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Sir (Herbert) Hamilton Harty (4 December 1879 — 19 February 1941) was an Irish and British composer, conductor, pianist and organist. In his capacity as a conductor, he was particularly noted as an interpreter of the music of Berlioz and he was much respected as a piano accompanist of exceptional prowess. Harty still stands as one of the most significant musicians that Northern Ireland has ever produced.
Harty was born in Hillsborough, County Down, Ireland, the fourth of ten children of church organist William Michael Harty (1852–1918) and his wife, Annie Elizabeth, the daughter of Joseph Hamilton Richards, a soldier from Bray. Raised an Anglican, Harty played viola, piano, and organ as a child. Initially following in his father’s footsteps, he held positions as a church organist from age twelve. He moved to London in 1901 to pursue a musical career as accompanist, and accompanied an impressive list of soloists, among them John McCormack, W.H. Squire, Joseph Szigeti, Fritz Kreisler, and soprano Agnes Nicholls, whom he married on 15 July 1904. His considerable abilities as a performer were further highlighted when he appeared as the soloist in the premiere performance of his virtuosic “Piano Concerto”, one of his finest works.
Nicholls’ professional relationship with the Hungarian conductor Hans Richter was of great importance to Harty. After performing in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen under Richter in 1908, she approached him on her husband’s behalf. It was through this connection that Harty secured his first important conducting engagement: a performance of his tone poem With the Wild Geese with the London Symphony Orchestra in March 1911. The performance was a success, and he was engaged to conduct the orchestra again during its 1912–13 season. Hoping to reinforce his status as a composer–conductor, Harty gave the first performance of his Variations on a Dublin Air with the same orchestra in February 1913. Unfortunately, neither the critics nor the public shared his enthusiasm for his music: his concerts made a loss and he was not invited back for the following season. Nevertheless, his reputation as a conductor continued to grow, and he was invited to perform Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Bizet’s Carmen at Covent Garden in 1913. But he had little sympathy with opera, preferring symphonic music instead. In January 1914 he conducted the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and in April he made his début with the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester. His career was interrupted briefly by the First World War: in June 1916 he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and was posted for duties in the North Sea, and he rose to the rank of lieutenant in 1917 before leaving in June 1918. In December he substituted for an indisposed Sir Thomas Beecham at a performance of Handel’s Messiah with the Hallé Orchestra, and on 27 March 1919 he again replaced Beecham at a performance of J. S. Bach’s Mass in B minor.
Harty did most of his composing between 1901 and 1920, including his Irish Symphony, his tone poem With the Wild Geese, his Violin Concerto, and his setting of Ode to a Nightingale for soprano and orchestra, premiered by Nicholls.
After short stints with the London Symphony Orchestra and elsewhere in England, Harty became permanent conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in 1920, a position that he held until 1933. Under his baton, the Hallé became one of the premier orchestras in England. He was knighted in 1925. In 1926 he commissioned a symphony from Ernest John Moeran. The Symphony in G minor (1937) was the result, but by then Harty was too ill to conduct the premiere. He did, however, eventually accept the dedication of the work, after initially falling out with Moeran.
From 1931 to 1936, Harty toured in America and elsewhere, conducting in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Rochester, and Sydney.
Harty’s health began to deteriorate sharply in 1936: a malignant brain tumour was discovered and surgery was required. After both the growth and his right eye were removed, Harty convalesced in Ireland and Jamaica during 1937 and 1938. His illness continued to trouble him, and he conducted for the last time on 1 December 1940. Because of Harty’s estrangement from his wife, the conductor was nursed through his final illness by his secretary and intimate friend, Olive Elfreda Baguley. Harty died in Hove; after cremation his ashes were placed in Hillsborough parish church.