The composer, conductor, pianist and organist Hamilton Harty was born in Hillsborough, Co. Down, on 4th December 1879. His first teacher was his father, and he studied the viola, the piano and the rudiments of counterpoint. By the age of twelve he was already organist at Magheragall Church, Co. Antrim, and in November 1895 was offered a new post at St Barnabas' Church, Belfast. He was later to take up a position at Christ Church in Bray, Co. Wicklow, just a few miles south of Dublin, and it was while he was based there that he received much help and encouragement from the Italian composer Michele Esposito, then Professor of Piano at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin. In 1901 Harty resigned as organist at Bray in order to take up a post at All Saints Church in Norfolk Square, London, although this was to last only a week after he fell out with the vicar. He was soon to make his mark on the London music scene, however, not only as a composer but also as an accompanist of exceptional brilliance. Conducting gradually began to take up more of his time after no less a person than Hans Richter asked him to conduct one of his own compositions, With the Wild Geese, with the London Symphony Orchestra in March 1911. Following this he was engaged for the entire 1912-13 season of London Symphony Orchestra concerts at the Queen's Hall.
Thanks in no small part to the advocacy of both Sir Thomas Beecham and Albert Coates, Harty was appointed permanent conductor of the Hall Orchestra in 1920, a position he retained until 1933. During this time he introduced many new works by composers such as Sibelius, Bax, Walton and Richard Strauss, although his own two 'private deities' (as he called them) were Mozart and Berlioz. As a conductor, indeed, his name is particularly associated with the latter composer, with whom he had a lifelong affinity. He also made a considerable impression during his tours of the USA in the 1930s, developing a close rapport with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Harty's many awards included a Fellowship from the Royal College of Music in 1924, with Honorary Doctorates from Trinity College, Dublin in 1925, from Manchester University the following year, from Queen's University, Belfast in 1933 and De Paul University, Chicago in 1936. He was knighted in 1925 and received the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1934. Hamilton Harty died in Hove on 19th February 1941.As a composer, Harty was almost entirely self-taught, his method being to learn from the great masters of orchestration. He is best known for his orchestral music, which falls broadly into three main categories: programmatic works based on Irish themes or legends (including all three works featured on this disc) such as An Irish Symphony (1904, revised 1915 and 1924), With the Wild Geese (1910), Irish Variations (1912), In Ireland (1935) and The Children of Lir (1938); secondly, the more overtly classical works such as the Violin Concerto (1908) written for Josef Szigeti, and the virtuosic Piano Concerto (1922); finally there are his transcriptions of music by Handel and Field.
The highly evocative tone poem With the Wild Geese was first performed at the Cardiff Festival in 1910 and is loosely cast in a palindromic form, ABCBA. Two poems by Emily Lawless act as a preface to the work. The first of these describes the night before the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, when an Irish regiment fought for the French. The second (subtitled 'After the Battle; Early Dawn, Clare Coast') witnesses the ghosts of those slain in battle returning across the water to their homeland. Harty relates the three main thematic ideas to a specific mood or emotion. A slow introductory theme, marked Lento, depicts the soldiers bidding farewell to Ireland, the second theme, marked Allegro deciso, portrays the Irish regiment abroad, whilst the third, Meno mosso, tranquillo, represents their dreams of home.
The brief, rhapsodic fantasy In Ireland was originally composed for flute and piano in 1918, with the arrangement for flute, harp and orchestra made in 1935. The preface to this work reads 'In a Dublin street at dusk, two wandering street musicians are playing', hence the prominent rles for the two solo instruments.
Before his move to London Harty had entered several works for the Feis Ceoil in Dublin, an annual music competition inaugurated in May 1897. He continued to do so even after the move, and one of several of his works to win a prize was An Irish Symphony in 1904, a largely autobiographical four-movement work that employs a number of well-known traditional tunes. In the expansive opening movement, the longest of the four, two tunes are quoted, Avenging and Bright and The Croppy Boy. The second movement, a humorous scherzo which is often played separately, quotes the reel The Blackberry Blossom and The Girl I left behind me, whilst the improvisational slow movement is a lament based entirely on Jimn Mo Mhle Str. The main theme of the finale, in which thematic elements from earlier movements are recapitulated, is The Boyne Water, a tune associated with Orange marching bands. An Irish Symphony is rightly considered to be one of Harty's finest works and displays to great effect his considerable flair for vivid orchestration.