The Music Treasury for 16 September 2018—Sir Hamilton Harty, Conductor/Composer

by | Sep 15, 2018 | Streams and Podcasts

This week’s show of The Music Treasury will feature works of conductor Sir Hamilton Harty, from the first half of the last century.  The show will air from 19:00 to 21:00 on Sunday, 16 September, and will be hosted as always by Dr Gary Lemco.  The show may be heard from its host station, KZSU, or streamed live from

Sir Hamilton Harty (1877-1941), conductor and composer

Harty was born in Hillsborough, County Down, Ireland, the fourth of ten children of an Anglican (Church of Ireland) church organist, William Michael Harty (1852–1918), and his wife, Annie Elizabeth. Harty’s father taught him the viola, the piano and counterpoint, and, at the age of 12, he followed his father’s profession and was appointed organist of Magheracoll Church, County Antrim.

Harty took further posts in his teenage years as a church organist in Belfast and Bray. While in Bray, he came under the influence of Michele Esposito, professor of piano at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, who encouraged him to pursue a career as a piano accompanist. As Bray is only 12 miles from Dublin, Harty was able to go into the city to hear an orchestra for the first time in his life. In 1900 or 1901, he moved to London to further his career. The Musical Times later called him “the prince of accompanists.” The Times said of his Comedy Overture, premiered at the Proms in 1907:

It proved to be one of the most successful works the season has brought forth. The frank jollity of its themes and the clearness of their expression, both as regards orchestration and formal structure, make it a delightful “Promenade” piece – that is to say, one which tired people can enjoy at a first hearing and find refreshment in listening to. … The overture was played with evident enjoyment and great spirit by the orchestra under Mr. Wood.

Among those whom Harty accompanied in his early days in London was the soprano Agnes Nicholls, whom he married on 15 July 1904. In the same year, he made his debut as a conductor, in the first performance of his Irish Symphony, at the Feis Ceoil music festival in Dublin. Reviewing the premiere, The Times called the piece, “a work of much promise … received with enthusiasm. It has many ideas, always freshly expressed, and the airs are developed with more than common variety and beauty.” The following year, Harty’s arrangement of Irish songs was included alongside works of Stanford and Vaughan Williams at a recital by Harry Plunket Greene.

Through his wife’s professional connections, Harty secured his first important London conducting engagement, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in a performance of With the Wild Geese in March 1911. The performance was well received, and Harty was engaged to conduct the LSO again during its 1912–13 season. Hoping to repeat his success as a composer-conductor, he gave the first performance of his Variations on a Dublin Air in February 1913. This time, his concerts were not successful with the critics or the public, and the orchestra made a loss and did not invite him back.

Harty was invited to conduct Tristan und Isolde and Carmen at Covent Garden in 1913. His performance as an operatic conductor was less than a triumph. After Carmen, the critic of The Times complained that “Mr Harty’s rigid beat and inflexible tempi petrified [the] delicate and fragile phrases, and made them sound like quotations from some forgotten German score.” Harty later admitted that he was not greatly in sympathy with opera as a genre: “Opera seems to me a form of art in which clumsy attempts are made at defining the indefinable suggestions of music. Or else one in which the author of a plot and his actors are hampered by music which prolongs their gestures and action to absurdity and obscures the sense of their words.”

Returning to symphonic music, Harty conducted the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in January 1914, and in April he made his début with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. He replaced the indisposed Sir Thomas Beecham for performances of Handel’s Messiah in December 1918, Bach’s B minor Mass, and Schubert’s Great C major Symphony in March 1919. In The Manchester Guardian, Samuel Langford wrote, “Mr. Harty has latterly achieved far more immediate control over the orchestra, and his spirit, judgment, and control were … equally admirable.”

