Harty, Sir (Herbert) Hamilton (1879–1941), pianist, accompanist, composer, arranger, and conductor, was born 4 December 1879 in Hillsborough, Co. Down. His father, William Michael Harty (b. Limerick, 1852; d. Hillsborough, Co. Down, 1 November 1918), became a chorister and organ student in Christ Church, Dublin. He married Annie Elizabeth Richards of Greystones, Co. Wicklow, and by the time he was appointed in 1878 to the organ of St Malachi's, Hillsborough, the parish church of the Downshire family, they had three children, William, John, and Edith. Herbert Hamilton Harty was next to be born; within the following nine years three more sons (Harold, Fred, and Archie) were born, and three more daughters (Alice, Irene, and Annie May, who died young). Hamilton Harty was taught the viola, the piano, and musical theory by his father and played a full part in the musical life of the family; gifted with exceptional sight-reading, he played his way through his father's comprehensive music library. At the age of 14 he became the organist of a church at Magheragall near Lisburn, and shortly afterwards (November 1895) of St Barnabas in Belfast. In Belfast he encountered the orchestra, and made his first ventures in composition, including what remains his most popular song, ‘Sea wrack’. His horizons broadened further when he took up an organ post at Christ Church, Bray, Co. Wicklow, which brought him into the musical life of Dublin and marked the beginning of a lifelong creative friendship with Michele Esposito (qv), conductor, pianist, violinist, composer, publisher, and professor of piano in the Royal Irish Academy of Music. A career as piano soloist beckoned, but it was as an accompanist that Harty showed a rare talent that was to earn him a living and open many doors. He became official accompanist at the Feis Ceoil which had been inaugurated in 1897. The Feis Ceoil prizes which he won annually between 1899 and 1904 provided him with the opportunity to secure good performances of his compositions. They included his string quartet in F (Op. 1), the Fantasiestücke for violin, cello and piano (Op. 3), his string quartet in A (Op. 5), and the piano quintet in F (Op. 12). The best known is his ‘Irish symphony’, which was to become popular and undergo many revisions; when it was first performed in Dublin in 1904 it was the first time Harty had conducted an orchestra.
When he moved to London in January 1901, not long after his twenty-first birthday, he soon found that there also a good accompanist was sure of a living. In concerts and recitals he accompanied many celebrities, vocal and instrumental. He played for the soprano Agnes Nicholls and they were married in 1904. The marriage was not a success and they soon parted, pursuing related but separate careers; there were no children. His ‘Comedy overture’ was performed at a Queen's Hall promenade concert in December 1907. At the 1907 Cardiff festival Agnes Nicholls was the soprano soloist in his setting, which he dedicated to her, of Keats's ‘Ode to a nightingale’. Joseph Szigeti gave the first performance of his violin concerto in the Queen's Hall in 1909. There was also a substantial output of songs.
By his thirtieth birthday Harty had made a metropolitan reputation in all three of his chosen musical activities – as accompanist, composer, and conductor. The tone poem ‘With the Wild Geese’, based on two poems by Emily Lawless (qv), was performed at Cardiff in 1910; in March 1911 Hans Richter asked him to conduct it at a London Symphony Orchestra concert, and Harty found himself engaged as one of the conductors of the LSO season 1912–13 at the Queen's Hall. He conducted his ‘Variations on a Dublin air’ in February 1913, and his cantata ‘The mystic trumpeter’, to words by Whitman, at the 1913 Leeds Festival established him among the foremost British composers. In 1913 he conducted ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and ‘Carmen’ at Covent Garden, but he preferred the concert platform to the opera house. The two years, 1916–18, which he spent in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in the first world war did not interrupt his musical career significantly. He deputised for Sir Thomas Beecham in the 1918–19 season and established himself as a conductor with the LSO.
He became well known as a conductor in the north of England, frequently appearing in Manchester with the Hallé orchestra, and it was to the Hallé orchestra that he was appointed in a full-time capacity in 1920. With an orchestra of his own he had the opportunity to show his true mettle. He was musical adviser to Columbia from 1924 to 1933, and his recordings with the Hallé testify to his skill as a conductor; his conducting style was authoritative but quiet and undemonstrative. The orchestra received a municipal grant from 1924, and a municipal concert in March 1929 led to a minor triumph, the much-loved and immaculate Columbia recording of Purcell's ‘Nymphs and shepherds’ with the orchestra and a large choir of Manchester schoolchildren. The reputation of the Hallé spread to London, and there were Hamilton Harty seasons at the Queen's Hall in 1929–30 and 1930–31. He was in demand as a guest conductor in Britain and Ireland.
