Sir William Harris is still best known for his anthem Faire
is the Heaven, which sets parts of a poem by Edmund
Spenser. But Harris’s catalogue includes a number of other pieces
which deserve to be well known. Some ten years ago the Exon
Singers under Andrew Carwood produced a disc of Harris’s
choral music which brought it to our attention. Now Naxos
have brought out a disc of Harris’s music sung by the Choir
of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, where Harris was musical
director for nearly thirty years.
Harris might have been
an almost exact contemporary of Stravinsky, but his music
contains little trace of modernism. He is a strong example
of the late-Romantic English school, with his well-turned
ear for word-setting, a fondness for good English poetry
and a musical style that makes much of modulations. It is
this latter which is his most distinguishing characteristic,
his pieces rarely stay in a single key. He is adept at using
chromatic modulations to enhance his projection of the text
and to screw up the tension. Harris was also fond of using
enharmonic changes as another tool in his finely wrought
A prime example of this is Faire is the Heaven which starts and ends in D flat major, the key that
Harris associates with the souls resting in the divine presence.
But as things get interesting D flat is transformed into
C sharp and we slip into A major and then onward and onward
until D flat major is reached again at the end.
The casual listener will probably be ignorant of the
mechanics behind all this but the way Harris manipulates
keys is a significant part of the music’s powerful effect.
It also makes his larger-scale pieces tricky to sing well. Faire
is the Heaven is
the sort of well known piece that is easy to do indifferently
and hard to do really well.
The Choir of St. George’s Chapel set them selves a strong
task by undertaking these large-scale Harris pieces. Faire is the Heaven was written for a choir consisting of eight
parts and the Windsor choir has just four altos, four tenors
and four basses. This means that there are just two men on
each of the lower parts. This means that we are aware of
That the choir fails to blend into a shimmering whole
is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that we are more
aware of the different vocal lines and of the intricate part-writing
in Harris’s more complex pieces. It helps that the choristers
sing with passionate commitment. Harris’s music can be strong,
meaty stuff and Timothy Byram-Wigfield and his choir obviously
believe in it, and convey that belief to us.
We may detect individual voices but they all imbue Harris’s
vocal lines with shapeliness and project the words well.
The result is that the choir has a very distinct personality
which, in this age of bland homogenisation, is a good thing.
Faire is the Heaven is preceded by another
of Harris’s large-scale pieces,
the weak hands which
was composed for the Commemoration of the Science and Art
of Healing, so its texts are all chosen for their medical
relevance. It is strong stuff indeed, well projected by St.
George’s Chapel Choir and I hope their performance gains
the work more admirers.
Love of love and Light of light sets another
English poet, Robert Bridges. It was written in 1935 in memoriam
Robert Bridges and dedicated
to the poet’s wife, Monica. In this piece Harris seems to
hark back to Parry and in place of his usual explorations
of remote keys, utilises Parry-like sequential patterns.
The result has some wonderfully evocative cascading phrases.
Another big piece, Praise the Lord O my soul was written in 1938. Initially rather understated,
this piece gradually develops its material and produces some
thrilling climaxes. The choir give it a wonderfully committed
performance but there are a few smudgy details and at times
their performance sounds a little too strenuous. Here and
in one or two other places the trebles' tone can get a bit
harsh under pressure. This slight harshness mars King of Glory, one
of Harris’s simpler settings. Simpler it might be,
but it is nonetheless an effective treatment of George Herbert’s
Harris’s Thomas Browne setting, The Night is Come,
was published in 1961, the year that he retired. This has
a lovely haunted opening that evokes Browne’s
text beautifully. Though it develops strenuously there are
some beautiful moments of repose, notably the lovely setting
of the words ‘Sleep is a death, O make me try by sleeping
what is to die’ and the calm, quiet closing pages with a
lovely bass solo from James Birchall.
The disc ends with the setting of another great English
poet, John Donne. Bring
us, O Lord God was
written some thirty years after Faire
is the Heaven but
its harmonic explorations have much in common with the earlier
work and make a fitting conclusion to this recital.
Three of the pieces on the disc are world première recordings.
The CD booklet is written by Alastair Sampson, former
organist of Eton College Chapel, who served as a chorister
under Harris in the 1950s. Sampson’s notes are admirable,
but they have the unfortunate tendency to refer to the works
in an order different to that in which they are performed,
which can be rather frustrating.
This Naxos disc will, I hope, bring Sir William Harris’s
work to the attention of a whole new audience. Not everyone
will be comfortable with the choir’s choral style and I hope
that future recordings may refine things. But they perform
their old master’s music with passion, commitment and a remarkable
degree of accuracy. What more could you want?
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