Saturday, February 10, 2018

William Harris' "The Hound of Heaven"

The January 2018 issue of the BBC Music Magazine features an article by Paul Spicer, who leads The English Choral Experience (ECE) and its annual week at Dore Abbey. He writes about English choral works which are not often performed and which he believes have not received their due. One of them he mentions is William Harris' setting of Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra. Harris is best known for "Faire is the Heaven" and "Bring Us, O Lord God". The website for the English Choral Experience promises a link to the article, but I receive a 404 error when I try to access it--perhaps you'll have better luck.

Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" is a thrilling spiritual poem depicting the soul pursued by God; Thompson published it in 1893; he died in 1907. Harris wrote his work in 1917-1918 and it has not been performed since 1948!

A doctoral student at the University of Iowa wrote his doctoral essay on Harris' choral piece, "The Danger of Disappearing Things": William Henry Harris' "The Hound of Heaven":

The aim of this essay is to provide the context and background necessary for the reader to explore and consider possible answers as to why William Henry Harris’ largest work, The Hound of Heaven, is not nearly as famous as other similarly comparable pieces. Harris is largely remembered for his Anglican church music, particularly his two most popular anthems, Faire is the Heaven and Bring Us, O Lord God. However, in the late 1910s, he composed a large-scale choral-orchestral concert work, adapting Francis Thompson’s epic religious allegory, The Hound of Heaven.

Furthermore, Harris received a significant award designed to help finance the publication of The Hound of Heaven. Beginning in 1917, The Carnegie United Kingdom Trust invited British composers to submit their manuscripts of unpublished large-scale works to a contest called the Carnegie Publication Scheme. The intent of the award was to make newly composed British works available to the public and to enhance the nation’s English music heritage. Harris was among six composers chosen to receive the Carnegie Award in 1919 for his entry The Hound of Heaven.

This essay will briefly explore and detail the life of Harris; the genesis, construction, and performance history of The Hound of Heaven; and the creation of the Trust’s Publication Scheme. Most importantly, this essay will conclude with an exploration into possible reasons why The Hound of Heaven did not enjoy a lasting legacy.

More about William Harris from Naxos, including an album of his Anthems.

Of course, I must comment on Dore Abbey, the former Cistercian house where Paul Spicer holds his week long choral experience. The ECE website notes:

Dore Abbey is located in west Herefordshire in the beautiful Golden Valley just a short distance from the Welsh border. Dating from 1147 it is a former Cistercian abbey that would once have rivalled many cathedrals for size. Sadly, the nave was lost to the Dissolution of the Monastries (sic) but the remainder was restored and has been used as a parish church since the 16th century.

Settled next to the River Dore and in the shadow of the Black Mountains and Offa's Dyke, Dore Abbey is a unique and beautiful place in which to experience beautiful music-making.

Dore Abbey was suppressed in 1537; it was smaller house with a value of 101 pounds. More about Dore Abbey here.

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