How do you respond to the description ‘the prince of accompanists’? With delight if you want to spend your working life playing piano chords while an opera or lieder performs downstage of you and takes all the accolades. But perhaps not so ardently if your ambition in life is to be a composer and conductor.
The Irish composer Hamilton Harty, born in Hillsborough Co. Down in 1879, was so described by the Musical Times in 1920. He was something of a musical prodigy – becoming a church organist in Co.Antrim at the age of 12 and holding down similar posts in Belfast and Bray, Co.Wicklow while still a teenager. He moved to London in his early twenties where he was seen as a ‘promising composer and outstanding accompanist’ – there it is again, second fiddle.
However, he was good enough as a composer to have his Comedy Overture performed at the 1907 Proms by an orchestra under the direction of Sir Henry Wood himself. In addition he didn’t do too badly out of being an accompanist in that one of the soloists with whom he worked was the soprano Anges Nicholls. She later became Mrs. Harty.
As a composer he devoted much of his time to reworking Irish themes. This is evident in his Irish symphony, first performed at the Feis Ceoil in Dublin in 1904 with Harty himself conducting. That same year the third place finisher in the singing competition was one James Joyce.
Harty also began conducting with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1911. In 1913 he conducted the orchestra in his own composition Variations on a Dublin Air. He was also invited to conduct at Covent Garden at around that time but Harty and Grand Opera never really hit it off. The composer wrote of opera that it was a medium in which ‘clumsy attempts are made at defining the indefinable suggestions of music’. There is no record of what opera thought of Harty but the Times wrote of his efforts that he made the music of Bizet and Wagner sound like ‘quotations from some forgotten German score’. Ouch!
Harty finally found his niche as a conductor with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. He made his debut with the Hallé in April 1914. Unfortunately his career was interrupted by the small matter of a global war. He sensibly joined the Navy, where casualties were considerably lighter than on dry land and survived to be demobilized in 1918. He became the Hallés permanent conductor in 1920 and restored the reputation to the levels it had experienced under its founder Charles Hallé.
Harty and the Hallé came to fit each other like a pair of old gloves. On one occasion the famous Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel was performing a Brahms concerto with the Hallé. He overlooked two bars, enough to throw any conductor and orchestra into total confusion. Harty and the Hallé didn’t so much as miss a beat. Later Schnabel, by way of a compliment to the conductor, suggested that the Hallé was ‘second only to the Berlin Philharmonic’. Harty was having none of it – pointing out with some asperity that the Hallé was ‘better by two bars’.
Harty was knighted in 1925 but his career in Manchester did not come to a happy end. When, in 1932, he accepted the post of conductor in chief with the London Symphony Orchestra the Hallé dropped him like a hot bassoon. He took some measure of revenge by poaching a number of their key players for his new band. However his tenure with the LSO was brief and chastening. He didn’t bring in the crowds and was dumped unceremoniously after only two years.
Towards the end of his life he suffered ill health but still managed to adapt a number of Irish songs and create a new tone poem The Children of Lir. He did a lot of work in his final years with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was only 61 when he died in 1940. His ashes were scattered in Hillsborough parish church.
Hamilton Harty, accompanist, composer, and conductor was born 136 years ago, on this day.
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