Hamilton Harty: Musical Polymath
by Jeremy Dibble
Boydell Press, Boydell and Brewer
I still find it incredible that my late father met Sir Hamilton Harty. It was after we had been listening to the composer’s Piano Concerto on the radiogram that he casually mentioned the story. One afternoon (c.1932) he had come home from school (in Audenshaw) and had been shown into the ‘parlour’ and introduced to Harty who had been visiting my grandfather ‘on business’. Unfortunately, at about 11 years old my father did not grasp what this ‘business’ was. My grandfather was a part-time stage manager at a Manchester theatre, and was also a point of contact for organising Cheshire and East Lancs performances of Messiah, so I can only assume that this may have had something to do with amateur musical life in the area. It is a story I have long conjured with. Other visitors to the house apparently included Gracie Fields, George Formby and Arthur Askey.
For most music-lovers Hamilton Harty is probably just a name - if that. For habitués of the Hallé he will be recalled as having re-established this orchestra as one of the finest in Europe. For enthusiasts of British music he may be remembered for his romantic Piano Concerto or his heart-achingly beautiful tone poem With the Wild Geese. Many will know the ‘The Fair Day’ from his symphony without being aware of who composed it.
Jeremy Dibble has made a major contribution to British musical scholarship. His studies include critical biographies of Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, John Stainer and most recently the ‘honorary Irish’ composer and pianist Michele Esposito. Amongst his other achievements are editions of music by Parry and Stanford. He is the author of many articles and CD liner-notes. Dibble is currently Professor of Music at Durham University.
This impressive biographical study of Hamilton Harty and his achievement is a timely re-discovery of one of the most important and charismatic figures in British music. It is the first major biography of this composer/conductor to be published.
It will come as little surprise that the literature directly concerning Harty is sparse. Until the present book, the only major study was Hamilton Harty: His Life and Music (Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1978) edited by David Greer. This consists of a number of essays examining different facets of Harty’s career as composer and conductor. The same author also issued a short book containing his Early Memories. Much important information concerning Harty is found in Michael Kennedy’s The Hallé Tradition (Manchester University Press, 1960). Grove’s Dictionary has been down-sizing the length of the dictionary article for Harty since the 1950s. The present entry runs to a mere 500 words: there is no list of works.
Investigating the literature further, discloses many short articles and essays hidden in back-numbers of various music journals and newspapers. The Hallé archive in Manchester contains the administrative records and a complete run of programmes for the Harty years. The main autograph collection of the composer’s manuscripts is held at Queen’s University, Belfast.
For the general listener the most immediate source of information is contained in the liner-notes for the largely Chandos-oriented corpus of music that was recorded some 30 years ago with the Ulster Orchestra under Bryden Thomson. These were written by David Greer and provide considerable insight into the man and his music. Finally there is an excellent and highly detailed discography of Hamilton Harty’s own recordings compiled by John Hunt -More Musical Knights. Discographies of Hamilton Harty, Charles Mackerras, Simon Rattle and John Pritchard.
The Arkiv CD catalogue currently (December 2013) references some 25 discs featuring Harty’s music. The most popular works are his arrangement of the ‘Londonderry Air' and the tone-poem In Ireland. With the exception the Symphony, most other compositions that have been recorded are represented by single releases. There are also a baker’s dozen of discs featuring historical performances with Harty as conductor.
It will be helpful to give a thumbnail sketch of the composer to remind readers of his place in British music. Herbert Hamilton Harty was an Ulsterman born in Hillsborough, County Down on 4 December 1879. At the age of 12 he was appointed organist at Magheracoll Church in County Antrim, He had further organ appointments in Belfast and Dublin and subsequently studied informally with the Italian émigré Michele Esposito at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. In 1900 Harty came to London where he soon gained a reputation as an accompanist and began to be considered a composer. He directed operas at Covent Garden and orchestral concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1904 Harty married the soprano Agnes Nicholls.
