Lionel Tertis History

About Lionel Tertis

Lionel Tertis was the first great virtuoso of the viola. Although small in stature he played a very large Montagnana. Eric Coates said that: “the sound which Tertis produced out of his huge instrument was something the like of which I had never heard before.”

He was born to a Russian father and Polish mother on 29 December 1876, the same day as Pablo Casals, and spent the first three months of his life in West Hartlepool, not far from Gateshead.

His first instrument was the piano, but he longed to play the violin, and at the age of thirteen he left home to earn money for violin lessons. During his time as a violinist at the Royal Academy of Music he taught himself the viola as there were no teachers of that instrument there at the time. He took his inspiration from listening to Fritz Kreisler with whom, many years later, he gave a performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante.

In 1900 Tertis was appointed as the first professor of viola at the Academy where he stayed for nine years. One of his students said: “He was a most inspiring teacher and absolutely revolutionised viola playing”.

It was during his time at the Academy that he encouraged many of his colleagues to write works for him. Composers such as Arnold Bax, York Bowen and BJ Dale responded by writing a wealth of music that made a major contribution to the solo viola repertoire which was very limited at that time.

For twenty-two years he was a member of The Chamber Music Players with Albert Sammons, Felix Salmond and William Murdoch and as a recitalist he performed with pianists such as Ethel Hobday, York Bowen, Artur Rubinstein, Harriet Cohen and Solomon.

Through lecture-recitals and demonstrations, Tertis attracted a wider interest in his campaign for the viola. He had the idea of designing a viola that was not too large but would produce a full sound. He dismissed small violas which he considered did not have the sonorous tone and C-string quality which he felt were fundamental to the character of the viola. He collaborated with various luthiers to come up with a model that fulfilled all his requirements and eventually the Tertis Model viola was produced. They were popular for a while but have now gone out of fashion.

He enlarged the viola repertoire by transcribing and arranging many works that had been written for other instruments such as the two violin sonatas by Delius and the Elgar Cello Concerto with which the composer was delighted. He also composed a number of short pieces.

His many recordings include sonatas by Bax, Delius, Brahms, Grieg and Mozart.

In 1950 King George VI awarded him the CBE for services to the viola.


William Primrose: “He was the first person to attempt to persuade the public at large to listen to the viola as a solo instrument… and to insist that the viola was an instrument distinct from other instruments.”

Gordon Jacob: “Lionel Tertis was a profoundly musical man with a technical control of his instrument which was quite uncanny, combined with an impeccable ear for intonation, tone colour and phrasing.”

William Walton, to Harriet Cohen on Tertis’s performance of his Concerto: “You have no conception what Tertis has made out of the work – if you liked it before, you will pass out when you hear him play it. I nearly did myself.”

For further reading please refer to John White's magnificent biography "Lionel Tertis: The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola" which is available to purchase in paperback from the publisher:

Carol White

Margaret Lyons, Chair of the Tertis Foundation writes:

The Tertis International Viola Competition has taken place on the Isle of Man since 1980. Lionel had been very friendly with Lady Fermoy (in fact he and Lillian were married from her flat) She, in turn, was very friendly with John Bethell who had spearheaded the purchase of a defunct Methodist Chapel located in Erin on the Isle of Man, and together with ten colleagues had renovated it and turned it into an Arts Centre, of which he became the Director. The competition was run from then until the onset of Covid, which made it impossible to organise further events and eventually John retired, and the new Arts Centre administration decided in 2022 to cancel all future International Music Competitions that took place there.

Initially Lillian paid for the majority of the expenses of running the Tertis Viola Competition from her own personal resources but on the realisation that tax relief could be claimed for charitable interests, The Tertis Foundation was formed, with myself being asked by Lillian to be its Chairman, very early in 2003. Our Board of Trustees has always been compact, and both Cathy Connolly and Prof. Jonathan Barritt are original, loyal and indispensable trustees, together with our very first addition to the Board, Christopher Wellington, who was an invaluable colleague for many years until his retirement and subsequent death in 2022. Geraldine Twilley very kindly joined us a year ago and is a great asset in helping things to run smoothly.

We have consistently endeavoured to administer the Tertis Foundation in accordance with Lillian Tertis’s wishes, with the aim that our input has supported the classical music world and in particular Violas in many positive ways. The legacy is designed to continue to promote and encourage the highest possible achievement in viola playing, particularly in the shape of the International Viola Competition that is named after Lionel Tertis.

Over the years, apart from supporting the financial viability of the Tertis International Viola Competition on the Isle of Man, we have given our support to solo Viola concerts and master classes at the Wigmore Hall, helped a small publisher publish even more Viola music, been major advocate of the Wimbledon International Music Festival. This Festival has been supported ever since its inception by us and it has always had at least one concert for the Viola, featuring artists from all over the World as well as numerous Chamber Music events, many of which have featured works with extra Viola input.

