My present research focuses on music in 19th-century Britain and Ireland. I’m interested in the composers and the concert/operatic repertoire of the 19th century; the musicians, opera companies and music societies who performed this repertoire; the evolving tastes of audiences and music critics; the influence of politics and social issues on audience reception and behaviour; how financial pressures and concert auditoria, theatres and other performance spaces influenced concert promotion and repertoire; how festivals and travelling musicians, virtuosi, opera companies and orchestras helped change repertoire and raise performance standards; the role of music in British and Irish society; and how the results of these enquiries compare with other countries at the time.
- Roy Johnston with Declan Plummer, The Musical Life of Nineteenth-Century Belfast (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2015)
- Declan Plummer, “Music Based on Worth”: The Conducting Career of Sir Hamilton Harty (PhD dissertation, Queen's University Belfast, 2011)
- Declan Plummer, 'Hamilton Harty’s Legacy with the Hallé Orchestra (1920–1930): a Reassessment' Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland, Vol.5 (2009-2010), pp. 55-72.
- Declan Plummer, 'Give the People What They Want: Sir Hamilton Harty and the Hallé Orchestra in the 1920s', Musicology Review, Issue 6 (2010), pp. 1-23.
The Musical Life of Nineteenth-Century Belfast (Co-author with the late Roy Johnston)
- Content: From the earliest known public concerts in 1750 given under the leadership of John Frederick Lampe (1702-1751) and his travelling group of musicians from Dublin, to the opening of the Grand Opera House in 1895 and the visits of the D’Oyly Carte and the Carl Rosa opera companies from London during the final years of the nineteenth century, this is the first ever publication to chart the fascinating growth of Belfast’s musical life during the nineteenth century, and how it was shaped by economic, social, political, religious and even geographical factors. The book provides an unprecedented examination of the repertoires, newspaper reviews, membership, leadership and financial struggles of all major chamber, orchestral and choral groups that were based in the city, with particular emphasis on the Belfast Anacreontic Society, the Classical Harmonists’ Society, the Belfast Choral Association and the Belfast Philharmonic Society. Recorded in the histories of these societies are the visits to Belfast of dozens of international stars, including Catalani, Hallé, Kalkbrenner, Liszt, Paganini, Sims Reeves, Sivori, Thalberg and many more! New ideas in concert promotion, such as 'People's Concerts', two-day concerts, promenade concerts and outdoor concerts, are also explored. In addition, the book offers a unique insight into how the city’s theatrical and operatic life developed; from the earliest days in the 1750s when a quick succession of small theatres offered English ballad opera, Shakespearian dramas and post-restoration plays; through the turbulent 1790s and 1800s when factions of radicals and loyalists in the audience made their musical and political opinions known, threatening the theatre’s existence; into the bleak period between the 1800s and 1830s when the theatre’s reputation was under constant attack from middle-class moralists led from the pulpit. The movement towards respectability between the 1840s and 1860s, resulting in the ‘Golden Years’ of the 1890s, was helped in no small part by programming full-length operas in the Italian style by Balfe, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi and gradually replacing them with operas by Bizet, Gounod, Sullivan, Wagner and other French and German operas.
Other topics that are unique to the city are also explored, including the influence of local politics on audience reception and behaviour; the 1792 ‘Belfast Harp Festival’ and the 1813 ‘Messiah Festival’; the building of the Exchange Rooms, the Arthur Street Theatre, the Music Hall, the Ulster Hall and the Grand Opera House and how they and other performance spaces influenced repertoire and concert promotion; the evolving tastes of the local press critics and Belfast audiences throughout the nineteenth century; and the contribution of local concert promoters, such as William Ware (1757-1826), Edward Bunting (1773-1843) and others, to the musical life of the city. An exploration of these topics and how they influenced each other has helped to create the most complete picture to date of Belfast's concert and operatic life in the nineteenth century.
- Accessibility: the book is appropriate for all readers. For the academic, the main text contains plenty of detailed and extensive analysis of the topics mentioned above, including footnotes and a large bibliography for further investigation. However, the book is also suitable for the interested general reader: every composition is clearly attributed to its composer; there is a very limited amount of musical jargon and the authors have attempted to make no assumptions of the reader’s prior knowledge of the topics discussed; the history is presented chronologically, making it easy for the reader to locate a particular topic or event; and the authors have attempted to use language that is both as plain and accessible as possible. This last point is particularly relevant given that much of the information presented in the book comes from contemporary newspapers that also advertised musical events and gave reviews for the benefit of the general reader. It is no surprise that this book should be similar in tone and style. It is hoped, therefore, that the book will be of interest to students, researchers and enthusiasts of history, music and musical history given that it provides a unique insight into the musical life of one of the most important cultural, political and economic centres of the British empire during the nineteenth century.
- Contribution to International Research: the book offers the first published history of the musical life in nineteenth-century Belfast. It is hoped that its content, tone and scholarship will compliment existing research, chiefly the publications under the ‘Music in 19th-Century Britain’ series already published by Ashgate. The range of topics selected for the book (particularly music criticism, reception history, concert venues and promoters), and the decision to use contemporary newspapers as a main source of information for performers, repertoire and reviews, are heavily influenced by the approach found in these other recent studies of the reception and practice of music in provincial towns of the British Isles.
