Obituary: Harold Noble

Tim Bullamore
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:42

HAROLD NOBLE was a prolific composer whose contribution to the choral repertoire was rarely acknowledged during his lifetime. Like Ralph Vaughan Williams, Noble took a particular interest in folk music, arranging songs such as "The Ballad of Semmerwater", "Naples Bay" and "The Road of Evening" for voice and piano accompaniment, while his liturgical music includes a Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis and Te Deum.

As a teacher, conductor, arranger and adjudicator, his name cropped up frequently in concert programmes and festival brochures all over Britain.

Born in Blackpool in 1903, the son of a butcher, Noble was educated at the local grammar school and antagonised his father, a keen amateur musician, by refusing to enter the family business. Nevertheless Noble pere regularly took his son to enjoy performances by the visiting D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and to other musical and theatrical events in the north of England.

Self-taught in music, Noble returned in the 1920s to Blackpool Grammar School to teach, and during the 1930s began writing works which were essentially mel-odic in nature. Earlier days as a chorister helped him understand the needs of the voice, while at the same time presenting the singer with an element of challenge. An arrangement of "Sound an Alarm" from Handel's Judas Maccabeus for male voice choir dates from 1934 and continues to be frequently performed all over the world. In these early days he also wrote for chamber forces, his works including Melodie Poetique for piano, which was published in 1933.

Too young to serve in the First World War and too old to be called up for the Second, Noble remained in Blackpool with his wife, Muriel Burton, whom he married in 1933, until she encouraged him to try his luck in London.

And so, in 1944, with minimal contacts or leads to help him, Noble bought a single rail ticket to the capital and began touting his scores around music publishers. He was helped by the elegance of his hand-written manuscripts, which to the naked eye could be mistaken for printed quality.

Teaching, adjudicating and freelance conducting supplemented his meagre income as a jobbing composer. Broadcasting was another enterprise to which Noble turned his hand during the latter days of the war.

The BBC's programme World Parade went out on Saturday evenings, recounting each week's military events. Typically Noble would receive a call from his producer on Friday lunchtime advising him of the programme's contents. He would then spend the afternoon composing the music for the show at the piano and the evening arranging his themes for orchestra, before venturing from his home in Watford to Broadcasting House to rehearse and broadcast live the following day.

Noble joined the BBC Singers in 1947, working alongside Leslie Woodgate whom he eventually succeeded as conductor. The daily Morning Service was sung live by the Singers, who also gave regular concert performances. One of Noble's tasks was to prepare the choir for the line-up of guest conductors who stepped in on the day to take the glory. During Noble's tenure they included Igor Stravinsky, Antal Dorati, Victor de Sabata and Nadia Boulanger.

He also worked with such eminent figures as John Pritchard, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Thomas Beecham, empathising with Beecham's disdain for the 12-tone school of composition. Indeed, partly because of his lyrical approach, Noble's contribution to the repertoire - some 300 works in total - has not always received the recognition it deserved.

The reason, however, has sometimes been to do with content as much as style. A 1942 ballet, Niobe, based on Greek mythology, was considered to include too much death for the war years when an upbeat message was needed, and Congo, a well-intentioned cantata for bass, chorus and orchestra championing the cause of the black man in American society, was deemed politically incorrect in the days before that term was coined. It remains unperformed.

Noble's Missa Novella omits any reference to a Gloria or Credo, while purists can only wince at the thought of his rarely heard arrangement of Schubert's Wintereisse for male voice choir (published 1945).

On the other hand, The Hills, for tenor, women's choir and piano, which was premiered in New York, received the Ernest Bloch Award in 1955 and his Mass (1954) is regarded as a fine contribution to the genre.

After retiring from the BBC in 1963, Noble was invited by the Principal of the London College of Music, Reginald Hunt, to be Professor of Singing. In due course Hunt's successor, William Lloyd Webber, asked Noble to inaugurate the first orchestration classes in London's conservatoires. He continued composing, producing an endearing set of three dialogues for flute and clarinet entitled Chit-Chat in 1980.

Noble's last published work, "A Song of Liberation", for male voice choir, appeared earlier this year and he continued writing until his death.

Harold Noble, composer, conductor and teacher: born Blackpool, Lancashire 3 June 1903; Professor of Singing, London College of Music 1963-65; married 1933 Muriel Burton (died 1997; three sons, one daughter); died Watford, Hertfordshire 26 October 1998.

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