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ClassicsOnline Home » HARRIS, William: Choral Music
During his tenure as Organist at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, William Henry Harris composed much music for choir and for organ solo as well as larger pieces for the Three Choirs Festival and two premières at the London Proms. In addition to music previously unrecorded, this disc includes Harris’ two best known works: Faire is the heav’n, and Bring us O Lord God, both pinnacles of twentiethcentury English Church Music, recorded in the Chapel by the Choir of boys and men with which he was associated for almost thirty years.
By Andrew Stewart
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 from the superior acoustics of the nave, we would march in solemn procession from the choir stalls to form a large semicircle in front of the great doors beneath the huge west window singing our Palestrina as the evening light faded. The care Harris took in preparing us for this performance, particularly of the final page 'In paradisum' because it moved him so much, has always singled it out to me as perhaps the model for so many of the finer closing pages of Doc H's own anthems and motets. These eight-part motets for double choir are usually judged to be his most significant contribution to English Church Music.
Love of love and light of light was composed on 28 March 1935 "in memoriam Robert Bridges" and dedicated to Bridges's wife Monica. Here we can hardly fail to notice the influence of Parry, for in it we hear rather less of Harris's enharmonic adventures into remoter tonalities, and rather more of those sequential patterns, the hallmark of that older composer. The motet falls into three sections, with a hint of recapitulation at the end of the second where Bridges's line 'every burden weigheth light' recalls his opening line. The final section Poco meno mosso has the feel of an epilogue prayer, a feature found elsewhere in other anthems on this disc.
From a heart made whole is a motet set to words by Swinburne, composed the following year. The two compositions are as different in style, however, as are indeed the styles of their respective poets. Swinburne's is indeed a strange poem, and Harris's music is correspondingly intense, even lurid. Although he gives us a key signature of one sharp, it cannot be said that the piece either begins or ends in G major, or indeed its relative minor, while at the climax 'Thee, God born of God' inhabits (as He so often seems to with Harris) D flat major, the glorious key of what are generally considered to be his two finest eight-part motets Faire is the heav'n and Bring us, O Lord God.
Praise the Lord, O my soul is a setting of Psalm 103 dedicated "to the memory of Sydney Charles Scott" in 1938. It is the most extended of the five motets here recorded. We might perhaps be tempted to agree with Dr Watson, for in some of the louder, more sequential passages, the ghost of Parry is still peering over the composer's shoulder, while the initial material is hardly memorable enough, when it returns somewhat transformed at the final climax, to achieve the desired effect of tying the whole structure together. There are, however, some lovely moments along the way. Following the bass soloist's recitative (verse eight) 'The Lord is full of compassion and mercy' the choir takes over and continues this text in a gentle three in a bar. Later, at verse fifteen 'The days of man are but as grass' another section marked Adagio is equally moving.
Faire is the Heav'n was composed in 1925, and dedicated to his formidable predecessor at New College, Sir Hugh Allen. In the first thirty bars Spenser tells us of those Happy Souls resting in the Divine Presence of Eternal Majestie, and Harris remains in D flat major. Then Spenser lifts his gaze to contemplate even fairer Cherubim and Seraphim, whose more exalted territory Harris reaches by transforming D flat into C sharp thus slipping effortlessly into A major. But beyond them the poet espies Angels and Archangels 'attending on God's own Person', and yet again we pivot enharmonically into tonalities which change and change again, until the words 'These then each other farre excelling' when Harris lifts us into recapitulation, and home to D flat - clearly the key of heaven - to confront that miraculous last page, indeed quite 'the image of such endless perfectnesse'. This anthem remains a twentieth century tour de force in English Church Music.
