Kenneth Essex, one of the most respected viola players of our time, celebrates his 100th birthday on Monday 20th July 2020.
Born the son of a Co-op baker and confectionery manager in Hinkley, Leicestershire he learnt to play the violin when the Council School he attended offered violin lessons for 6d per week, or 2s.6d with a brand new factory-produced violin included in the price. His father asked him if he’d like to have a go, and that was the start of his career as a renowned viola player.
He was taught by ex-Kneller Hall musician, John McFarlane Wells, under whose guidance he won the under-14 violin solo class at Loughborough Music Festival. He later came second in the Leicester music festival, after splitting his finger with a hammer two days before, while trying to mend his boots. His father was furious that a girl beat him, but with his finger injury he did well to get through it!
Kenneth sat and passed the entrance examination for the Grammar School at the age of 14, but his father couldn’t afford that, and violin lessons, so Kenneth chose to carry on with the violin. He left school, got a job at Sketchley Dye Works in Hinckley, and worked from 6.30 am to 5.30 pm, and practised the violin when he got home from work.
The adjudicator at the Loughborough Music Festival, Grace Burrows, having spotted his obvious talent, then became his teacher, and suggested that he needed a better violin, or should think about changing to the viola. The viola appealed to Kenneth and he acquired one which cost his father £20, or nearly a month’s wages.
In 1937 he entered the Royal Academy of Music where he joined the Hurwitz Quartet with fellow students Emmanuel Hurwitz and Jorgen Laulund, violins, and Peter Halling the cellist, later replaced by Terence Weil.
The war interrupted their plans and Kenneth joined the Royal Marines Band at the Royal Naval School of Music. He had to learn to play a wind instrument and went to sea on a warship. He was eventually posted to the HMS Euryalus engaged in running convoys to Malta. He learned to play the alto saxophone and joined the front line of the ship’s dance band.
After the war, he was accepted by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and a few months later the reformed Hurwitz Quartet was invited to take part in the Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, for the first production after the war. Shortly afterwards the Amadeus Quartet was formed, and Kenneth played in their quintet dates, however clashes meant he had to give up playing with the Amadeus. The Hurwitz players led the string section of the newly formed Goldsborough Orchestra, and Kenneth was also invited to join the Boyd Neel Orchestra, an experience he remembers with fondness. He was then invited to join the front desk of violas for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, before joining the London Symphony Orchestra as principal viola.
He left the LSO to go freelance and was asked by John Dankworth to appear in the radio series “Johnny come lately” where he played a superb arrangement of Summertime with the Johnny Dankworth Band.
Kenneth continued to play quintets and sextets with the Aeolian, Delme and Gabrieli Quartets and played with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, while pursuing his career in the commercial world as a session musician. He did TV, film and popular music recordings including playing in the string quartet backing The Beatles on Yesterday. He was a favourite with George Martin, frequently playing at Abbey Road Studios, and Carl Davis who featured him in the background music for the TV serial, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the title music begins with a viola solo. He played in the incidental music for Last of The Summer Wine with Ronnie Hazlehurst, for over 30 years, and is the only living member of the string quartet which played the Fawlty Towers theme music.
He has played in Royal Variety Performances, Eurovision song contests (he was in the orchestra in Brighton when Abba won, and amused his family by wandering around the house singing “Waterloo” for the next few days) numerous films, and TV series. His viola playing contributes to the backing tracks of countless popular music legends including Barbra Streisand, the Bee Gees, Burt Bacharach, Kate Bush, Cilla Black, Cliff Richard, David Essex (no relation) Dusty Springfield, Elkie Brooks, Gloria Gaynor, Michael Jackson, the Moody Blues, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, The Walker Brothers and of course The Beatles, to name but a few.
Ken is currently undergoing outpatient treatment for macular degeneration at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, and plans to do a 10km sponsored walk over the ten days leading up to his birthday, to raise funds for Moorfields Eye Charity.
An Anthology of British Viola Players Compiled and Edited by John White Comus Edition
YouTube: The Philharmonia Orchestra 70th Anniversary– Kenneth Essex interviewed by Michael Hurwitz
The One Show (16/09/2015): Richard Mainwaring interviews Kenneth Essex in a piece about Fawlty Towers
The British Library: 2 hours of interviews recorded with Kenneth Essex about his musical career
©️ Upset 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file