Phd Research (2011) “Music Based on Worth”: The Conducting Career of Sir Hamilton Harty (to download Click Here). The aim of my PhD research was to reassess the conducting career of Sir Hamilton Harty, particularly his conductorship of the Hallé Orchestra from 1920 to 1933. This has involved:
- an assessment of his conservative aesthetic beliefs. Harty believed that emotion and beauty should be the basis of all music. He encouraged members of the general public to feel music purely on an emotional level and avoid any attempt to understand its technical points. Therefore, Harty maintained a natural aversion to the avant-garde, condemned the ‘terrible clevernesses [sic] of the moderns’ and attacked the intellectualism and complex logic of modernism in general. In reaction to the industrial threat to the British countryside, Harty, like most British musicians of the day, believed in the superiority of nature over urban modernism, which he dismissed as an unhealthy foreign aberration. This examination demonstrates that such conservative aesthetics were rooted in Harty’s amateur education in music in rural Hillsborough, which emphasised the importance of music from the past and fostered the populist belief that music should be understood by the untrained public. Furthermore, the examination also explores the relationship between Harty’s aesthetics beliefs and the influences they had on his programmes with the Hallé and other orchestras; in particular his promotion of music from the early modernist period and the established canon at the expense of the intellectualism of post-war modernism. Harty’s absence from British academia in the 1890s and 1900s also contributed to the neglect of folksong composers throughout his career.
- an analysis of his programmes with the Hallé Orchestra, using numerous criteria including: the most performed composers and compositions during each season; the diversity of each programme and season; the amount and type of novelties during each season; and revivals of previously neglected composers and compositions. This analysis establishes Harty’s catholic tastes in music. Apart from the standard repertoire of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner, his programming for the Hallé’s regular series of concerts included frequent performances of composers as contrasting as Berlioz, Delius, Dvořák, Mozart, Ravel, Sibelius, Strauss and Tchaikovsky, and many more performances of minor composers from Britain, France and Italy. It was quite common for Harty’s seasons with the Hallé to include more than forty composers. The analysis has also confirmed Harty’s unprecedented promotion of living composers during his time with the Hallé. The number of living composers performed at the Hallé concerts was arguably higher under Harty’s conductorship than under any conductor during the orchestra’s history and challenges the widely held belief that Harty was an unadventurous conservative. The analysis notes, however, that the high proportion of living composers in Harty’s programmes does not indicate a support for the avant-garde. Some of the living composers Harty conducted most often were early modernists (like Ravel and Strauss), whose music was becoming dated by the 1920s in comparison to the emerging schools of serialism and neo-classicism, while others (such as Elgar and Rachmanninov) composed music in a style that was even more old-fashioned.
- an examination of the reviews of Harty’s concerts and recordings taken from numerous newspapers and journals, including The Gramophone, The Musical Times, The Times, and particularly the reviews of Samuel Langford and Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian. The online Guardian and Observer Digital Archive has offered an unprecedented level of access to reviews of the Hallé concerts of the 1920s and 1930s. The archive has provided the most detailed accounts of Harty’s conducting abilities to date, particularly his meticulous attention to detail, the emphasis on excitement and instrumental colour, his fondness for extremes in emotional expression, dynamic contrasts and tempi, and his ability to offer exceptionally fresh interpretations, particularly in the case of Berlioz, Brahms and Strauss.
- a comparative analysis between Harty’s conductorship of the Hallé and other British orchestras, particularly the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Henry Wood, the London Symphony Orchestra under various conductors and the City of Birmingham Orchestra under Adrian Boult. In contrast to other British orchestras, the Hallé did not receive any local or state funding and relied heavily on an outdated guarantee system which naturally encouraged little investment, fewer rehearsals and more conservative programmes to guarantee greater box-office receipts. This analysis demonstrates that despite having to contend with one of the most restricted funding systems for any British orchestra, Harty still managed to make his programmes diverse and original, thereby ensuring the survival of the orchestra as an independent society. The analysis argues that although Harty’s aesthetic beliefs were the chief cause for the lack of avant-garde composers in his programmes, it is doubtful if any other conductor could have successfully offered such music at the Hallé during the 1920s, given the financial restrictions placed on the orchestra and the conservative tastes of Manchester audiences. It also asserts that an examination of a conductor’s time with an orchestra should include more than a mere inventory of important premieres and recognise that attracting new audiences, commercial success and the ability to steer an orchestra through difficult economic circumstances are just as significant as programming. More importantly, given that Harty achieved unparalleled orchestral standards in Britain during the 1920s, the analysis also advances the theory that standards take precedence over the amount of premieres a conductor is responsible for, especially if one accepts the logic that it is worthless to produce new music if it is badly performed, and that personal interpretation to produce fresh results can also ensure interest both from the critics and the public alike.
My research offers the first detailed study of Sir Hamilton Harty’s life and career as a conductor. It re-evaluates his legacy and establishes the crucial role he played in raising and maintaining unparalleled orchestral standards in Britain during the interwar period with the Hallé Orchestra. It also offers an alternative view of musical life in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s outside of the traditional areas of study which concentrate on the musical establishment in London. Most importantly, the research provides an alternative way of analysing a conductor’s career, with less focus on biographical and anecdotal information and more analysis of his aesthetic beliefs, conducting abilities, reviews of his performances and how his upbringing and environment influenced these areas. Although a discussion of significant premieres is important, my research of Harty’s career suggests that an examination of a conductor’s time with an orchestra should include more. Consequently, the thesis argues that the criteria used to establish a conductor’s worth, indeed any musician’s worth, should not only include an assessment of the level of their engagement with modern developments in music (which has long been the incentive for most research on conductors), but also an assessment of their performance standards, their ability to offer fresh interpretations of works from the established canon, their engagement with new audiences, and their ability to steer an orchestra through difficult economic circumstances.
This thesis encourages more research to be done on other British conductors of the period including Henry Wood, Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult and Malcolm Sargent and others, like Landon Ronald, who have been largely ignored by musicologists because of their conservative tastes in music. Such research would give less emphasis on biography and anecdotal storytelling and more analysis on their aesthetics, conducting abilities and comparisons with other orchestras and conductors.