During the Great War, Harty conducted the Hallé Orchestra at the Free Trade Hall: in 1920 he accepted the appointment of Principal Conductor, a post he was to retain for 13 years. He made considerable improvements and established it as a world-class orchestra. His resignation in 1933 was acrimonious. Thereafter, Harty worked with London-based orchestras giving concerts at home and abroad and making a number of recordings.
Harty had a wide range of musical interests: he is noted as an enthusiast of Berlioz and championed a number of modern (albeit musically conservative) British and American composers. As a composer, he has a fair-sized catalogue. His ‘best-loved’ work is In Ireland - a tone poem arranged for orchestra or chamber ensemble. His Piano Concerto is a considerable achievement uniting the style of Rachmaninoff with an Irish temperament. The arrangements of Handel’s Water and Firework Music are attractive and satisfying if not particularly scholarly. Sir Hamilton Harty died from cancer on 19 February 1941.
Hamilton Harty: Musical Polymath is one of The Boydell Press’s ‘Music in Britain, 1600-2000’ series which is a developing collection of books addressing a variety of musical people, events and movements. Recent volumes include monographs on William Lawes, the appreciation of Thomas Tallis in the nineteenth-century and the present author’s study of Sir John Stainer.
The basic format of the present book is a chronological survey of Harty’s life and works. This begins with his early years in Ireland and follows his career in London as an accompanist and then as a composer. Two important chapters deal with Harty and the Hallé, which in many ways is the core of the book. Finally, his work with the London Symphony Orchestra, the tours to America and Australia and the late masterpiece The Children of Lir are addressed.
Primarily, this is a scholarly book that leads the reader beyond any superficial assessment of Harty’s achievement. Multiple trajectories of interest are implied by the sub-title of the book: Musical Polymath. Scholars, historians and general readers interested in British musical history will find much fascinating source material and helpful insights into a wide variety of topics. This includes an examination of Harty as accompanist, conductor, occasional controversialist, lover and composer. Important assessments are made of the influence of Irish culture on Harty’s work. Glancing at the index reveals that he knew virtually everyone in the early 20th century musical world. Many of these relationships are explored in detail. An examination is made of Hamilton Harty’s musical aesthetic, which struggled with modernist music but was open to other developments such as George Gershwin and his ‘American in Paris’.
From my own point of view, the critical examination of most of Harty’s compositions was my first port of call. This makes for a challenging assessment that complements the essays collected by Greer (1979).
One of the most poignant stories is that of the composer’s ill-fated ship-board romance with Lorie Irving Bolland. From Harty’s point of view, she was his ‘ideal’ woman however as both were married the affair was fated to come to naught. It seems that she was the only woman that he truly loved.
It is interesting to compare Dibble’s interpretation of Harty’s friendship with Olive Baguley. Michael Kennedy, in his book on the Hallé Orchestra (Manchester University Press 1982, p.17) notes Harty’s interest in administrative matters of the orchestra after the ‘installation of his mistress [my italics] ... as secretary of the Society.’ This is an interpretation that Dibble challenges and points out that this view ‘caused outrage’ from Harty’s friends including Archie Camden, Maurice Johnstone and Olive Baguley herself. There is also a tantalising glimpse of a possible affair with the singer Elsie Swinton which was to end with her largely giving up her career.
When reviewing any book, I first turn to the appendices and the index. The ‘list of works’ is a striking part of this volume. Dibble has sorted the works by genre and then chronologically. I take as an example the delightful ‘A Comedy Overture’ composed in 1901. The work is given its German title, the opus number and key. The date of completion and, usefully, subsequent revision dates are given. From the point of view of the ‘reception history’ the date, venue and performers of the premiere is always helpful. The location of the manuscript along with the publishers closes the entry. One detail omitted here, which is included in Greer (1979), is the instrumentation of the work.
