The year 1933 was a big year in the life of English church musician William Harris (born March 1883, died September 1973). That was the year Harris was appointed organist at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. “Doc H,” as he was called affectionately by his singers, taught, played organ at services, conducted the boys choir — and flourished in those years. In 1936, Harris provided the music for the funeral of George V, and a year later for the coronation of George VI. He was responsible for the education of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and organized musical gatherings of the queen.
Those were years of political turmoil. In 1936, Oswald Mosley went to Italy to meet with Benito Mussolini. Mosley was leader of Britain’s fascist party and fascism in those days looked like the future. The Daily Mail had been pushing: The British Union of Fascists was “a well organized party of the right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed.” The paper’s owner urged “all British young men and women to study closely the progress of the Nazi regime in Germany.”
It’s unclear whether the arts flourish during times of social upheaval, but British music certainly did very well for itself in the interwar years with the likes of Holst and Elgar. In 1936, Benjamin Britten was collaborating with W.H. Auden. In 1936, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ opera “The Poisoned Kiss” premiered at the Intimate Opera House in London, a small theater dedicated chiefly to performances of forgotten works.
Harris’ work is not entirely forgotten, but it less known in comparison to the towering figures of his time. Try this (Opens in a new window). It’s exquisite, a musical setting of a poem by John Donne.
Harris’ music is very much in piece with a rich tradition of English sacred music. This (Opens in a new window) melts the heart, a piece by Elgar in a stunning rendition by VOCES8.
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VOCES8 is a British vocal group founded in 2003 and reorganized in 2005 by brothers Paul and Barnaby Smith, both alums of the choir at Westminster Abbey.
Here’s (Opens in a new window) VOCES8, so perfectly clean and clear, with a piece by William Byrd (1543–1623), the great composer of the English Renaissance.
Henry Purcell was born in 1659 in the notorious slum known as “The Devil’s Acre.” Dickens called the place “the most deplorable manifestation of human wretchedness and depravity.” Devil’s Acre festered in the shadow of Westminster Abbey. Purcell got himself out of Devil’s Acre and, at the age of twenty, became organist and master of the choristers for Westminster Abbey (his grave lies in the Abbey’s north aisle). Here’s (Opens in a new window) meditative Purcell sung by VOCES8.
Lest anyone think the group lacks versatility, here’s (Opens in a new window) how they finished a tour in Wyoming in August. Here’s American music (Opens in a new window) from VOCES8 at Abbey Road Studios. I like this (Opens in a new window). It’s called “The Road Home” by twin city composer Stephen Paulus (1949–2014).
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I’ve come across a 2014 doctoral dissertation by Matthew William Erpelding (University of Iowa) on William Harris. The study (Opens in a new window) is titled “The Danger of the Disappearance of Things” and focuses on a little-known work by the lesser-known Harris, “The Hound of Heaven.” Harris was by all accounts demanding as a music director, but also collegial, even-keeled, and good natured. He’d occasionally whisper loudly a sharp comment or two at his singers from the organ. His daughter Anne said he often “lived in the clouds in a world of musical vision.”
“The Hound of Heaven” — after a poem by Francis Thompson — is a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus. There’s lots of serendipity in what gets good work remembered or forgotten. Harris was also humble and a poor self-promoter.
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In 1936, following the “Battle of Cable Street” — a series of clashes that pitted fascists against communists and other groups in violent skirmishes in London’s East End in September and early October of that year — a new law was passed that prohibited the wearing of political uniforms at public rallies. It became compulsory to obtain permits for demonstrations. As storm clouds gathered across Europe in the 1930s, the British tabloid press mocked those who saw tyranny in Nazism.
At the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Hitler took down antisemitic signs under pressure from the International Olympic Committee. At the Summer Olympics that year in Berlin, Jesse Owens gave the Nazis something to think about.
Here’s another jewel (Opens in a new window) from Harris’ body of choral work, directed by Barnaby Smith. It’s a piece emanating warmth and empathy and light, and not to be forgotten.