Declan Plummer, 'Music based on worth': The conducting career of Sir Hamilton Harty (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast, 2011)

These details defined Mon Aug 25 22:41:38 2014  edit
 Author:  Plummer, Declan 
 Title:  'Music based on worth': The conducting career of Sir Hamilton Harty 
 Degree, institution:  PhD, Queen’s University Belfast 
 Status, year:  accepted, 2011 (8 March 2011) 
 Volumes, pp.:  2 (649pp.) 
 Supervisor(s):  Prof. Jan Smaczny, Dr. Aidan Thomson 
 Repository:  QUB Library 
 General specialism:  Musicology 
 Content, timeframe:  1879-1941 
 Content, key terms: 

This research offers the first detailed study of Sir Hamilton Harty’s life and career as a conductor. It re-evaluates his legacy and establishes the crucial role he played in raising and maintaining unparalleled orchestral standards in Britain during the interwar period with the Hallé Orchestra. It also offers an alternative view of musical life in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s outside of the traditional areas of study which concentrate on the musical establishment in London. Most importantly, the research provides an alternative way of analysing a conductor’s career, with less focus on biographical and anecdotal information and more analysis of his aesthetic beliefs, conducting abilities, reviews of his performances and how his upbringing and environment influenced these areas. Although a discussion of significant premieres is important, Harty's career demonstrates that an examination of a conductor’s time with an orchestra should include more. Consequently, the thesis argues that the criteria used to establish a conductor’s worth, indeed any musician’s worth, should not only include an assessment of the level of their engagement with modern developments in music (which has long been the incentive for most research on conductors), but also an assessment of their performance standards, their ability to offer fresh interpretations of works from the established canon, their engagement with new audiences, and their ability to steer an orchestra through difficult economic circumstances. This research encourages more research to be done on other British conductors of the period, including Henry Wood, Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult and Malcolm Sargent, and others, like Landon Ronald, who have been largely ignored by musicologists because of their conservative tastes in music. The aim of this research was to reassess the conducting career of Sir Hamilton Harty, particularly his conductorship of the Hallé Orchestra from 1920 to 1933. This has involved:

1) an assessment of his conservative aesthetic beliefs. Harty believed that emotion and beauty should be the basis of all music. He encouraged members of the general public to feel music purely on an emotional level and avoid any attempt to understand its technical points. Therefore, Harty maintained a natural aversion to the avant-garde, condemned the ‘terrible clevernesses [sic] of the moderns’ and attacked the intellectualism and complex logic of modernism in general. In reaction to the industrial threat to the British countryside, Harty, like most British musicians of the day, believed in the superiority of nature over urban modernism, which he dismissed as an unhealthy foreign aberration. This examination demonstrates that such conservative aesthetics were rooted in Harty’s amateur education in music in rural Hillsborough, which emphasised the importance of music from the past and fostered the populist belief that music should be understood by the untrained public. Furthermore, the examination also explores the relationship between Harty’s aesthetics beliefs and the influences they had on his programmes with the Hallé and other orchestras; in particular his promotion of music from the early modernist period and the established canon at the expense of the intellectualism of post-war modernism. Harty’s absence from British academia in the 1890s and 1900s also contributed to the neglect of folksong composers throughout his career.

2) an analysis of his programmes with the Hallé Orchestra, using numerous criteria including: the most performed composers and compositions during each season; the diversity of each programme and season; the amount and type of novelties during each season; and revivals of previously neglected composers and compositions. This analysis establishes Harty’s catholic tastes in music. Apart from the standard repertoire of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner, his programming for the Hallé’s regular series of concerts included frequent performances of composers as contrasting as Berlioz, Delius, Dvorák, Mozart, Ravel, Sibelius, Strauss and Tchaikovsky, and many more performances of minor composers from Britain, France and Italy. It was quite common for Harty’s seasons with the Hallé to include more than forty composers. The analysis has also confirmed Harty’s unprecedented promotion of living composers during his time with the Hallé. The number of living composers performed at the Hallé concerts was arguably higher under Harty’s conductorship than under any conductor during the orchestra’s history and challenges the widely held belief that Harty was an unadventurous conservative. The analysis notes, however, that the high proportion of living composers in Harty’s programmes does not indicate a support for the avant-garde. Some of the living composers Harty conducted most often were early modernists (like Ravel and Strauss), whose music was becoming dated by the 1920s in comparison to the emerging schools of serialism and neo-classicism, while others (such as Elgar and Rachmanninov) composed music in a style that was even more old-fashioned.

3) an examination of the reviews of Harty’s concerts and recordings taken from numerous newspapers and journals, including The Gramophone, The Musical Times, The Times, and particularly the reviews of Samuel Langford and Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian. The online Guardian and Observer Digital Archive has offered an unprecedented level of access to reviews of the Hallé concerts of the 1920s and 1930s. The archive has provided the most detailed accounts of Harty’s conducting abilities to date, particularly his meticulous attention to detail, the emphasis on excitement and instrumental colour, his fondness for extremes in emotional expression, dynamic contrasts and tempi, and his ability to offer exceptionally fresh interpretations, particularly in the case of Berlioz, Brahms and Strauss.

4) a comparative analysis between Harty’s conductorship of the Hallé and other British orchestras, particularly the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Henry Wood, the London Symphony Orchestra under various conductors and the City of Birmingham Orchestra under Adrian Boult. In contrast to other British orchestras, the Hallé did not receive any local or state funding and relied heavily on an outdated guarantee system which naturally encouraged little investment, fewer rehearsals and more conservative programmes to guarantee greater box-office receipts. This analysis demonstrates that despite having to contend with one of the most restricted funding systems for any British orchestra, Harty still managed to make his programmes diverse and original, thereby ensuring the survival of the orchestra as an independent society. The analysis argues that although Harty’s aesthetic beliefs were the chief cause for the lack of avant-garde composers in his programmes, it is doubtful if any other conductor could have successfully offered such music at the Hallé during the 1920s, given the financial restrictions placed on the orchestra and the conservative tastes of Manchester audiences. It also asserts that an examination of a conductor’s time with an orchestra should include more than a mere inventory of important premieres and recognise that attracting new audiences, commercial success and the ability to steer an orchestra through difficult economic circumstances are just as significant as programming. More importantly, given that Harty achieved unparalleled orchestral standards in Britain during the 1920s, the analysis also advances the theory that standards take precedence over the amount of premieres a conductor is responsible for, especially if the new music is badly performed, and that personal interpretation to produce fresh results can also ensure interest both from the critics and the public alike.