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One of the great conductors of the 20th century, Sir Malcolm Sargent took music to the masses but alienated his orchestral players. Find out more about his life.
Harold Malcolm Watts Sargent was born the son of a coal merchant, on 29 April 1895. As a boy he joined the choir at Peterborough Cathedral, studied the organ and won a scholarship to Stamford School. By 18, he was awarded a Bachelor of Music degree by the University of Durham.
Sargent's big break came when the conductor Sir Henry Wood visited Leicester early in 1921 with the Queen's Hall orchestra. Sir Henry asked Sargent to conduct one of his own compositions in the concert, was impressed, and invited him to conduct the piece again at the Proms later that same year.
Sargent founded the amateur Leicester Symphony Orchestra in 1922, which he continued to conduct until 1939. Under him, the orchestra's reputation grew until it was able to attract A-list soloists including the pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch. Moiseiwitsch gave Sargent free piano lessons, judging him talented enough to make a successful career as a concert pianist.
In 1927, Sergei Diaghilev engaged Sargent to conduct for the Ballets Russes, sharing the podium duties with Igor Stravinsky and Sir Thomas Beecham. Sargent also conducted for the final Ballets Russes season in 1928.
In 1928 Sargent became conductor of the Royal Choral Society, retaining this post for four decades until his death. The society was famous in the 1920s and 1930s for staged performances of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's 'The Song of Hiawatha' at the Royal Albert Hall, a work with which Sargent's name became synonymous.
In the 1930s, Sargent set up the London Philharmonic Orchestra to perform at the Courtauld-Sargent series of concerts, aimed at people who had never previously attended live classical music. They attracted large audiences and introduced new works by Bliss, Kodály, Prokofiev and William Walton, among others. Walton, left, is pictured talking with Sir Malcolm during rehearsals for his opera, 'Troilus and Cressida'.
Sir Malcolm Sargent went to Finland in June 1956 to meet legendary Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. They met at Sibelius' home, Ainola, in the village of Jarvenpaa, 40 kilometers north of Helsinki.
Throughout his career, Sargent promoted British music, conducting the premières of 'At the Boar's Head' (1925) by Gustav Holst, 'Hugh the Drover' (1924) and 'Sir John in Love' (1929) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Walton's cantata 'Belshazzar's Feast'.
In October 1932, Sargent suffered a near-fatal attack of tuberculosis. For almost two years he was unable to work, and it was only later in the 1930s that he returned to the concert scene. In 1936, he conducted his first opera at Covent Garden, Gustave Charpentier's 'Louise'.
Sargent was known as a hard taskmaster. After giving an interview in 1936 in which he said that an orchestral musician did not deserve a 'job for life', he lost much favour among musicians. They were particularly annoyed because of their support of him during his long illness. From then on, he faced frequent hostility from British orchestras.
Sargent made three lengthy tours of Australia and New Zealand. He was on the verge of accepting a permanent appointment with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation when, at the outbreak of World War II, he felt it his duty to return home. During the war, he directed the Hallé and the Liverpool Philharmonic and became a popular radio broadcaster. He helped boost public morale during the war with extensive concert tours around the country, conducting for nominal fees.
On one famous occasion, an air raid interrupted a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Sargent stopped the orchestra, calmed the audience by saying they were safer inside the hall than outside, and resumed the concert. He later said that no orchestra had ever played so well and that no audience in his experience had ever listened so intently.
A number of explanations have been put forward for Sargent's nickname, 'Flash Harry'. It may have arisen from his impeccable style, or the brisk speeds at which he conducted pieces early in his career, or by a story about his racing from one recording session to another. He's pictured here with Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev.
Sargent loved the company of legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and took Beecham's teasing in his stride, such as his reference to Herbert von Karajan, as 'a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent'. However, Beecham declared that Sargent 'is the greatest choirmaster we have ever produced... he makes the buggers sing like blazes.'
By the mid-1960s, Sir Malcolm's health began to deteriorate. He underwent surgery in July 1967 for pancreatic cancer but made an appearance at the end of the Last Night of the Proms in September that year, handing over the baton to his successor, Colin Davis. He died two weeks later, at the age of 72.