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HARRIS, William: Choral Music

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William Henry Harris (1883-1973)



William Henry Harris was born in Fulham on 28 March 1883 and was named after his father. His mother was Alice Mary (neé) Clapp. Theirs was a musical family, and at fourteen the boy's exceptional gifts had attracted enough local attention to generate sufficient financial help to send him to St David's Cathedral, South Wales, to assist its somewhat easy-going organist, Herbert Morris. He was soon quite content to let Harris take over at times, certainly when he preferred to sleep in during a weekday matins. A scholarship at sixteen to the Royal College of Music, not to mention an FRCO, soon drew Harris to the attention of its Director, Sir Hubert Parry. His long association with St George's Chapel, Windsor, dates back to this time, since its organist Sir Walter Parratt became his organ teacher. Composition was encouraged by Stanford and Charles Wood, and by Walford Davies, whom Harris would sometimes help out at the console of the organ in the Temple church.

After eight years as assistant in Lichfield (1911), and much encouragement from Sir Granville Bantock, for whom he took on some teaching at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, a surprise appointment to succeed Sir Hugh Allen at New College Oxford (1919) gave Harris his first taste of being in charge, but only just, since his powerful predecessor did not find letting go at all easy. Moreover even five years later, having failed to prevent Harris founding the University Opera Club, Allen did his best to stop him putting on a pioneering production with Jack Westrup of Monteverdi's Orfeo. Mercifully, Allen was a good loser, and handed over the stewardship of the Oxford Bach Choir in 1926, although it cannot be said that Harris was ever quite as effective with a large choir as with a smaller one. Politics at New College were not always kind to Harris, and he took the opportunity to move to Christ Church Cathedral in 1929 where conditions suited him better. In 1933, however, he was head-hunted for the post of organist at St George's Chapel, where the early death of Charles Hylton Stewart after only six months in the position had created the vacancy. Of all his Oxford duties not one was to remain, but he did retain his post as Professor of Organ and Harmony at the Royal College of Music until 1955, an appointment made as long ago as 1921.

Harris was always happy at Windsor. His tenure lasted almost three decades during which he composed much music both for choir, for organ solo and larger pieces too for the Three Choirs Festival and even two premières at the London Proms. Amongst his duties was the tutoring of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, the musical direction of many royal occasions and Garter Services, and the sub-conducting of both the 1937 and 1953 Coronation Services, all of which eventually resulted in a well-earned KCVO in 1954.

As an organist Harris had inherited from Parratt a wonderful sense of restraint, in complete contrast to Dr Henry Ley, the much celebrated organ-playing Eton Precentor, just down the road. During my five years as a chorister, I doubt if I heard the Tuba stop drawn as many times, whereas I have little doubt that Etonians were hearing theirs as many times in a week. Nor have I ever since heard psalms accompanied with such subtle yet gentle imagination. Harris's flawless technique never seemed to fail him, even in later years when his control of the pulse sometimes did. There would be consternation down in the choir stalls as long introductions to such anthems as Haydn's 'Insanae et vanae curae' inexorably gathered speed before the time came for the choir to join in.

Sir William Harris retired to Petersfield in 1961 with his wife Kathleen Doris (neé) Carter. They were married in 1913 and had two daughters. As early as 1925, Doris had all but lost her hearing, though experts advised that hers was a condition that advancing techniques might well some day remedy. Amazingly, in 1961, her hearing was partially restored. She died in 1968. Sir William lived on, reaching ninety in 1973 and dying on 6 September.

Dr Sidney Watson, a distinguished younger contemporary of Sir William Harris (universally nicknamed affectionately as Doc H), once expressed his opinion that Harris's only shortcoming as a composer was his repeated inability to come up with a really memorable melody. While this is perhaps true, I think it was in fact intentional, for he chose his texts with much care, often holding them in such veneration that he was loath to distract attention away from them with his own musical contributions. Certainly he particularly loved not only 'tudor music' as he used to call it, but he was equally drawn to the many poets of the period, of whom no less than four, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, George Herbert and Sir William Browne are represented in this recital.

The anthem Strengthen ye the weak hands is an extended, occasional, accompanied one, composed for The Commemoration of the Science and Art of Healing and first performed on 25 June 1949 at the Canterbury Festival. As such, it is an anthem 'suitable for St Luke's Day' and its text comes from three quite separate sources. The opening prologue, a recitative for solo tenor, comes from Ecclesiasticus ch. 38, while the main central movement in E major beginning and ending with the work's actual title 'Strengthen ye the weak hands and secure the feeble knees' is taken from Isaiah ch. 35. The closing epilogue is set to the famous prayer 'O Saviour of the World, who by thy cross and precious blood hast redeemed us', from the Book of Common Prayer. These texts have not been cobbled together so much for their literary qualities but rather for their medical relevance, and thus we find here no such inhibition with regard to melody. 'Strengthen ye' is indeed a cracking good tune, and proof enough - at least for this writer - that Doc H was perfectly capable of writing one if he wanted to. The longer central section Andante con moto does not remain in E major throughout. Rather, as Isaiah's text becomes ever more animated, so Harris ranges far and wide with his frequently enharmonic changing tonalities, but once he has re-established his tonic, and begun the epilogue, Harris holds onto it, whether it is based in C major or C sharp minor, until it returns to its true home of E major by means of a perfectly straight-forward plagal cadence, sounding both inevitable and magical, a fine example of art concealing art.

At St George's Chapel all music in Lent was unaccompanied, and the organ fell silent after evensong on Shrove Tuesday until matins on Easter Sunday. It was also silent on most Fridays throughout the year out of deference to Good Friday. At such times Doc H's preference for 'tudor music' was quite obvious through his choice of our repertoire.

Although the annual Garter Service in June was the Chapel's high point from a ceremonial point of view, for which, in some years Doc H would contribute a large new anthem of his own, I suspect that for him, and so also for us choristers - such was our respect for his musicianship, and our love of the man - that Good Friday was his real high point. He would sometimes put down for that evensong the great antiphonal motet for double choir in eight parts 'Stabat Mater Dolorosa' by Palestrina (who, of course, along with others like Orlando di Lasso, definitely counts as an honorary Tudor), and uniquely, so that it might benefit f
Item number 8570148
Barcode 747313014873
Release date 01/11/2006
Label Naxos Records
Media type CD
Number of units 1
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