Nelson, John Havelock (1917–96), bacteriologist, composer and arranger, pianist, conductor, promoter of opera, and competition adjudicator, was born 25 May 1917 in Cork, eldest of the four sons of Robert Nelson, chartered accountant, and Grace Mary Nelson (née Graham). The family background was Co. Antrim farming stock. His parents married in 1916 in Dublin, and shortly afterwards his father took a job in Cork. Havelock Nelson was a month old when his parents moved to live in Sandycove, Dublin. After kindergarten and Kingstown Grammar School (Dún Laoghaire), he went at the age of twelve to St Andrew's College in Dublin. While he was there he won a scholarship to the RIAM, which gave him a year's free tuition on the piano and a harmony course. He also studied viola and double bass, and had organ lessons from Dr George Hewson George Henry Philips Hewson (qv). Being from a quaker background he had known little of church music to begin with, but in 1936 he became organist of Centenary methodist church, St Stephen's Green, and wrote a cantata, ‘Songs of the longing spirit’, performed there in 1937.
In 1935 he entered TCD to read natural science, changing over after two years to medical science and specialising in bacteriology and serology. After taking an honours degree in medical science (1939) he spent two years on a research grant in bacteriology. By the time he left TCD (1943), he had become MA, M.Sc., and doctor of medical science. He had concurrently become bachelor of music; he later added a doctorate of music, also from TCD. In 1940 he helped to form the Dublin Orchestral Players, an ensemble designed for trainee professional and good amateur instrumentalists; he was also chorus master and répétiteur for various amateur operatic companies. He had lessons in composition with J. F. Larchet (qv), and was occasionally engaged as guest conductor with the Radio Éireann Orchestra.
In 1943 he became an officer in the medical branch of the RAF. Before he left Dublin he had become engaged to Hazel Guthrie Lutton, younger daughter of Alexander Lutton, linen buyer, and his wife Louisa, and they were married on 20 June 1945. Their son Graham was born in September 1946, daughter Romilly in October 1949, and younger son Alastair in October 1953. Mrs Nelson died in 1983.
After the war he reckoned he had a career choice between medicine and music. When the BBC advertised vacancies for staff accompanists he was appointed in that capacity to BBC Northern Ireland; pathology in Sheffield was the loser. Based in Belfast, he took up duty in 1947 and lived for most of the rest of his life at 30 Rosetta Park. His original assignment in Belfast was, simply, to take an active part in any musical output of the station. This gave him a roving commission, accompanying recitals and concerts, auditioning, providing background and incidental music (scoring and arranging where necessary), improvising to order. To ‘Children's hour’ he was indispensable, as he was to most of the other producing departments of the station, including the overseas service. Nearly all of the station's output went out live, and in the days when broadcasting meant sound radio only, most of it from the local BBC, his work and his voice became widely known. Local performers, most of them amateur, were encouraged to come in for audition, and the BBC also went out of Belfast to find them. In both roles Havelock Nelson was a prime asset. He kept his compositional skills in play, producing original songs and instrumental pieces and arrangements of Irish airs. His best known works include the ‘Concertino’ for piano and strings (1956), ‘Four Irish songs’ for soprano, horn, and piano (1993), and the ever popular ‘Dirty work’ for voice and piano (1985).
He became involved in musical activities away from Broadcasting House. May Turtle, his two-piano partner in the popular ‘Ulster serenade’ programme, persuaded him to become conductor of the semi-amateur Studio String Ensemble. It progressed to become the Studio Symphony Orchestra and remains in existence (2003). A leading choir in Belfast was the Ulster Singers; when its founder John Vine fell into ill health, Havelock Nelson took over; intended to be a temporary arrangement, it lasted twenty-five years. With these singers and this orchestra as his base he began to put on and conduct performances of major works new to Belfast. Bach's ‘St Matthew Passion’ became an annual Easter fixture, complementing the Christmas ‘Messiah’; others included Tippett's ‘A child of our time’, Britten's ‘War requiem’, and Honegger's ‘King David’. In 1950, in a Studio Orchestra concert, he interpolated a staging of a one-act comic opera by Haydn called ‘La canterina’. It was the beginning of the Studio Opera Group, which over three decades, using largely amateur resources, progressed in a remarkable track record through the shorter works of Mozart, Rossini, and other major composers to their full-length operas, and gave the first performances in Ireland of a number of the operas of Benjamin Britten. A typical production would give several performances in Belfast, after several months of preparation and rehearsal, and then embark on an extended tour of the regional towns; lack of professional principal voices was compensated for by exceptional ensemble. The Studio Opera Group was his own initiative, each production masterminded and fronted by himself. When in 1984 it became part of Opera Northern Ireland, he took the opportunity to retire. After a time, a number of his former singers formed a separate organisation, Castleward Opera, which was recognisably the successor to the Studio Opera Group and has continued in existence (2003), surviving the demise of Opera Northern Ireland.
The competitive musical festival, of which the best Irish exemplar is the Feis Ceoil, had been part of his life during his student days. Most of the larger towns in Northern Ireland had their own musical festivals, and he had many engagements as an adjudicator. His first overseas experience in that activity came in 1956 when the BBC granted him special leave to adjudicate on the Canadian festival chain from February to May. This led to an association with Canada lasting fifteen years. A fellow adjudicator, the Scotsman Herbert Wiseman, was responsible for having him invited to adjudicate at festivals in Hong Kong and Trinidad and Tobago. This led to a long association with the West Indies, commencing in 1964. He was invited back to adjudicate on several occasions, and sensing the lack of continuity in musical activity between festivals, he brought into being the Trinidad and Tobago Opera Company; its first production, of ‘The marriage of Figaro’, took place in 1977, and two years later, with the help of the Irish violinist Geraldine O'Grady, orchestral support was provided by the Trinidad Sinfonia.
He had always honoured his appointment in the BBC, and as its most well-known and respected public face in Northern Ireland he had done a great deal for its image. His many other commitments were not motivated by financial gain: it was said of him that three-quarters of the work he did was unpaid. When he left the BBC in 1977 he had enough of a workload at home and at many places abroad to keep him busy until the end of his life. He was awarded the OBE in 1966 and among his honorary degrees were doctor of music from QUB (1977), honorary fellowship of the RIAM (1985), doctor of the Open University (1991), doctor of letters of the University of Ulster (1993), and doctor of letters of the University of the West Indies. He died on 5 August 1996 and is buried in Belfast. His papers are held in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin.
His work, in the BBC and outside it, as stimulator, animateur, and innovator was always of high quality, firmly grounded in an educated musical talent and with impeccable taste. By virtue of his job in the BBC and his other activities, he had a great deal to do with the encouragement of many prominent Northern Ireland musicians by inviting them to broadcast and perform in Belfast and in Northern Ireland in general: the list would include such singers as James Johnston (qv) and Heather Harper and such pianists as Joan Trimble (qv) and Valerie Trimble. There is also a small category of those whom he encountered early, on their home ground, and actively directed towards a career. Heather Harper, in her late teens when he arrived in Belfast but with her career decision made, falls into the former category. James Galway and Barry Douglas fall into the latter; so do two others who made considerable names for themselves, the Ballymoney mezzo Jean Allister and the West Indies soprano Sandra Browne. He did not go for short-term effects: many of his major initiatives, such as the Studio Symphony Orchestra and the Studio Opera Group, were notable for their longevity, and the same can be said of his influence on the musical life of Northern Ireland.