These years allowed him little opportunity for original composition, but at Fiesole on holiday with the Espositos in 1922 he completed his piano concerto in B minor. It was first performed in November 1922 at Leeds; at Manchester in the Hallé season in March 1923 Beecham conducted it and Harty was the soloist. His popular florid arrangements for modern orchestra of Handel's ‘Water music’ and ‘Music for the royal fireworks’ belong to the years 1920 and 1923 respectively. For Berlioz he had a particular, and missionary, affection, and some of his best performances were of that composer's music. For one who affected not to be attracted to modern composers, the list of those whose music he conducted, with the Hallé and other orchestras, is impressive: it included Bartok, Bax, Honegger, Prokofiev, Sibelius, and Stravinsky. He gave the first performance of Mahler's ninth symphony in 1930, and in 1929 the first public performance of Constant Lambert's ‘Rio Grande’, with himself at the piano and the composer conducting; he conducted the first performance in England of Shostakovich's first symphony in 1932.
In thirteen years Harty had made the Hallé into what was probably the best orchestra in England. That so sympathetic an accompanist should have an abrasive side to his nature became increasingly evident, however, and his contract was not renewed at the end of the 1932–3 season. From 1932 to 1935 he was conductor and artistic director of the LSO. He gave the first performance of Walton's first symphony, without finale, in 1934 and of the complete work in 1935. He made visits to conduct orchestras in America and Australia. Besides his knighthood in 1925 he had many honours conferred on him: a fellowship of the Royal College of Music in 1924; doctorates from TCD (1925), Manchester University (1926), QUB (1933); the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1934.
His favourite holiday places in Ireland had been Donaghadee and Rostrevor in Co. Down, Lough Melvin in Leitrim, and Lough Corrib in Galway in his fishing days, and the north Antrim coast, where he came in 1936 to stay in Portballintrae. He had plans: orchestral arrangements of Chopin; an Irish symphony orchestra based on a school of music to be established at QUB. It was obvious to his friends, however, albeit denied by him, that he was ill. Prevailed upon at last to have medical examination, he was found to have a brain tumour, serious enough for the removal of his right eye. Walking with a friend, the Coleraine musician James Moore, Harty recollected that the sea beside them was the Sea of Moyle, and embarked on a composition based on the old legend. With the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the soprano Isobel Bailie he conducted the first performance of ‘The children of Lir’ in the Queen's Hall on 1 March 1939. Appearances on the rostrum were now infrequent, but he conducted the Liverpool Philharmonic in the first performance of his ‘John Field suite’ in November of that year.
The second world war had broken out and concert-giving was virtually at a standstill. His house in London was bombed by the Luftwaffe and so was the Queen's Hall. He took a flat in Brunswick Square in Hove on the south coast of England. His last conducting engagement was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Tunbridge Wells in December 1940. On 19 February 1941 he died in Hove. When the war ended, his ashes were brought to Hillsborough and buried near the west door of St Malachi's church. His papers (including iconography) and music library went to QUB, and the Harty chair of music was created in his honour. Many of Hamilton Harty's compositions, all written in the late-romantic style at which he arrived early and never left, are still in the performing repertoire, and a good many are on accessible recordings. They comprise some sixty songs, mostly for solo voice and piano, and a corpus of instrumental music that ranges from chamber music, mostly composed early in his career, to his orchestral compositions, which include a symphony, two concertos, a number of tone poems, and arrangements of the music of Handel (qv) and John Field (qv). His orchestration was brilliant and resourceful, and his experience as an accompanist and conductor gave him ‘an unerring instinct as to what would come off well in performance’ (Raymond Warren in Greer, 89). Ever open to the influence of traditional music, he was a vice-president of the Irish Folk Music Society from 1925 until its demise in 1932. By far the largest number of his songs were set to Irish poems. Although a great deal of his orchestral work has an Irish flavour, it was in such overtly Irish pieces as the ‘Irish symphony’ and the two tone poems, ‘With the Wild Geese’ and ‘The children of Lir’, ‘that he came nearest to expressing his deep love of his native country, no doubt made the more poignant by his having, like C. V. Stanford (qv), to work elsewhere’ (ibid., 90). The ‘Irish symphony’ is a work explicitly based on Irish airs, as required by the Feis Ceoil, and in many works thereafter his affinity with the ethnic tradition shows in the introduction of folk-like melodic structures. But in ‘With the Wild Geese’ and ‘The children of Lir’, recognisably Irish works ‘are released from the imaginative constraint of folksong quotation, and in this respect they represent a significant compositional advance on the “Irish symphony”; the distinction is one which exists between arrangement and original composition’ (White, 116–17).