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Harold Darke (1888–1976)

Harold DarkeIn the annals of 20th-century choral music the name of Harold Darke bears a distinguished and honourable place. As organist of St Michael’s Church, Cornhill, in the heart of the City of London, he achieved fame for his Monday lunchtime recitals – 1,833 concerts in all given over his fifty-year term of service from 1916 to 1966 – which became a musical institution. No less so did the performances of the St Michael’s Singers, which he founded in 1919 and conducted until his retirement, performing the choral classics and new works by Howells, Vaughan Williams and others. One of the high points of his career was his appointment in 1941 as organist of King’s College, Cambridge, during the absence on war service of Boris Ord. His expertise as a choir trainer and brilliance as an organist fitted him well for this post. Services at that time had been reduced to weekends, so he was able to continue his recitals in London and elsewhere, as well as his teaching at the Royal College of Music, where he was a professor for over sixty years.

For as long as the Anglican Communion continues its time-honoured traditional celebration of Evensong, Harold Darke the composer will be remembered for his Evening Service in F major. No less enduring, his much-loved Christmas anthem, In the Bleak Midwinter belongs to a group of short choral items, chiefly for the Christmas season, which embodies his unique gift for memorable melody and harmony. Many of these, Love Came Down at Christmas, for example, and A Christmas Carol ‘The Shepherds had an Angel, the Wise Men had a star’, unavailable for many years, are now back in print, to be rediscovered and enjoyed by a new generation of singers. Darke added sparingly to the repertoire of his own instrument, the organ, but did so always with works of fine quality, such as the Rhapsody, Opus 4. His occasional pieces for the piano include the Five Miniatures, piano pieces for young players of early to intermediate grade, with a ‘Song without Words’ in classic folksong style at the centre of the collection.

Composed in the First-World-War period and its aftermath, two short cantatas for chorus and orchestra, the elegiac ‘As the Leaves Fall’, written ‘To the undying memory of those who have fallen’, and The Kingdom of God, setting Francis Thompson’s ‘O world invisible we view thee’, add another dimension to Darke’s achievement, and reveal his sensitivity to the times. Owing to an interrupted transmission history of material, vocal scores only of these works may currently be obtained, but full scores and parts will be added to the catalogue when they become available. [Photos courtesy of John Bertalot]

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