he did even if they do not become professional musicians.  Times have changed enormously since his day – the advance in technology and communications has been quite breath-taking.  He would be quite lost if he were to reappear in today’s world and although he might not have a clue what a computer was (he would have loved mobile phones) the language of music doesn’t change and he would have just as much musical wisdom to impart to today’s students as to all those who knew him half a century ago.


Nicola Grunberg (Aronowitz)