The great Belfast born singer Heather Harper has just died at the fine old age of 88. Heather, Barry Douglas and James Galway were the most acclaimed classical musicians Belfast produced in the twentieth century. As Alf McCreary writes, Heather never forgot her Belfast roots. I remember her performance – and his warm words afterwards – at the 50th anniversary concert for BBC Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.
“She was the daughter of an Ulster lawyer, Hugh Harper and his wife Mary, and received her early music training in Belfast.
Her mother’s family owned the famous Robb’s store in Castle Place.
Heather was a committed supporter of the Ulster Orchestra and appeared with the ensemble during its debut appearance at the Henry Wood BBC Proms in 1985 under the direction of then principal conductor, Scotsman Bryden Thomson.
She also gave the world premiere of Malcolm Williamson’s song-cycle Next Year in Jerusalem and received much critical acclaim.The other soloist on that occasion was the internationally-acclaimed Ulster concert pianist Barry Douglas. Stratton Mills, ( former MP for North Belfast) who was the first chairman of the enlarged Ulster Orchestra in 1980, knew Heather well.
He said: “We were neighbours on Belfast’s Circular Road and I remember in our early teens riding bikes with her in their enormous garden and attending splendid parties. When the Ulster Orchestra became independent in 1980 I asked her for help and she was always very supportive. The local audiences were always keen to hear the local Belfast girl who had become such an international star.I particularly remember her singing the Strauss’ Four Last Songs in the Ulster Hall. It was magical.”
For many Heather Harper’s 1966 recording of Handel’s Messiah, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Colin Davis, remains unequalled. She also won praise for her interpretations of Richard Strauss, notably the title role in Arabella, and the lighter Wagnerian roles.”
You can find an extensive record of Northern Ireland classical music making in the personal archive of my old colleague David Byers, formerly chief music producer of BBC NI and then CEO of the Ulster Orchestra.
Heather Mary Harper was born in Belfast in 1930, one of four children of Hugh Harper, a solicitor, and his wife, Mary (née Robb), who kept a 4½-acre smallholding where young Heather acquired her green fingers. Her father enjoyed classical music, playing the piano by ear, while her mother, who had been sent to Paris at 17 to study “drawing-room singing”, would sing ballads. All the children took piano lessons from the age of four: Alison became a cellist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Ian was principal horn with the Royal Philharmonic and English Chamber orchestras; another brother emigrated to Canada and took up a career in business.
Harper was educated at Ashleigh House School where, by her own account, she was very shy. As a teenager she only just managed to pluck up enough courage to go backstage after a Queen’s University recital by Pears and Britten to secure their autographs. By the time she left school Harper was sufficiently fed up with music to take a typing course, but she found it monotonous and instead applied for a piano scholarship to Trinity College of Music in London. Although she also played violin and viola, listing singing as her second subject seemed “the easiest way out”, she once told Opera magazine.
At the time she shared a basement flat in Hampstead with her sister and another cello student, with an upright Bechstein piano in her bed-sitting room. “The house belonged to a cellist in the LSO, so we had no problems about practising,” she recalled. Having belatedly taken singing seriously, she studied as a mezzo. Later she expressed regret that in her day there had not been an opera class where she could have learnt the rudiments of stage movement and acting.
She joined the Ambrosian Singers for “a bit of pocket money”, auditioned successfully for the BBC Singers and spent some time with the George Mitchell Singers. “I loved the close harmony,” she said. “I thought it was great.” After leaving college she was encouraged to take lessons with Helene Isepp, who also taught her friend Janet Baker. Isepp, who encouraged Harper to retrain as a soprano, in turn recommended her to Jack Westrup, who in December 1954 was staging Verdi’s Macbeth with the Oxford University Opera Club
he first performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in May 1962 was billed as one of the most important postwar premieres. The stellar line-up of soloists was intended to be Galina Vishnevskaya from Russia, the Briton Peter Pears, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from Germany, their nationalities being chosen to represent a spirit of postwar reconciliation.
With ten days to go, the Soviet authorities denied Vishnevskaya a permit to travel and a call went out to Heather Harper, a soprano who was enjoying a respectable career as a soloist with appearances at Glyndebourne, the Proms and choral societies around the country. At the time she was sharing a flat in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, with the mezzo Janet Baker and later recalled having to leave a fridge full of food and a line-up of little puddings for Baker who, she said, could not cook.
The performance of the War Requiem, which was repeated at Westminster Abbey in December that year, has long passed into history as a milestone in 20th-century classical music. Fischer-Dieskau would recall Harper as “the marvellous English soprano; I can still hear her triumphant silvery sound”. While many thought Harper’s performance to have been the finest thing she ever did, when Decca came to record the work it deemed her insufficiently “commercial” and the recording went instead to Vishnevskaya, by now granted a visa, who indulged in the type of diva tantrums that were no part of Harper’s routine.
Although Harper rarely raised her speaking voice, which was unusually husky, she could be outspoken, once dressing down a well-known conductor whose beat she thought inadequately clear. And while serving on competition juries she could be surprisingly obdurate if she believed that standards were being compromised or wrong decisions made.
She appears on many great recordings, including an acclaimed account of Handel’s Messiah with Colin Davis from 1966. Yet it would be more than 25 years before she had the opportunity to record the War Requiem, joining Philip Langridge and John Shirley-Quirk on a version conducted by Richard Hickox that won two Gramophone awards. Later, the BBC recording of the Coventry premiere would also be released.
By then she had retired from the opera stage, doing so in 1984 with characteristically little fuss. One of her final appearances was in Peter Grimes with Jon Vickers at Covent Garden, although she did make a cameo appearance in the farewell gala performance before the opera house’s closure for redevelopment in 1997.
Her last concert performance was probably in 1994, when she took part in Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music with 15 other senior singers conducted by Andrew Davis as a tribute to Henry Wood in the 100th season of the Proms. It was her 65th appearance at the Proms, her first being in 1956. She taught at the Royal College of Music and from 1986 was director of singing studies at the Britten-Pears School in Snape, Suffolk.
Private life was private for Harper, who insisted that her life off stage was of no concern to the public. “In my spare time I am an ordinary housewife,” she said. “I like my home to look nice. I entertain my friends to small dinner parties. I hate cocktail parties, they don’t fulfil any function at all. I play tennis and I adore gardening.”
An accomplished dressmaker, she could on occasion be found in her dressing room adding finishing touches to her costume moments before the curtain went up. She was also a fan of the BBC’s Light Programme, saying: “I always do my ironing while listening to Take It from Here.”
Harper was certainly a versatile artist, with a repertoire that ran from Bach to Boulez, taking in Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Schoenberg. “You name it, Heather sings it,” chirruped one newspaper. Yet she developed a notable affinity for Britten’s operas, singing Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes for television and the Royal Opera, creating the role of Mrs Coyle in Owen Wingrave in 1971 and appearing as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Covent Garden.
Heather Harper, CBE, soprano, was born on May 8, 1930. She died on April 22, 2019, aged 88
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London