THE HARRISON SISTERS' - Famous English Musicians

In the first half of this century members of the Harrison family were among the leading figures on the British musical scene, and played an important role in the performance and development of music in this country. All four sisters showed considerable musical gifts very early in life, May as a violinist, Beatrice a `cellist, Monica a singer and Margaret a violinist, and each was an excellent pianist. May and Beatrice gained places at The Royal College of Music, followed a few years later by Margaret. During their performing careers the sisters made many good friends among composers such as Delius, Elgar, Glazunov, Kodaly, Bax, Ireland, Quilter, and Moeran. Several works were dedicated to them, particularly by Delius. They also knew and worked with many international performers and conductors including Kreisler, Casals, Melba, Beecham, Rachmaninov, Nedbal, d'Albert, Weingartner, and Nikisch. Their personal friends included The Princess Victoria, sister of King George V, George Bernard Shaw and Elenor Roosevelt. Beatrice's outside broadcasts and recordings with nightingales in the garden of the Harrisons' home at Foyle Riding, Oxted, Surrey, made the family famous throughout the British Empire. King George Vth told her on one occasion that she had "drawn the Empire closer together through the song of the nightingale and your `cello".

The Harrisons were very much part of the London social life when they lived in Cornwall Gardens from 1901 to 1920. After their move to Foyle Riding in Oxted, Surrey, in 1922 their music room was visited by most leading musicians of the day. Their garden was the scene of many social charity garden parties, and received visitors from all over the world to see `The Garden of the Nightingales'. These included coach parties of all kinds of people from London who were always served tea by the sisters. None of the sisters ever married.

MAY HARRISON was the oldest of the sisters, and was born in India in 1890. At the age of ten she won the Gold Medal of the Associated Board's Senior Department, among 3,000 competitors of all ages and both sexes. This was a record at the time. At eleven she gained a scholarship to The Royal College of Music, where she studied with the Spanish master, Enrique Arbos. She left The College in 1908 and went to study with the great teacher, Leopold Auer, in St Petersburg. Her debut had been in 1903, when she played at the St James's Hall under Henry Wood, and her European debut was in Berlin in 1909. Later that year she was selected to play at the Mendelssohn Festival in Helsingfors, replacing Fritz Kreisler who was unable to attend.

From the start of her career May was particularly noted for her playing of Bach, and Dr Eric Fenby has said how much he enjoyed her playing of unaccompanied Bach during her later visits to Delius at Grez-sur-Loing. In the years preceding the First World War, she and Beatrice became well know for their performances of the Brahms Double-Concerto which Glazunov had introduced to them. He conducted one performance of this work in St Petersburg, and altogether they played it at some fifty-nine concerts throughout Europe at that time. In 1914 Delius attended a performance of the work under Beecham in Manchester and told the sisters afterwards that he would like to write a Double Concerto himself. This he did the following year, and visited the Harrisons at their home in London with the new score to hear them play it through. He subsequently made several changes based on their advice, and later dedicated the work to them. They gave the first performance in 1920. Ten years later at Grez Delius sent for May to play through his new 3rd Violin Sonata, which he had just completed with the assistance of Eric Fenby. He was so please with her interpretation of the work that he dedicated it to her on the spot. In the years just before the Second World War, May gave Jack Moeran much advice over his new Violin Concerto, and he intended that she should give the first performance of the work. Unhappily this did not happen because, according to a letter she received from Moeran, there was a misunderstanding between him, his publisher and the conductor.

As well as the pieces mentioned, May was well known for her playing of works by Handel, Brahms, Elgar, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Glazunov, and Bax. She took only two weeks to learn the Elgar Violin Concerto, which is among the most difficult technically in the repertoire. Before the Second War she frequently broadcast on Radio, and appeared at Promenade Concerts. She taught at The Royal College of Music from 1935 to 1947, and continued to perform until shortly before her death in 1959.

BEATRICE HARRISON was born in 1892 at Roorke in a picturesque valley of the Himalayas, where her father, Colonel John Harrison was the Principal of St Thomas's College of Sappers and Miners. She was only three months old when the family returned to England and Colonel Harrison was appointed to Chatham. It was here that at eighteen months she heard her first concert given by the Royal Engineers' orchestra, and took an immediate interest in the cello being played. She first learned to play the violin, but moved to the cello at the age of eight, and gained some experience playing with the band at Chatham. Two years later she won the Gold Medal of the Associated Board's Senior Department against 4,000 competitors. She entered the Royal College of Music in 1903 and studied with William Whitehouse. In 1907 while still at the college she made her debut as a cellist at the Queen's Hall under Henry Wood. Her programme included the Saint-Saens Concerto.