Harty was appointed permanent conductor of the Hallé in 1920. Under his baton, the Hallé recovered the eminence it had previously enjoyed under the conductorship of its founder, Charles Hallé, and his successor, Hans Richter. Harty’s skill as a piano accompanist developed into a similar talent for conducting concertos. Writing of his skill as in accompanying either as a pianist or as a conductor, John F. Russell wrote in 1941, “Anybody who heard Harty in his capacity as accompanist could never forget his extraordinary grasp of every nuance and expressive device. There was no question of a solo with accompaniment: unless the soloist was a very great artist the chances were that he would be submerged by the artistry of the accompanist.” Wilhelm Backhaus and others wished they could take the Hallé with them on their international travels. During a Brahms concerto, Artur Schnabel accidentally skipped two bars, but Harty’s rapport with and control of the Hallé was such that he kept up seamlessly with the soloist. Schnabel said afterward that he had never experienced such magnificent accompaniment, but tactlessly added that the Hallé was “almost as good as the Berlin Philharmonic”; Harty corrected him: the Hallé was “better by two bars.”

Harty introduced many new works and composers to Hallé audiences. His programming reflected his passion for the music of Berlioz, and he regularly performed works by contemporary composers including Bax, Moeran, Sibelius, Richard Strauss and Walton. Harty conducted the English premieres of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1930) and Shostakovich’s First Symphony (1932), and the first public performance of Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande (1929), with Harty as pianist and the composer conducting. As a composer, Harty’s best-known works from this period are his lavish re-orchestrations of Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Harty was knighted in 1925. In 1926 he commissioned a symphony from Moeran, whose Symphony in G minor (1937) was the result, but Harty was too ill to conduct the premiere.

In the Spring of 1934, having severed his links with the Hallé Orchestra, Harty sailed for Australia for what was a hugely successful concert tour. This took place under the auspices of the Australian Broadcasting Company, the quality of whose symphony orchestra Harty did much to advance. A fellow passenger on the ocean voyage was a young woman, Lorie Bolland, with whom Harty rapidly fell in love, though there is no evidence of reciprocity on her part. Harty dedicated two piano pieces to her: Spring Fancy, composed for her birthday on 23 April 1934, and Portrait, written at sea and dated 9 July 1934. These pieces commemorate an episode in the composer’s life that had remained private until their rediscovery among Bolland’s papers in 2010.

In 1936, Harty was diagnosed with a malignant, but operable, brain tumor. During 1937 and 1938 he convalesced in Ireland and Jamaica, using the time to resume composition. He set five Irish songs and wrote his last original composition, the tone poem The Children of Lir. He appeared at a London concert for the first time since the operation in March 1939, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of this work. He conducted extensively during the 1939–40 season, but his health declined once more with a recurrence of the cancer, and his last public appearance was in December 1940.

Harty and his wife had become estranged, and he was nursed through his final illness by his secretary and intimate friend, Olive Elfreda Baguley. He died in Hove at the age of 61. He was cremated, and his ashes were interred in the grounds of Hillsborough parish church, near the front door. There is a separate memorial in the church. [Adapted from Wikipedia]

According to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “Recordings capture the brilliance of [Harty’s] conducting. They include The Rio Grande, Walton’s First Symphony, some outstanding Berlioz extracts and Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Cello Concerto (with W.H. Squire).” Harty was the conductor of a well-known 1929 recording of Nymphs and Shepherds with the Manchester Children’s Choir. It was a frequent radio request for many years, and was awarded a gold disc by EMI in 1989. Though few of Harty’s compositions continued to be regularly programmed in the concert hall, and even the once-popular Handel arrangements have fallen from favor in the era of authentic period performance, several of his works have been recorded for compact disc, notably by the Ulster Orchestra.

Program List:
Bax: Overture to a Picaresque Comedy
Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17: Romeo Alone and Grand Fete chez Capulet
Purcell: Nymphs and Shepherds
Elgar: The Apostles: By the Wayside
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 “Italian”
Weber: Overture to Abu Hassan                                                                                 3:01
Balakirev: Russia
Walton: Symphony No. 1

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