Hay, Edward Norman (1889–1943), composer, organist and critic, was born 19 April 1889 in Faversham, Kent, the only child of parents from Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, his father a customs and excise officer on a temporary posting. When his mother died some six weeks after the birth, his father obtained a transfer back to Ulster. Norman Hay was brought up and educated by two aunts who lived in Church St., Coleraine. As a child he learned violin and piano, and for six years he journeyed to and from Belfast to study music under Dr Francis Koeller, conductor of the Belfast Philharmonic Society, with the opportunity to play sometimes in the Philharmonic orchestra. He also had organ lessons from Charles Brennan (1876–1972), organist of St Anne's cathedral. Hay became a fellow of the Royal College of Organists and held three successive organist posts, none for long, and from 1922 to 1924 he was director of music at Campbell College. In 1923 and 1924 he was extern examiner in music at TCD.
He won composition prizes at the Feis Ceoil, which included a prize from C. V. Stanford (qv) for his ‘Sonata for cello and pianoforte on Irish folk tunes’ in 1916, and a year later the Cobbett prize for his ‘Fantasy for string quartet on Irish folk tunes’. In 1918 he received an award for his ‘String quartet in A major’, published (1920) as part of the Carnegie collection. For the degree of doctor of music from Oxford, conferred in 1919, he wrote a choral and orchestral setting of a poem by Joseph Campbell (qv), ‘The gilly of Christ’.
E. Godfrey Brown (qv), Dr Koeller's successor, became Hay's close friend and encouraging supporter. In 1921 the Philharmonic Society gave the first performance of his symphonic tone-poem ‘Dunluce’; four years later Sir Henry Wood accepted it for the Queen's Hall Promenade Concerts in London and Hay conducted the performance. One of his best works, a cycle of seven poems from The wind among the reeds by W. B. Yeats (qv), set for solo voice, choir, and orchestra, dates from 1921. A number of his works were published by Stainer and Bell. ‘To Wonder’, a tone poem for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, to words by Hay's friend Robert N. D. Wilson, one of his most effective works, was commissioned by Godfrey Brown for the Philharmonic Society's 1924 jubilee. The year 1924 also marked the coming of broadcasting to Belfast. Godfrey Brown became musical director of BBC Northern Ireland, and Hay composed an orchestral ‘Fantasy on Irish folk tunes’ for the opening of the station. He also wrote incidental music for the 1925 radio production by his young colleague Tyrone Guthrie (qv) of Yeats's The land of heart's desire. In 1928–9 he wrote three ‘Irish sketches’, to which a fourth was added in 1932. In 1930 he wrote a large-scale choral and orchestral piece, ‘Paean’ (published by Stainer & Bell in the following year), a setting of five George Herbert poems, dedicated to Godfrey Brown ‘in appreciation of his interest in my works’. Both Hay and his Belfast Telegraph obituary writer thought this his best work. In 1932 it was performed at the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester. His compositional career ended with an orchestral ‘Irish rhapsody’ (1932) and some songs, of which ‘Tryste Noel’ is outstanding.
In 1936 BBC Northern Ireland launched the ‘Ulster airs’ scheme, its object to preserve Ulster folk-song by setting the airs for either string or full orchestra. Hay had reservations about the arrangement principle, but he accepted the editorship, and the end result was some 150 arrangements by composers such as Charles Brennan (1876–1972), Howard Ferguson (qv), Redmond Friel (qv), Joan Trimble (qv), and Hay himself.
In 1925 a new critical voice began to be heard in the Belfast Telegraph: Hay writing under the house pseudonym of ‘Rathcol’, and displaying a style of his own, characterised by a breadth and depth of interest and a determination fearlessly to speak his mind. In an era when broadcasting was in its infancy and the newspaper retained its virtual monopoly of the purveying of information and comment, his weekly column, often pungently expressed, reached a wide readership and placed him in a more influential position in the formation of musical taste than that enjoyed by either his predecessors or successors. He honoured his brief to report on the musical performances of the day, from provincial feis to visiting symphony orchestra, and he also crusaded: for the creation of a music teaching service and an Ulster college of music; and – impressed by the collecting work of his fellow-townsman Sam Henry – for the recording of traditional music, as performed by its practitioners in the countryside in their traditional styles before it would vanish.
In 1941 Hay was appointed the first lecturer in music at QUB. His health had broken down, however, and in that year he returned from Belfast to his native heath and lived in a house called ‘Bearnville’ in Portstewart. He died two years later on 10 September 1943 at the age of 54. He married (1920) a Coleraine girl of musical talent, Hessie Haughey. They moved house to Co. Down and then to Belfast. There were two sons of the marriage, Norman and Michael.
His music dropped out of sight and hearing after his death, till it reappeared, contemporaneously with the Hamilton Harty (qv) revival, both enterprises brought about by the alliance of the Ulster Orchestra with the advocacy of the BBC. It was David Byers, head of music in BBC Northern Ireland, who recognised the quality of the music, from the well-argued ‘String quartet’ to the Elgarian directness and drive of ‘To Wonder’. Many of Hay's works have been performed by the Ulster Orchestra and several broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The ‘Rathcol’ articles are a treasure-ground for the researcher of the musical life of the period. If Hay shared the trenchancy of George Bernard Shaw (qv) without Shaw's style, his initiatives were less mercurial: within one or at most two generations practically all of his crusades, whether adopted or originally conceived, had achieved their objectives.