In 1908 the family moved to Berlin for about two years and she studied at the Hochschule fur Musik with Hugo Becker. She began to give some concerts on the continent, and then in 1910 at the age of 17 she became the youngest player and first cellist ever to win the Mendelssohn Prize. This was open to anyone who had ever studied at a German college, and she played the Schumann Concerto. The British Ambassador gave the news to the Kaiser who replied `an English girl, never! For golf perhaps, but music no'.

Beatrice studied the Dvorak Concerto with Becker, and after this began her career by giving concerts throughout Europe. Following the work on his Double Concerto during the First World War, Delius wrote a Cello Sonata, Cello Concerto and other Cello pieces, which were all dedicated to Beatrice, or composed at her instigation.

During the First World War she made several tours in the USA as it was no longer possible to play in Europe. One of these was in company with Nellie Melba, and her association with America continued after the war until her last tour in 1935. She played with many of the leading musicians in the country, and also performed in The White House.

Beatrice was already a recording artist for HMV in 1919 when Sir Edward Elgar decided to record his Cello Concerto. The first performance of this work had not been a success, but once he had heard Beatrice play the work, Sir Edward always asked for her as the soloist. They recorded it twice, and performed it many times at the Three Choirs Festival. She also worked on new works with other composers of her time including Kodaly, Bax, Ireland, Scott and Quilter. Through her playing she became friendly with The Princess Victoria, sister of King George V, and performed at Charity concerts for her. She and her sister Margaret were frequent visitors to The Princess at Sandringham, and at her home at Iver.

Beatrice continued her career throughout the Second World War and appeared briefly in the film `The Demi-Paradise', which starred Laurence Olivier. After the war she continued to give concerts and made a tour of Holland. Her last appearance was in 1958 when she took part in a televised concert given as part of the appeal for the new Coventry Cathedral. She retired after that, and lived quietly with her sisters Margaret and Monica until her death in 1965.

MONICA HARRISON was born in London in 1897, and trained as a singer with Victor Beigel, who also taught Lauritz Melchior. She had a light mezzo-soprano voice and made her debut in 1924. Poor health following a childhood accident prevented her from pursuing a a full-time career, but she appeared at a few concerts and musical plays with her sisters. She was widely read and sometimes gave recitations. Monica died in 1983.

MARGARET HARRISON, the youngest of the sisters, was born in 1899, and followed May and Beatrice to the Royal College of Music in 1904, just before her fifth birthday. She was the youngest student the college has ever taken, and having started playing the violin some months beforehand was able to play some Bach on her arrival. At the College she studied with Achille Rivarde, a brilliant pupil of Sarasate. In 1908 May went to study in St Petersburg with the famous violin teacher, Leopold Auer. Margaret accompanied her, and became the pupil of Auer's assistant Nalbandrian. After returning to The Royal College Margaret made her professional debut in the Wigmore Hall in 1918. During the 1920s she performed as a soloist, appearing at the Promenade Concerts in 1925. She assisted May and Beatrice in their work with Delius on the editing of his Double Concerto. She later performed his Violin Concerto in concert, and played his violin sonatas frequently at recitals. She made several recordings, both and on her own and with her sisters. Margaret toured many countries with Beatrice before the Second World War, and continued to perform with her in this country during the War and for some years after. She and Beatrice retired from public performance in 1958, and after Beatrice's death in 1965 she did not play again.

Margaret had a life long interest in animals of many kinds, and for about fifty years was one of the top breeders of Irish Wolfhounds. For many years she gave one of her dogs to the Irish Guards whenever they needed a new regimental mascot. She was also a judge of many breeds at Dog Shows, which included Crufts, and she continued in this field until she was nearly ninety years old.

In 1985 following the posthumous publication of her sister Beatrice's autobiography, her interest in music revived. She gave many interviews about to her family both to the media and at music societies and festivals. She also gave master classes at her home to young violinists and `cellists, and she started the Harrison Sisters' Players recital group. She also set up the Harrison Sisters' Trust to conserve her family archive, music scores, pictures and furniture. These may now be seen at The Royal College of Music and at Hammerwood House in Sussex.

David Candlin
The Harrison Sisters' Trust.

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Click here for concerts at, and information on, Hammerwood Park where the Harrison Trust has a base and where David Candlin gives talks about the Harrisons and the Trust.