The composer Sir William Harris - 1883 to 1973


(Photograph courtsey of The Royal College of Organists)

William Henry Harris was born in Tulse Hill, London on March 28th 1883. He won an organ scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1899 and studied under a Walter Parratt.

He moved to Oxford in 1919 where he served first as organist at New College, in succession to Hugh Allen, and then as organist of Christ Church (1928–33), in succession to Noel Ponsonby. In 1923 he took the Oxford BA and MA to become a full member of the university, even though he already held the degrees of BMus (1904) and DMus (1910).

His professional life was spent in collegiate churches, as an organist, choir trainer and composer. He became a preeminent church musician.

Amongst his notable roles in the field of church music he was professor of Organ and harmony at the Royal College of Music between 1956 and 1961, Director of Musical Studies at the Royal School of Church Music between 1956 and 1961, and President of the Royal College of Organists between 1946 and 1948.

He held the post of Organist at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle from 1933 to 1961. Harris was very active at St Georges Chapel. He provided music for the funeral of George V in 1936 and the coronation of George VI in 1937. He later contributed in the musical education of the then Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. He also instituted an annual festival of Church Music at St Georges Chapel Windsor Castle.

As a composer his largest work is a setting of Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven, and he is best known for the anthems and motets that he wrote for church use. His setting of Fair is the Heaven is also well known.

Sanderstead Singers sang two of his compositions during their Choir Camp whilst visiting Peterborough in 2016. They were Oh all ye works (Benedictice) and Strengthen ye the weak hands. Excerpts of both these compositions can be heard below.

The following is an excerpt from Strengthen ye the weak hands, which was sung at Peterborough during the week 8th to 14th August 2016. The conductor was Fred Irvine and the Organist was Dan Soper. The recording is a Dartworth recording.

The following is an excerpt from Oh all ye works (Benedictice), which was sung at Peterborough during the week 8th to 14th August 2016. The conductor was Fred Irvine and the Organist was Dan Soper. The recording is a Dartworth recording.


Acknowledgement: The information about Sir William Harris came from an obituary in The Times published on 8th September 1973 and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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