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Hamilton Harty and “An Irish Symphony”

Herbert Hamilton Harty (December 4, 1879–February 19. 1941) was an Irish composer, conductor, pianist and organist who was born in Hillsborough, County Down, Ireland, the fourth of ten children of an Anglican church organist, William Michael Harty (1852–1918), and his wife, Annie Elizabeth, the daughter of Joseph Hamilton Richards, a soldier from Bray, County Dublin. Harty’s father taught him the viola, the piano and counterpoint, and, at the age of twelve, 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 November 1895, at St Barnabas’ Church, Belfast, and later a position at Christ Church in Bray, Co. Wicklow, just a few miles south of Dublin. While in the latter, 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 twelve miles from Dublin, Harty was able to go into the city to hear an orchestra for the first time in his life. In 1897, a national competitive music festival was started in Dublin, the Feis Ceoil, where Harty became the official accompanist, where he first accompanied and befriended John McCormack. Harty entered his own String Quartet, Op. 1, in the composition competition in 1900 and was met with praise from the press. He entered chamber or orchestral works annually after that.

In 1900 or 1901, at about age twenty Harty resigned as organist at Bray in order to take up a post at All Saints Church in Norfolk Square, London, England, although this was to last only a week. The basic reason for moving to London was to further his career, and he quickly became known both as an outstanding accompanist and a promising composer. Some of Harty’s early compositions include the Trio (1901) and the Piano Quartet (1904). Among those whom Harty accompanied in his early days in London were Joseph Szigeti, Fritz Kreisler, and the soprano Agnes Nicholls, whom he married on July 15, 1904. In the same year, Harty made his debut as a conductor, in the first performance of his Irish Symphony, at the Feis Ceoil music festival in Dublin. 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. His Comedy Overture, premiered at the Proms in 1907 where it was played with evident enjoyment and great spirit by the orchestra under Henry Wood. Among Harty’s compositions from these years, there were a setting of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1907) performedat the 1907 Cardiff Festival, a Violin Concerto (1909) premiered by Joseph Szigeti, the tone poem With the Wild Geese (1910) and the cantata The Mystic Trumpeter to words by Walt Whitman (1913) premiered at the 1913 Leeds Festival.

Through his wife’s professional connections, Harty secured his first important conducting engagement in London. In his career as a conductor, Harty was particularly noted as an interpreter of the music of Berlioz. He was asked by Hans Richter to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in a performance of his own tone poem 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 concerts at the Queen’s Hall. Hoping to repeat his success as a composer-conductor, he gave the first performance of his Variations on a Dublin Air in February 1913. Although the LSO did not invite him back for the next season, Harty was invited to conduct Tristan und Isolde and Carmen at Covent Garden in 1913. 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.

During the First World War Harty joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and was posted for duties in the North Sea. He rose to the rank of lieutenant before the war ended in 1918. He then resumed his association with the Hallé, replacing the indisposed Sir Thomas Beecham for performances of Handel’s Messiah in December 1918, and Bach’s B minor Mass and Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony in March 1919. Thanks in no small part to the advocacy of both Sir Thomas Beecham and Albert Coates, Harty was appointed permanent conductor of the Hallé in 1920, a post which he held until 1933, and returned it to the high standards and critical acclaim that it had enjoyed under its founder, Charles Hallé and his successor, Hans Richter. Harty was knighted in 1925. He introduced many new works and composers to Hallé audiences, and he regularly performed works by contemporary composers including Arnold Bax, Ernest Moeran, Jean Sibelius, Richard Strauss, and William Walton. Also he conducted the first public performance of Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande (1929), the Halle’s first performances of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1927) and Das Lied von der Erde (1930), and the English premieres of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1930) and Shostakovich’s First Symphony (1932). As a composer, Harty’s best-known works from this period are his lavish reorchestrations of Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. He also made a considerable impression during his tours of the USA in the 1930s, developing a close rapport with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The committee of the Hallé decided not to renew Harty’s contract, and in 1932 Harty accepted his last permanent post as artistic adviser and conductor in chief of the London Symphony Orchestra, but it lasted only two years, from 1932 to 1934. He premiered Walton’s Symphony No. 1 with the LSO in 1934. Shortly after his dismissal by the LSO, in the spring of 1934, Harty sailed for Australia for what was to prove a hugely successful concert tour with the Australian Broadcasting Company Symphony Orchestra, the quality of which Harty did much to advance. Two piano compositions from this trip are Spring Fancy, composed April 23, 1934, and Portrait, dated July 9, 1934. He was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society of London in 1934. In 1936, Harty’s health began to deteriorate, and he was diagnosed with the symptoms of a malignant brain tumor. It was operable, and during his 1937 and 1938 convalescence in Ireland and Jamaica, he used the time to resume composition, setting five Irish songs and writing his last original composition, the tone poem The Children of Lir. After surgery, he resumed his career until 1940. He returned to conducting in December 1938, in a studio concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and appeared at a London concert for the first time since the operation in March 1939, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of The Children of Lir.

Harty 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. In 1926 he had commissioned a symphony from Moeran, whose Symphony in G minor (1937) was the result, but Harty was too ill to conduct the premiere. The return of the tumor caused his death at the age of 61 in Hove on February 19, 1941. 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. Harty’s many awards included a Fellowship from the Royal College of Music in 1924, with Honorary Doctorates from Trinity College, Dublin in 1925, from Manchester University the following year, from Queen’s University, Belfast in 1933 and De Paul University, Chicago in 1936. During his conducting career, Harty made some recordings with his orchestras. His own works are similar in style to those of the late- and post-Romantics, infused with the rhythms and sounds of Irish folk tunes.

The following works by Hamilton Harty are contained in my collection:

In Ireland, rhapsodic fantasy (1918/1935).
An Irish Symphony (1904).
A John Field Suite (1939).
The Londonderry Air for strings and violin (1924).
Suite from Handel’s “Water Music” (1920).
With the Wild Geese, tone poem (1910).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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