Harris's setting of John Donne's prayer Bring us, O Lord God at our Last Awakening into the House and Gate of Heaven, though composed some thirty years later, is in effect a sequel to the Spenser. Donne too uses wonderful language in his description of Heaven, where once again Harris moves us through the keys. At 'No ends nor beginnings' he again confronts A major with C major, but at 'one equal eternity; in the habitation of thy Glory and Dominion, World without end' where else can he take us but back to a glorious fortissimo cadence of D flat major? But there is still one page to go! The ensuing Amens drift off into space before melting onto a last chord, which comes as a surprise yet is the only possible right final chord, in that heavenly key of D flat major. The author of these notes was present at the evening boys' choir practice when Doc H first placed C.F. Simkin's beautifully hand-scripted photocopies of this inspired anthem in front of us. As we approached that final bar, he slowed down the pulse (a thing he would never dream of doing in performance) to test the effect of it on us, as we sight-read this work for the first time. A stifled gasp went round the room and he knew full well that he had achieved his purpose.
In contrast to his motets in eight parts, Doc H produced a steady stream of more straight-forward, technically less demanding choral pieces, suitable for choirs with rather more limited vocal resources. A particularly charming example is an anthem for boys' voices composed in 1925 and dedicated to "Cullis, Gooderson and all other New College Choristers". It is a setting of the hymn King of glory, King of peace by one of his favourite poets, George Herbert. It is both immediately attractive, indeed tuneful, with a typical organ accompaniment characterized by a tiny motive, merely a dotted crotchet and quaver, reserved for organ alone. It is allowed the luxury of having the last word - just briefly – as the boys finish singing, providing an affecting coda.
Eight years later came a simple setting of a carol by Anthony Deane The shepherd-men were keeping a little flock from ill. It is the sort of piece that any choir at all capable of singing in four parts might reasonably hope to bring off successfully.
The Evening Anthem O joyful light of the heavenly glory was composed in 1939 and set to an anonymous seventh-century text "from the Greek". Starting as it does with a bass soloist singing what sounds like unaccompanied plainsong, followed by homophonic chanting of antiphonal choirs, the influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church is fairly obvious, yet the overall effect remains essentially English. If elsewhere we may have detected the influence of Parry, as so often in the music of Harris's more famous contemporary and personal friend Ralph Vaughan Williams (who on more than one occasion during my time at St George's was brought in to attend the trebles practice before evensong), here we feel Doc H's close affinity with the early Tudor Reformation style of Tallis and his contemporaries.
Of the three remaining pieces two have royal connections. Of those, the earlier O hearken thou entitled Offertorium is a setting of the second verse of Psalm 5. It was composed to be the opening musical contribution of the Communion Service within the 1937 Coronation of George VI, where it was performed with orchestral accompaniment as well as organ. It is short, mystical, a crescendo and a diminuendo in the shape of a single arc.
Public speaking did not come easily to that monarch on account of his speech impediment, but he moved the nation nonetheless by his choice of words taken from God Knows by M. Louise Haskins, when he made his Christmas Day radio broadcast during the 'phoney war' of 1939. It was a broadcast of which Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, was particularly proud. On discovering this some thirty years later, when he was in his late eighties, Sir William Harris set the text I said to the man to music for unaccompanied men's voices, and dedicated the piece "by gracious permission" to Her Majesty.
Finally, there is a second evening hymn but this time an accompanied one. It is dedicated to an old friend, Richard Latham and his St Paul's Festival Choir. Published in 1961, it is a setting of a poem by yet another "Tudor", Sir William Browne. This is vintage Harris, but now with an added autumnal glow of old age. The night is come is a dreamy contemplation of sleep, but 'that we do in vain, since we only wake to sleep again'. In the last thirteen bars, however, Harris jettisons his three flats, and in a cool, clear C major with the hint of a sharpened fourth, Browne's final prayer that the hour might come 'when I shall never sleep again, but wake forever', receives yet another of those inspired closing pages of 'endless perfectnesse'.
Alastair Sampson was a chorister at St George's Chapel from just before the coronation of 1953, and left as head chorister in 1958. During that time he had organ lessons with Sir William Harris. He retired in 2005 after nearly 40 years organ teaching, as organist of Eton College Chapel.
Sung texts are available online at http://www.naxos.com/libretti/570148.htm
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HARRIS, William: Choral Music