by Charles A. Hooey
The first English tenor of note to record extensively was
John Harrison. His many quick-selling 78 rpm discs for a time exceeded sales
by a certain Italian
tenor of the day, a phenomenon known as Enrico Caruso.
John was born at Broach Farm in Foulridge near Colne on 27 February 1868, the
first child of Joseph Harrison and wife Martha née Brown. In time, the
Harrison household at 81 Albert Road would fairly throb as more children arrived,
each with music in their blood. After John came Joseph Henry in 1871, then Sarah
Ellen in 1873, William in 1878, Jane in 1880 and Albert in 1886. As a youngster,
perhaps to escape the cacophony of noise at home, the ever-inquisitive John took
to breeding canaries in a nearby loft as he found their sweet sounds relaxing.
As his father before him, he began at age ten to work in the local textile
mill, a task he didn't much relish. He did excel at cricket but realized this
career potential. What then? Perhaps, a small, manufacturing business would
make him rich? In the end, he chose singing. Once his voice broke, he was without
a singing voice for four years and when it returned he sang as a lightish,
baritone. Soon he was deemed one of the best in the country. At eighteen, he
had his first major opportunity as a soloist in Colne when a well-known artist
took ill. The conductor called him from the chorus to sing Messiah.
He continued to sing in various venues attracting attention while he took lessons
from Mrs. Schofield Clegg and F. H. Dale. This led to appearances in Bradford,
Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Huddersfield and Blackpool. When
Mr. Hugo Gorlitz became his agent, he convinced John to switch to tenor to
enhance his prospects for ultimate success. He moved to London and with great
worked over the next two years to reset his voice. At age 28, he debuted at
Queen's Hall at a Boosey Ballad concert, impacting to a point where he was
times. Undoubtedly these concerts helped him along the trail to total acceptance.
Choral societies throughout England began to clamor for his services, many
hailing him as the successor to Edward Lloyd.
Suddenly a recording contract worth £1000 was thrust into his hands. This
was an opportunity too good to miss so on 16th December 1902 he
and a baritone named Bartell visited the studios of The Gramophone Company
eight popular duets of the day, including “The larboard watch,” “Tenor
and baritone” and “All’s Well.” Five were accepted for
release to the public. Not bad for an initial effort. In 1903 he waxed "Nirvana" and "Drink
to me only with thine eyes," a pair of hits that were amongst the first
12" discs to be recorded. Before long, with brother Joseph, an excellent
basso, he recorded more duets, two for release being "All's Well" by
Braham and "The Two Beggars" by Wilson. After he recorded the latter
with Robert Radford in 1907, it was decided their voices blended nicely and several
other duets and concerted pieces materialized.
In 1903, John came close to eternal glory singing Elgar's music. As described
in the Elgar Society's “The Best of Me,” he had a role, albeit a
small one, on 6th June when Elgar's Dream of Gerontius was
introduced to London audiences at the still unfinished Westminster Cathedral.
Ludwig Wullner, an accomplished lieder and opera singer, had come from Dusseldorf
to sing the title role, but he balked at singing the dress rehearsal on the
morning prior to the performance that afternoon. Gorlitz, agent for both Wullner
Harrison, perceived this as an opportunity to advance his "new English tenor" so
John sang the dress rehearsal, after being told to be ready in case the star
faltered. But Wullner rehearsed on Friday afternoon and duly appeared for the
performance. His singing was rough and anything but beautiful but Elgar admired
his intellectual approach ... Alice Elgar in her diary wrote, "Wullner finer
than anyone". Delightful Muriel Foster, the Angel, might have disagreed.
Having schooled himself in this complex music, John Harrison no doubt sang Gerontius later
though details have yet to surface.
Harrison made his initial appearance with the London Symphony concert series
on Monday, 23 April 1904 with Hans Richter conducting. The programme included
Wagner’s ‘Am stillen Herd,’ ‘Fanget an’ and the
Preislied from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Wotan’s Farewell
and Magic Fire music from Die Walküre. Fellow artists at this concert
were Marie Brema and Frederic Austin.
He also became a frequent guest on a Henry Wood Proms concerts in Queen's Hall.
At one occasion, 9th September 1905, he appeared with soprano Stella
Maris and sang "Salve dimora" from Faust while Stella contributed
Elizabeth's Prayer from Tannhäuser.
In August 1906, he took part when The Gramophone Company recorded The Mikado as
its first Gilbert and Sullivan recording. Apparently he was called in only
to record Nanki-Poo’s main aria, “A wand’ring minstrel” while
Ernest Pike sang the character’s other music. In his analysis of recordings
of The Mikado in For the Record, Spring 2007, Michael Walters wrote, “Harrison
sings “A wand’ring minstrel” sensitively, and for a recording
of the time it is exemplary ... he is in full control of his voice and glides
easily through the song. It is an exquisite performance.”
