Beatrice Harrison

Beatrice Harrison
Beatrice Harrison. From the private collection of Lionel Carley. Used with permission.

Biography

Beatrice Harrison was an English cellist and sister of the violinist May Harrison (1890-1959). A lifelong friend of composer Frederick Delius, many of his works for the instrument were written for her.

During his lifetime, composer Frederick Delius enjoyed the patronage and support of a number of outstanding performers. Conductors such as Oskar Fried, Hans Haym, and Thomas Beecham were significant advocates for his work. Delius also worked with a number of gifted instrumentalists, including the cellist Alexander Barjansky, pianist Evlyn Howard-Jones, and violinist Albert Sammons. Among his most important collaborators, however, was the cellist Beatrice Harrison. Beatrice advised on technical aspects of his music and became the dedicatee of some of his most remarkable later works.

Childhood and early career

The second of four daughters of a colonel in the British army, John Harrison, and his wife Annie, Beatrice was born on 9 December 1892 in India. Her family returned to England in 1893, and she attended the Royal College of Music in London, where she studied with William Whitehouse. Like her elder sister May, a violinist who later worked with Leopold Auer in St Petersburg, Beatrice travelled to the continent, where she completed her studies with Hugo Becker at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. She subsequently enjoyed a high profile career, including international concert tours, recordings, and broadcasts, at a time when professional female instrumental soloists were still uncommon. Beatrice became Edward Elgar’s preferred soloist in his Cello Concerto, with whom she recorded the work twice (in 1919 and 1928). Gerald Moore later wrote: 'She sang on her instrument and had an infallible instinct for feeling where the muscle of the music slackened, where it tightened again, where it accumulated tension till the climax was reached. No woman cellist I have ever heard had, at once, a tone so powerful and sweet.'[1]

Delius meets the Harrison Sisters

Delius first met the Harrison sisters after a Hallé Orchestra concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 3 December 1914. Delius and his wife had been temporarily forced to leave their home in Grez-sur-Loing in France because of the First World War, and Thomas Beecham had persuaded them to stay at his house in Watford, just outside London. From here, Delius could travel to hear concerts both in the capital and elsewhere. After a performance of Brahms’s Double Concerto, Delius decided to write his own concerto for the two sisters. The concerto was completed in 1915, before the Deliuses returned to France in November, but had to wait until 21 February 1920 before it received its first performance. The premiere was given by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, conducted by Henry Wood, and the soloists were May and Beatrice, to whom Delius dedicated the concerto. After the first performance, The Times reviewer commented: 'the beauty of the instrumental colour with which the ideas are clothed and the opportunities it gives for an intimate ensemble between the soloists and the orchestra are things which should give the Concerto a definite place among the very few of its class which exist.'

Beatrice’s role in Frederick Delius’s music

Beatrice was actively involved in Delius’s compositional process, and often advised him how to write effectively for the cello. During his work on the Double Concerto, for example, she recalled:

'The strange thing was that it was written in unison and technically was almost impossible to play but with Delius himself and Peter [sic] Heseltine [Peter Warlock] at the piano, we rewrote the cello part and made it playable.'

Delius subsequently composed individual concertos for both violin and cello (1916 and 1921), as well as a Cello Sonata for Beatrice (1916), a Violin Sonata for May (1930), and a Caprice and Elegy for Beatrice (1930). These were among his final works.

Later career

Beatrice maintained a keen interest in gardening and animals, alongside her professional musical career. After her family moved out of London to the Surrey countryside, she became famous for playing her cello in woodland adjacent to their property at Foyle Riding. It was here, on 19 May 1924, that Beatrice became the subject of the first ever live outside broadcast for BBC radio, seemingly performing with an accompaniment of nightingales.

Together with Beecham, Beatrice and her sisters arranged for Delius’s body to be reinterred at their local church in Limpsfield after his death in 1934. Beatrice recalled: ‘On that day Beecham came with a portion of his orchestra and played On hearing the first cuckoo in spring, as only he can conduct it. Poor Jelka Delius, who was really dying, came over for the ceremony but was too ill to attend. She passed away a few days afterwards and is buried next to Delius, in that peaceful and beautiful churchyard of Limpsfield.’ Beatrice herself died in 1965, having left a remarkable performing legacy as well as a touching memoir of her time with Delius.

Further information about the life of Beatrice Harrison can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

References

[1] Quoted in The Cello and the Nightingales: the autobiography of Beatrice Harrison, ed. Patricia Cleveland-Peck (London: John Murray, 1985), p. 28.

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