The Tertis Foundation has primarily helped with projects connected with the Viola, but Lillian had championed the Parkhouse Competition for a while before the formation of the Foundation as she was a long-standing friend of Eileen Croxford. She also loved Chamber Music and supported various artists from time to time. We have extended our interest to cover the Music for Life Programme at the Wigmore Hall and given a generous donation in memory of Lillian Tertis herself, who was a musician in her own right and without whose generosity there would have been no Tertis Foundation. We have been instrumental in helping with many other smaller projects, too numerous to list but all connected with the charitable interests of Lillian Tertis.

Lillian Tertis was 40 years younger than her husband Lionel, and their marriage lasted 19 years. She supported him with his project of producing the Tertis Viola which was launched at a concert that took place on the Wigmore Hall. She also played two Tertis cellos herself and sold her vintage instrument in order to dedicate herself to furthering his cause. Lillian was utterly devoted to Lionel and set up the Tertis Foundation with the main intention of preserving his reputation and keeping a record of his achievements in the public domain. Robert Lyons spent ten years pursuing a Blue Plaque in Lionel’s name, which unfortunately was installed six years after Lillian’s death in 2009.

The Tertis Foundation has supported the Viola Chair of the Philharmonia Orchestra for 20 years and various one-off projects such as funding a DVD promoting the Viola Competition on the Isle of Man. It has also helped a professional violist to acquire a new instrument following an accident that had nearly caused her to cease playing and had used the money she had raised to buy the new instrument to support herself and family during the year that she could not work. We have helped to launch various important CDs of Viola repertoire, including a two-volume reissue of all Lionel Tertis’s recordings, a recently recorded 2 CD set of repertoire relating directly to Tertis played by Timothy Ridout as well as sponsoring several solo Viola concerts at the Wigmore Hall over the past 20 years.

Various items were donated to the Tertis archives held by the Royal Academy of Music (where Lionel was professor of the viola), providing a very large display cabinet used for displaying a rotating exhibition of important documents and artefacts from their archives.

John Bethell OBE

John Bethell OBE has played an enormous role in organising the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition since its inception in 1980 and in the arts in the Isle of Man over a number of decades. After growing up in Manchester and working as a musician, conductor and the music librarian for BBC North, he moved to the Isle of Man – the place of many a family holidays in his youth – when the Methodist chapel that was to become the Erin Arts Centre was put up for sale. With John’s dedication and hard work, along with the help of friends and local trustees, the Erin Arts Centre came into being in May 1971, immediately setting off on its path of hosting an impressive array of artists. The Erin Arts Centre, in Port Erin, is still going strong.

John came to organise several international festivals and competitions, which have been held regularly at the Erin Arts Centre over the past five decades. These include the annual Mananan International Festival; Mananan Opera Festival; Lionel Tertis International Viola Festival and Competition; Evelyn Barbirolli International Oboe Festival and Competition; Young Singer of Mann and Young Musician of Mann. John also described the incredible time that 48 double bassists came with their instruments to the Isle of Man in 1978 for the International Double Bass Competition and Workshop. This event was captured in the BBC documentary, ‘The Great Double Bass Race,' where the first couple of minutes includes the iconic scene of 48 double bassists playing Saint-Saëns' ‘The Elephant’ on the Port Erin seafront, conducted by John Bethell on a giant, inflatable elephant! The interview with John Bethell is here: John Bethell | Culture Vannin | Isle of Man and the Great Double Bass Race can be viewed here on YouTube:

Commissions from previous Competitions

A feature of the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition is a new work commissioned each time the competition is run which is a compulsory work performed by all competitors. Here are the previous commissions:

2019 – Canto for viola solo (2018) by Roxanna Panufnik

2016 – fenodyree for viola solo (2015) by Stuart MacRae

2013 – 6 Sorano Variants for viola solo (2012) by Peter Maxwell Davies; published by Boosey & Hawkes [2]

2010 – Petite Sonatine 1 for viola solo (2009) by Roger Steptoe; published by Editions BIM [3]

2006 – Darkness Draws In for viola solo, Op. 102 (2005) by David Matthews; published by Faber Music Ltd.

2003 – Through a Limbeck for viola solo (2002) by John Woolrich; published by Faber Music Ltd.

2000 – Pennillion for viola solo (1998) by Sally Beamish; available through the Scottish Music Centre; This work was selected, not commissioned.

1997 – Rondel for viola solo (1996) by Richard Rodney Bennett; published by Novello & Co.

1994 – Odd Man Out for viola solo (1994) by Michael Berkeley; published by Oxford University Press

1991 – February Sonatina for viola solo (1990) by John McCabe; published by Novello & Co.

1988 – Tides of Mananan for viola solo, Op. 64 (1988) by Paul Patterson; published by Josef Weinberger

1984 – Concerto for viola and orchestra, Op. 131 (1983) by Wilfred Josephs; published by Mornington Music Ltd. / Novello & Co.

1980 – Concerto No. 2 in G major for viola and orchestra (1979) by Gordon Jacob; published by Boosey & Hawkes