Then on 19th November 1906, he joined the London Symphony, the Sheffield Choir
and fellow singers Alice Lakin and David Ffrangçon-Davies in a concert
that included Singet dem Herrn, a motet by Bach and Beethoven’s
Hans Richter conducted most of the music but Henry Coward led the Bach.
On 17th December 1906 he joined Australian soprano Amy Castles in
an early gramophone promotion that had record enthusiasts flocking from afar
to pack the Royal Albert Hall, London. With his interest in the gramophone,
John no doubt was happy to be involved. The Daily Mail commented, "John Harrison
sang Leoncavallo's "’Tis the day" and his encore by the gramophone
created as much applause and appreciation as when he sang in person a few moments
A handsome chap, often referred to as "The English Caruso," John found
his way to Covent Garden where he stayed on the roster for the summer seasons
of 1905, 1906 and 1907 but his name does not appear in individual cast lists
prepared by Harold Rosenthal for his book, "Two Centuries at Covent Garden.
This suggests he was signed to sing minor roles, a theory that is borne out by
a pair of programmes that show he was on stage on 16th May 1907
as Balthasar Zorn, one of the Meistersingers and again on 5th June
as Heinrich in Wagner's Tannhäuser. Heinrich Knote sang the title
role with Frau Knupfer-Egli (Elizabeth) Cicely Gleeson-White (Venus), Clarence
(Wolfram), Frederic Austin (Biterolf), Caroline Hatchard (Ein Hirt) and Hans
Richter, conductor. He excelled in romantic leads in such operas as The Tales
of Hoffmann, Faust, La Traviata and La Bohème but never at
In the autumn and following winter of 1907, Percy Grainger made an extended
tour of over eighty cities and towns in Great Britain and Ireland with vocalists
Florence, Ada Crossley and John Harrison with Leon Sametini (violin) and S.
Little (piano) as accompanists. The tour, though exhausting, was but a prelude
Australian tour the following season with practically the same personnel.
All this activity had given John confidence in the future and so on 8th October
that year he married his childhood sweetheart Margaret Capstick at the Wesleyan
Methodist Chapel on Albert Road, Colne. Good friend bass Charles Knowles was
upstanding as his best man. John was 39, Margaret 35.
In 1908 he set out, likely with Margaret, to enjoy that tour of Australia with
the famous contralto Ada Crossley. They appeared in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
After one concert the Sydney Morning Herald noted there were "ten uproarious
recalls" due to Mr. Harrison's "confident, delicious zest."
Back in England late in 1909, he began to acquire a reputation for excellence
in oratorio in chapels throughout the country, while at home, as his youngest
daughter Barbara recalled "he sang ... up against the fireplace ... everyone
had a piano in those days, didn't they?" That year he had an auspicious
appearance at the Birmingham Festival on 6th October to perform
Mater with Maud Perceval Allen, Louise Kirkby Lunn and Robert Radford.
For another London Symphony Concert on 21 March 1910, the programme included
the closing scene from Wagner’s Die Götterdämmerung and
a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with Maud Perceval
Allen, Ada Crossley, John Harrison, Charles Knowles and the London Choral Society
with Hans Richter conducting.
Late in 1911, he cast his lot with Irish impresario Thomas Quinlan for a tour
of the British Isles. Thus, he had the honor of singing Siegmund in their first
performance of Wagner's Die Walküre in English in Liverpool on
Then, after singing Hoffmann, he assumed the title rôle of Tannhäuser a
couple of nights later on 18 October with Bettina Freeman, Vera Courtenay,
Robert Parker, Allen Hinckley and Spencer Thomas. Cuthbert Hawley conducted.
The following year with Quinlan he was able to broaden his field considerably.
Stops in Britain included Hull where on 16th December, he sang the
title rôle in Tales of Hoffmann with Nora d'Argel, Rosina Beynon,
W. J. Samuell and Charles Magrath. Then on the 19th, he sang Siegmund
in Die Walküre with Agnes Nicholls, Gladys Ancrum, Edna Thornton
and Robert Parker. After this segment ended in Dublin, it was on to South Africa
and Australia. After his earlier time "down under", John would have
received a hero's welcome although another English tenor, John Coates, was more
often in the spotlight. John Harrison had to contend with three very different,
difficult roles. In Tannhäuser, he was regarded as a fine natural
tenor, full of appropriate feeling and refinement but lacking somewhat in the
dramatic element. In Sydney, he sang Siegmund in Die Walküre again
to a mixed reaction. One critic felt he offered "an incomplete study" while
another praised his passion and strength. In both cities, "Harrison was
a convincing, even a poetic and dashing Faust.” Agnes Nicholls was pleasing
as Marguérite, a rôle not usually associated with this gifted Wagnerian.
Back in Britain, Quinlan finished up in Dublin on 13th January 1913.
Later that year, he returned to Australia but Harrison elected to stay in England,
his place on the roster being taken by another English tenor, Maurice d'Oisly.
During World War I, although in his forties, John passed "A1" for war
service but authorities paused when they realized who he was. They decided he
could do much for morale by singing for the troops and that he did in a series
of frontline tours.