I never realised quite how much chamber music Harty composed. Although there has been a recent release of the first and second String Quartets (there was also an early quartet written in 1898) and the admirable Piano Quintet, there are still plenty of opportunities for adventurous trios or duos to ‘take up’ some of this music. Almost completely lacking from CDs are any of Harty’s 39 songs and song-cycles. Even the once ubiquitous ‘Sea Wrack’ seems to be unavailable. The songs are listed here chronologically, and include the poet/author of the text set. It is interesting to note that the vast majority were composed between 1900 and the outbreak of the Great War. Only a few settings of Irish poets and folksongs date from his later years. Included in the list are Harty’s ‘Articles, Broadcasts Lectures and other writing’.
I would have liked a detailed chronology of the composer, his life, times and compositions which would have been helpful in dovetailing the various facets of Harty’s career.
The ‘Discography’ is a vital part of this book. The reader needs to be aware that this is a listing of recordings made by Harty over his career and does not include subsequent recordings made of his music. The author acknowledges previous research by Cyril Ehrlich (Greer, 1978) C. Niss in ‘Le Grand Baton’ and John Hunt in his More Musical Knights (1997, 2009) The discography is conveniently divided into two major sections - Harty as conductor and as pianist. The listings are by composer and include dates (where known), work and catalogue numbers. Interesting entries include Bax’s Overture to a Picaresque Comedy, the unissued Parry’s Blessed Pair of Sirens and William Walton’s First Symphony. I was surprised at how few of his own works the composer recorded - the inevitable ‘Londonderry Air’, ‘The Fair Day’ from the Symphony and ‘With the Wild Geese’. Much of Harty’s contribution as a pianist is as accompanist to a small number of soloists including Agnes Nicholls and the cellist, W.H. Squire. For a charming example of this former partnership listen to Horatio Parker’s ‘The lark now leaves his watery nest’ on YouTube.
Bearing in mind the lack of studies of Hamilton Harty’s music, Jeremy Dibble has created an impressive bibliography. This encompasses books, articles and theses. It is interesting to note the considerable number of entries of the pioneer Harty scholar David Greer. The listings include radio broadcasts about the composer and also a helpful note on where the many concert programmes are located.
The index is divided into two sections - Harty’s works and a general index. This is detailed, essential and runs to some thirty pages of close- written text.
This well-bound, hardback book is printed in reasonable-sized font on quality paper. Included in the text are 21 musical examples which are clearly produced and generally form a helpful addition to the argument. Orchestral extracts are given in ‘short score’ however the chamber music examples are printed in full. There are seventeen black and white photographs presented between pages 112 and 113: these include rare examples of Harty conducting the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl and a performance of Elijah at Sydney Town Hall in 1934. I have not seen any of these before. There are three important text figures giving facsimiles of various Harty scores including the masterpiece, With the Wild Geese. Most of the illustrations are from the Harty Collection at Queen’s University, Belfast.
Copious footnotes provide a wealth of important detail including expansions of the text and citations and references. For example, Chapter 2 has some 136 footnotes. As I always read these notes, I am pleased that Jeremy Dibble has chosen this format rather than end-notes as I would not have enjoyed flicking back and forward between chapters or the end of the book.
Hamilton Harty: Musical Polymath is priced at £45.00 which some readers may regard as expensive. However, for textbooks and monographs this is actually quite reasonable. The amount of effort put into the research of this book is clearly massive: the synthesis of this material is masterly and the presentation is ideal.
The secret of this book’s success is in the subtitle: Hamilton Harty: Musical Polymath. It is indispensable reading for anyone who is interested in his compositions, the influence that Harty had on orchestral playing and administration, especially with the Hallé, his enthusiasm for Mozart, his championship of Berlioz, Sibelius and Gershwin and his achievement as an instrumentalist and communicator. The most important feature of this book is the exploration of Harty’s relationship with contemporary musicians.
Dibble presents strong and coherent arguments to assure Harty his place in the Valhalla of British conductors such as Thomas Beecham, Henry Wood and Malcolm Sargent. It convincingly proves that he was a fine, if not great, composer and most important of all, he was an individual subject to the temptations, the prejudices and the failings of all mankind, but who transcended these to become one the great figures in British music.
Harty has his place in the Valhalla of British conductors and was also a fine, if not great, composer.
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