Obituary: Clifford Harker

Tim Bullamore
Friday 12 November 1999 00:02 GMT

CLIFFORD HARKER took over the console of Bristol Cathedral at a time of great change. Hubert Hunt had ruled the organ loft for most of the first half of this century but his successor, Alwyn Surplice, stayed for just three years before moving to Winchester. Between his appointment in 1949 and his retirement in 1983, Harker held firm to the musical and choral traditions of Bristol's great 12th-century centre of worship creating a force of stability for those who worshipped and sang there.

Harker was a champion of the West Country composer Sir Edward Elgar. His conducting of works such as The Apostles, The Kingdom and Dream of Gerontius was large and sweeping in style. After one performance of The Kingdom the composer's daughter, Alice, who had been in the audience, wrote to congratulate him saying: "It was just as he [Elgar] would have wished it." Similarly, annual performances of Handel's Messiah were grandiose and dramatic, albeit occasionally at the expense of some of the detail.

The son of a music critic of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, Clifford Harker graduated from Durham University and studied at the Royal College of Music with Sir Malcolm Sargent and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

During the Second World War he served with the RAF in Cairo and was soon appointed music director of Music For All, an Egyptian organisation that promoted concerts. He founded a male voice choir, directed a choral society, conducted the Egyptian premiere of Messiah in the old Cairo Cathedral and toured the Palestine Symphony Orchestra around the region. He said: "I was one of the few people to be disappointed when the war ended."

On demobilisation Harker became organist at Rugby parish church and spent a brief but unhappy spell as professor of piano at Trinity College of Music in London.

After taking up his post at Bristol, Harker established a reputation as one of the foremost musicians in the region. His accompanying skills in works such as the Psalms - a matter of liturgy all too often forgotten or abandoned by today's Church - were inspirational, and his ability to improvise from the organ loft was renowned.

He founded the Bristol Cathedral Special Choir in 1953 and became music director of the Bristol Choral Society in 1960 and the Bath Choral Society four years later. Although local to each other, all these choirs have their own distinct identity and Harker ensured that they continued to enjoy their separate voices. Even when seriously ill in the mid-1970s he refused to disappoint, conducting at least two performances of Messiah in Bath Abbey sitting down.

During his tenure Bristol Choral Society, which performs in Colston Hall, had more than 200 members, a vocal force which suited the grand English choral tradition from which Harker came. He thrived on the Victorian and Edwardian classics, but was not afraid to include repertoire by more modern composers such as Malcolm Williamson and Raymond Warren.

Harker's love of Elgar's music was manifest in 1979 when he helped found the South-West branch of the Elgar Society, an organisation that promotes lectures, workshops and concerts of the composer's music.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Harker gradually wound down his conducting activities and, after retiring from Bristol Cathedral, took on the less onerous, but no less important position as organist of the Lord Mayor's Chapel in Bristol until 1996.

Harker undertook some modest composition for his own choristers, including a Te Deum in G, a setting of the Holy Communion service and several anthems. The influence of Vaughan Williams and composers of a similar ilk is clear, particularly in some of his superb miniatures. A recording of Harker's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A flat directed by Christopher Brayne, one of his successors at Bristol Cathedral, exists on the Gothic record label.

Arthur Clifford Harker, organist and choirmaster: born Newcastle-upon- Tyne 5 February 1912; organist and master of the choristers, Bristol Cathedral 1949-83; died Bristol 2 November 1999.

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