Tertis was born in West Hartlepool, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. (It has often been noted that his birth and that of the cellist Pablo Casals occurred on the very same day.) He initially studied the violin in Leipzig and at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in London. There he was encouraged by the Principal, Alexander Mackenzie, to take up the viola instead. Under the additional influence of Oskar Nedbal, he did so and rapidly became one of the best known violists of his time, touring Europe and the USA as a soloist.
As Professor of Viola at the RAM (from 1900), he encouraged his colleagues and students to compose for the instrument, thereby greatly expanding its repertoire. In 1906, Tertis was temporarily in the famous Bohemian Quartet to replace the violist/composer Oskar Nedbal and later he took the viola position in the Gerald Walenn Quartet.
Composers such as Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Dale, York Bowen and William Walton wrote pieces for him. The Walton piece was his Viola Concerto; however, Tertis did not give the world premiere as he found it difficult to comprehend at the time; that honour went to Paul Hindemith.
He owned a 1717 Montagnana from 1920 to 1937 which he found during one of his concert tours to Paris in 1920, and took a chance in acquiring. According to his memoirs, it was "shown to me in an unplayable condition, without bridge, strings or fingerboard.... No case was available – it was such a large instrument 17 1/8 inches – so my wife came to the rescue by wrapping it in her waterproof coat, and that is how it was taken across the English Channel." Tertis preferred a large viola to get an especially rich tone from his instrument. Knowing that some would find a 17-1/8-inch instrument too large he created his own Tertis model, which provides many of the tonal advantages of the larger instrument in a manageable 16-3/4-inch size.
In 1936, while at the height of his powers, he announced his retirement from the concert platform to concentrate on teaching. He appeared as soloist only one more time, at a special concert in 1949 to an invited audience at the RAM to help raise money for his fund to encourage the composition of music for the viola.
Tertis composed several original works and also arranged many pieces not originally for the viola, such as Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto. He was the author of a number of publications about string playing, the viola in particular, and his own life. They include Cinderella No More and My Viola and I.
Lionel Tertis died in Wimbledon, London.
The Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition was established in 1980 to honour his memory.
In February 2007, the British violist Roger Chase (along with his accompanist, pianist Michiko Otaki) initiated "The Tertis Project," a series of concerts devoted to works composed for Tertis. Chase performs on the Montagnana viola that belonged to Tertis.
- Elizabethan Melody for viola and cello
- 15th Century Folk Song: 1452-Anonymous for viola, cello and piano
- Hier au soir for viola and piano
- Rêverie for viola and piano
- Sunset (Coucher du soleil) for viola (or violin or cello) and piano
- Three Sketches for viola and piano
- Serenade; revised as A Tune
- The Blackbirds (1952)
- The River
- A Tune for viola and piano (published 1954); 2nd version of Serenade
- Variations on a Passacaglia of Handel for 2 violas (1935); original work based on the Passacaglia by Johan Halvorsen
- Variations on a Four Bar Theme of Handel for viola and cello
Transcriptions, arrangements and adaptations
For viola and piano unless otherwise noted
|Anton Arensky (1861–1906)||Berceuse|
|Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)||Air on the C-String||original from Orchestral Suite No. 3|
|Aria "Come Sweet Death"||from Cantata 191|
|Adagio from Toccata in C Major||published 1935; original for organ|
|Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)||Menuet||published 1912; original for orchestra; from 12 Menuette, WoO 7|
|Theme and Variations (on Mozart's "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen"), Op. 66 (1796)||original for cello and piano|
|Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)||Minnelied, Op. 71 No. 5 (1877)||original for voice and piano|
|Wir wandelten for violin or viola and piano, Op. 96 No. 2 (1884)||original for voice and piano|
|Willy Burmester (1869–1933)||Französisches Lied aus dem 18. Jahrhundert (French Air from the 18th Century) (1909)||original for violin and piano|
|Eric Coates (1886–1957)||First Meeting: Souvenir|
|Frederick Delius (1862–1934)||Caprice and Elegy for viola and orchestra (1930)||original for cello and orchestra|
|Double Concerto for violin, viola and orchestra (1915–1916)||original for violin, cello and orchestra|
|Serenade from the drama Hassan (1920–1923)|
|Sonata No. 2 (1922–1923)||original for violin and piano; 1929 transcription|
|Sonata No. 3 (1930)||original for violin and piano; 1932 transcription|
|Ernő Dohnányi (1877–1960)||Sonata in C♯ minor, Op. 21 (1912)||original for violin and piano|
|Edward Elgar (1857–1934)||Concerto in E minor for viola and orchestra, Op. 85 (1918–1919)||original for cello and orchestra|
|Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)||Après un rêve, Op. 7 No. 1||original for voice and piano|
|Élégie for viola and orchestra, Op. 24||original for cello and orchestra|
