Sunday, 20 May 2018

Hamilton Harty’s Irish Symphony Revisited

Hamilton Harty’s Irish Symphony stands in a line of so-named pieces including those by Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and the Italian composer Michele Esposito.  I listened to this work the other day for the first time in several years.

Hamilton Harty [born Hillsborough Co. Down] had entered several works in the Feis Ceoil in Dublin. This was a festival begun in the days after the death of Parnell in May 1897 and took the form of a competition. Harty became involved as official accompanist and soon became acquainted with the legendary singer John McCormack. Harty's String Quartet in F: Opus 1 was given its first hearing in 1900 to considerable praise from the local press. In 1904 it was the turn of his Symphony to take the prize. It was subsequently revised in 1924. Unlike the Symphonies by Sullivan and Stanford this was based firmly on Irish tunes. And there was a definite verbal programme.

The first movement is entitled 'On the Shores of Lough Neagh' - a sonata-form piece which made use of two well-known Irish melodies 'Avenging & Bright' and 'The Croppy Boy.' These two tunes make the first and second subjects respectively. A third tune - devised by the composer himself in truly Irish vein, is used in the development.
The second movement is entitled 'The Fair Day.’ In its time, this piece has often stood alone -a recording exists of the composer conducting the Hallé playing this. The local fiddler tunes up and then begins a reel - 'The Blackberry Blossom.' Further melodies are used in this well-written scherzo. A respite is gained with 'The Girl I left Behind me.' Harty was attempting to mimic the marching bands from Ulster.
The Third Movement is a Lento ma non troppo. It is given the programmatic title 'In the Antrim Hills' The composer said that this was 'a wistful lament' based on the ancient song – J’imin Mo Mhile Stor.’ A quotation from this poem provided in the liner notes for the Chandos recording:-
You maidens, now pity the sorrowful moan I make;
I am a young girl in grief for my darling's sake;
My true love's absence in sorrow I grieve full sore,
And each day I lament for my Jimin Mo Mhile Stor.'

The development of this tune is not really in a formal style. In fact, it has all the feel of an improvisation about it - this is hardly surprising as Harty was an accomplished organist and choirmaster.
The last movement is a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne - 'The Twelfth of July'. Harty's youthful acquaintance with the Orange marching bands once again coming to the fore. The tune which haunts this movement is 'Boyne Water', although the strains of the slow movement are heard -with the 'Jimin Mo' theme being restated in the finale.

Hamilton Harty’s Irish Symphony is available on Chandos CHAN 8314 and on NAXOS 8.554732.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where most of this was first published.

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