When William Primrose was 4, his father began teaching him to play the violin but wouldn’t let him touch the viola.
“My father,” Primrose explained later, “wanted me to be happy.”
“He said the viola was a kind of harbor for disappointed fiddlers. Not worth one’s time … so of course I played viola every chance I got,” he said.
And it proved to be a good idea: At the time of Primrose’s death May 1, 1982, at age 77, the Glasgow, Scotland-born musician was generally considered to be the world’s preeminent violist and the man who popularized the viola as a solo instrument. (The viola is slightly larger than the violin and tuned a fifth lower.)
Nonetheless, his father, a onetime member of the Scottish Symphony and later librarian of the London Philharmonic, kept him at the violin — and only the violin — until he was 21. Then Primrose went away to study with Belgian master Eugene Ysaye, who shared his feeling for the larger instrument.
Later, he was invited to join the London String Quartet as violinist and toured the U.S. and Europe with that group from 1930 to 1935.
Arturo Toscanini chose him as first viola for the NBC Symphony in 1937, and he remained with that group until 1942 when he left to concentrate on his career as a soloist.
He had enchanted audiences in Rio de Janeiro with the sweetness and beauty of tone he was able to bring from the hitherto-neglected viola at his first solo concert in 1931, and continued to perform as a soloist from time to time during his years with Toscanini.
In 1938, he inaugurated a series of radio programs over the NBC network featuring viola music. The same year, he founded the Primrose Quartet.
After leaving NBC, he toured the U.S., Canada and Latin America, making as many as 80 appearances a year in recitals and as a soloist with major orchestras.
In 1944, he commissioned Bela Bartok to write a viola concerto, and then he played the first public performance of the work (which had been completed by Tibor Serly after Bartok’s death).
Primrose was made a commander of the British Empire by King George VI in 1952 and three years later became an American citizen.