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John Harrison 
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 lacked 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, mellifluous 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 diligence 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 recalled four 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 to record 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 and 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 9th Symphony. 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 before."

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 Whitehill (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 the Garden.

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 Evangeline Florence, Ada Crossley and John Harrison with Leon Sametini (violin) and S. Little (piano) as accompanists. The tour, though exhausting, was but a prelude to another 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 Dvorak's Stabat 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 2nd October. 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 Ranalow as 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 re-assembled 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 Lark.

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 selections 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 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
light Divine,
Oh dark blue eyes that
looked in mine,
Oh lips that whisper soft
and low,
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. 

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