Although he preferred the excitement that opera generated, he became best known
as a ballad singer with the accomplished Madame Adami as his accompanist. When
HMV suggested he team with their rising keyboard genius, Gerald Moore, John
declined and remained faithful to the steady Adami.
In Liverpool on 15th December 1914, he appeared in the English Première
of Gabriel Pierné's epic, The Children's Crusade with the composer
conducting. Caroline Hatchard sang Alain, the principal female character. The
work concerned the devastating travails of children during the Middle Ages
as they toiled to reach the Holy Land.
During a short season of opera organized by Robert Courtneidge at the Shaftesbury
Theatre in April 1915, John appeared in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann when
it was presented in English with Nora d'Argel, Gladys Ancrum, Edith Clegg,
Frederick Ranalow and Frederic Austin with Hamish MacCunn conducting.
Later that year when Sir Thomas Beecham oversaw his first season of grand opera
in English, again at the Shaftesbury, Harrison sang Hoffmann on 2nd November
with virtually the same cast as in April. Nora d'Argel was both Olympia and
Antonia with Gladys Ancrum as Giulietta while the villainy was assigned to
both Coppelius and Dr. Mirakel [sic] and to William Samuell as Dapertutto.
MacCunn again conducted.
For his New Year’s Day celebration he journeyed to Edinburgh to sing that
afternoon in Messiah with Caroline Hatchard, Catherine Mentiplay and
Frederic Austin. As a finale to a splendid day of music, the artists that evening
to present a choice selection of ballads.
The following summer he returned to opera when he joined the Harrison Frewin
Opera Company. A high point came on 12th May in Liverpool when he
sang the part of Dominique in the first presentation of The Attack on the
Mill by Alfred Bruneau. Based on an incident in the Franco-Prussian War,
the opera also featured the voices of Raymonde Amy, Lewys James and Kingsley
Early in 1917, while associated with H. B. Phillips Opera Company, John visited
Liverpool again on 16th February to sing Rodolfo in Puccini's La
Bohème with Nora d'Argel as Mimi, James as Marcel, Miss Amy as Musetta,
Kingsley Lark as Schaunard and Charles Moorhouse as Colline. Soon thereafter
the Frewin and Phillips companies were absorbed by the Carl Rosa organization.
At this time a proposed trip to sing in the United States failed to materialize,
thanks to a bungling agent, much to the tenor's disgust and long lasting disappointment.
In addition to a flood of song and ballad records, John made splendid duet
recordings with England's premier bass, Robert Radford, as well as concerted
with Perceval Allen, Edna Thornton, Alice Lakin, Alice Esty, Evelyn Harding
and Stuart Gardner. His records include a second attempt to record for HMV The
Mikado, this time a more complete version than eleven years earlier. Walters,
writing of his work in the new recording, stated: “The opening is slow,
Harrison blasts and is coarse and open, particularly on the top notes, with intrusive
H’s. Yet he sings with considerable feeling, and is at his best in the
quiet passages. He sings with iron-toned voice, but is capable of subtle pianos
when required...it is clear from this recording why he was a sought after tenor
in the acoustic era. He certainly has more élan and heroic tone than Pike
and comes over much better than Hyde.” Two years later he participated
in recording The Gondoliers and in the interim joined some of the same
artists to record a condensation of Edward German's Merrie England with
the composer conducting.
When Harrison's recording of Hermann Lohr's "Margharita" was released
on 78 rpm, HMV described it as: "A well-remembered ballad of a decade or
so ago which held a high place among tenor songs of the day. The singer gives
it in his most tasteful manner, the second verse being charmingly vocalized,
effective use of the mezza-voce on the lines,
Oh dancing waves, Oh
Oh dark blue eyes that
looked in mine,
Oh lips that whisper soft
Long ago Margharita.
Harrison's final recording came in 1920 just prior to his retirement. He had
arrived on the scene too early and retired before he could benefit from advances
the electrical process brought to recording. Nor did he sing on radio. His
youngest daughter remembered him as "always very kind, very genial, jolly ... he
always came home with stories to tell, liked to go on walks, to smoke cigars
and his pipe." Another daughter, Phyllis, in carrying on the family tradition,
became an accomplished soprano who sang with Beecham and Sir Adrian Boult.
In 1929 at age 61, he suffered a massive stroke and collapsed in his dressing
room. After lingering for ten days he succumbed on 19 March. He was accorded
a huge funeral with horse-drawn carriages that passed along a route lined by
hordes of admirers and pallbearers, every one a sturdy Harrison nephew. "I've
never seen such a handsome lot of pallbearers!" someone remarked. For music,
they played and sang "Salutations," a hymn of the tenor's creation.
OPERA FOR THE ANTIPODES by Alison Gyger, Currency Press, 1990
The late Jim McPherson in Toronto read an early draft and provided corrections
and encouragement while Dennis Foreman helped with Quinlan data and Paul Campion
in London did splendidly in uncovering family background.