|Baldassare Galuppi||Aria Amorosa|
|Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)||Ich liebe Dich (I Love But Thee!), Op. 5 No. 3 (1864–1865)||original from Hjertets Melodier, 4 songs for voice and piano|
|George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)||Arietta||published 1910; transcription (violin and piano) by Hamilton Harty of "Si che lieta goderò" from Rodrigo; viola part by Tertis|
|Sarabande||transcription of "Sorge nel petto" from Rinaldo|
|Sonata in F major (Adagio and Allegro)||original for violin with basso continuo|
|Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)||Capriccio||published 1912; transcription (violin and piano) by Willy Burmester from String Quartet No. 49, Op. 64 No. 2; viola part by Tertis|
|Menuet||published 1912; original for orchestra; transcription (violin and piano) by Willy Burmester from Symphony No. 96; viola part by Tertis|
|William Yeates Hurlstone (1876–1906)||4 Characteristic Pieces (1899)||original for clarinet and piano|
|John Ireland (1879–1962)||The Holy Boy||published 1918|
|Sonata in G minor (1923)||original for cello and piano; 1941 transcription|
|Sonata No. 2 in A minor (1915–1917)||original for violin and piano; 1918 transcription|
|Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962)||La Chasse, Caprice in the Style of Cartier||original for violin and piano|
|Franz Liszt (1811–1886)||Liebestraum No. 3 in A♭ major, S. 541 (ca. 1850)||published 1954; original for piano|
|Étienne Méhul (1763–1817)||Gavotte||published 1912|
|Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)||Duetto||original for piano: Song without Words, Op. 38 No. 6 (1836)|
|Fleecy Cloud||original for piano: Song without Words, Op. 53 No. 2 (1838)|
|Gondola Song||original for piano: Song without Words, Op. 19 No. 6 (1830)|
|On Wings of Song, Op. 34 No. 2 (1835)||original for voice and piano: Auf Flügeln des Gesanges|
|Spring Song||original for piano: Song without Words, Op. 62 No. 6 (1842)|
|Sweet Remembrance||original for piano: Song without Words, Op. 19 No. 1 (1831)|
|Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)||Menuet|
|Sonata [No. 22] in A major, K. 305: Allegro molto; Tema con variazione||original for violin and piano|
|Gabriel Pierné (1863–1937)||Sérénade, Op. 7||original for piano|
|Nicola Porpora (1686–1768)||Aria in E major||extracted from the collection I Classici Violinisti Italiani, freely developed and harmonized by Mario Corti|
|Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)||Melody in F, Op. 3 No. 1 (1852)||original for piano|
|Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)||Melody for viola or violin or cello and piano (1959)|
|Franz Schubert (1797–1828)||Allegretto, Duet for violin or viola or 2 violins or 2 violas and piano (1936)||original from the String Quartet No. 15 in G major, Op. 161, D. 887 (1826)|
|Ave Maria, Op. 52 No. 6 (D. 839) (1825)||original for voice and piano|
|Du bist die Ruh, Op. 59 No. 3 (D. 776)||original for voice and piano|
|Nacht und Träume, Op. 43 No. 2 (D. 827)||original for voice and piano|
|Robert Schumann (1810–1856)||Abendlied (Evening Song) in D♭ major, Op. 85 No. 12 (1849)||original for piano 4-hands|
|Romance, Op. 28 No. 2||original for piano|
|Schlummerlied (Slumber Song) in E♭ major, Op. 124 No. 16||original for piano|
|Cyril Scott (1879–1970)||Cherry Ripe|
|Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915)||Étude, Op. 42 No. 4||original for piano|
|Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937)||Pieśń Roksany (Chant de Roxane)||from the opera Król Roger|
|Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)||Chanson triste, Op. 40 No. 2||original for piano|
|June (Barcarolle), Op. 37b No. 6 (1875–1876)||original for piano|
|None But the Lonely Heart (also entitled A Pleading), Op. 6 No. 6 (1869)||original for voice and piano|
|Francis Thomé (1850–1909)||Sous la feuillée, Op. 29||original for piano|
|traditional||Londonderry Air "Farewell to Cucullain" for viola or violin and piano|
|Old Irish Air for viola or violin and piano|
|William Wolstenholme (1865–1931)||Allegretto in E♭ major, Op. 17 No. 2||published 1900; original for organ|
|Canzona in B♭ major, Op. 12 No. 1||original for organ|
|Die Antwort (The Answer), Op. 13 No. 2||original for organ|
|Die Frage (The Question), Op. 13 No. 1||original for organ|
|Romanza, Op. 17 No. 1||published 1900; original for organ|
- Concise Dictionary of National Biography
- This account is disputed by John White, who writes "It was another fellow student, Percy Hilder Miles, who made the casual request that would change the course of Tertis' life" (Lionel Tertis: The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola, page 5.)
- Foreman, Christopher (2011). Benjamin Dale—A reassessment, Part 2: The viola years, 1916–1914. Retrieved 17 August 2011.
- "ID: 3487, Type: viola". Cozio. Retrieved 22 August 2006.
- "Murdoch, William David (1888–1942)". adbonline. Retrieved 24 January 2007.
- Eric Blom ed., Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed. (1954), Vol. VIII, p. 400
- Roger Chase: The Tertis Project
- Middleton, Becky (18 May 2015). "'Greatest viola player of the 20th century' honoured with English Heritage plaque on former home". Yourlocalguardian. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
- John White, Lionel Tertis: The First Great Virtuoso of the Viola (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006)
- Tully Potter, "Chase Fulfilled", The Strad, August 1988.