Thursday 14 December 2017

The last of the great Irish Romantics

Two significant anniversaries in music occur on this day. In 1743, the Italian baroque composer Luigi Boccherini was born in the Tuscan city of Lucca, home subsequently to Puccini. And 70 years ago on February 19, Hamilton Harty, from Hillsborough in Co Down, passed away at the age of 61.

Boccherini, a chamber music specialist, is most remembered for an elegant little minuet, one of the movements from a String Quintet in E. His B-flat cello concerto -- the ninth of 12 he wrote -- is popular, not only as a piece of musical delight, but also as a standard text in the teaching the instrument. Harty's music is not so well known. In fulfilling his life's ambition to lead big orchestras, Harty became much more famous as a conductor.

He'd started young as a church organist. The first Feis Ceoil was in 1896, and Harty was involved as an accompanist. This opened another door for him, and took him first to London, where he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, then on to Manchester, where he was director of the renowned Hallé Orchestra from 1920 to 1933.

Harty's brilliance on the podium brought prominence to his orchestra. A measure of the success he had is the Hallé's inclusion in the list of "100 Classical Albums You Must Hear", compiled some years ago by the distinguished music critic of The Telegraph. Michael Kennedy's choice featured their 1927 recording of Dvorák's Symphony No 9 (From the New World), commended for its "poetic phrasing and exhilarating vitality".

Most of Harty's composing was done in the years in England before his conducting career took off. It pays full tribute to his Irish heritage. From The Children of Lir through An Irish Symphony and A John Field Suite, not to mention With The Wild Geese, the sources on which he draws are evident.

Harty's lush, late Romanticism is still most pleasing on the ear. His achievements were acknowledged posthumously in the creation of the Hamilton Harty Chair of Music at Queen's University in Belfast. There's a Special Collection of his papers and memorabilia there too. Alongside annotated concert scores and arrangements, there's a curious item from the great man's wardrobe: a collapsible top hat.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

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