Charles A.E. Harriss | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Charles A.E. Harriss

Charles Albert Edwin Harriss, composer, impresario, educator, organist-choirmaster, conductor (born 16 December 1862 in London, England; died 31 July 1929 in Ottawa, ON).

Charles Albert Edwin Harriss, composer, impresario, educator, organist-choirmaster, conductor (born 16 December 1862 in London, England; died 31 July 1929 in Ottawa, ON). Charles A.E. Harriss was an ambitious and indefatigable promoter of music within the British Empire. After being trained as an organist and choirmaster in English cathedrals, he was appointed to churches in Ottawa and Montréal. An honorary director of examinations of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and the first director of the McGill Conservatorium, Harriss organized massive choirs and arranged many concerts and festivals in Canada and abroad. He organized the extensive Cycle of Musical Festivals in 1903, and in 1924 became music director of the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley (London, England). Many of his compositions were performed throughout the British Empire and have since been published by the Canadian Musical Heritage Society.

Education and Early Career

The son of Edwin Harriss, an English musician who served as organist-choirmaster at St. James the Apostle Church in Montréal from 1883 to 1886, Charles Harriss was educated in the English cathedral tradition under Sir Frederick Ouseley at St. Michael's College, Tenbury (1873–75). He subsequently held posts as organist and choir director in Reading and Welshpool. On Ouseley's recommendation, Harriss was appointed organist at St. Alban the Martyr in Ottawa in 1882. He moved to Montréal in 1883 as organist-choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral, and then succeeded his father as organist-choirmaster at St. James the Apostle from 1886 to 1894.

Career Highlights

Charles and his father gave joint recitals in Montréal in the 1880s, founded a glee and madrigal society, and taught privately. In 1891, Charles toured the West Coast of the United States and appeared in Victoria, BC, as an organist. His marriage in 1897 to a woman of wealth enabled Harriss to indulge his talent for organizing grandiose musical schemes and festivals, as well as his propensity for extensive travel and his desire to have his compositions published. In 1900, Mrs. Harriss purchased Earnscliffe, the former Ottawa home of Sir John A. Macdonald, which became the Harriss' permanent residence and the location of lavish entertaining. Harriss was appointed honorary director of examinations of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in 1903, and also served as the first director of the McGill Conservatory from 1904 to 1907, a non-salaried position.

According to music writer Percy A. Scholes, Harriss was “a veritable musical Napoleon — always engaged in a tonal campaign somewhere.” He organized concerts in many Canadian communities where music was still a luxury. He arranged Dame Emma Albani’s cross-Canada tour in 1896, brought Dan Godfrey's Band from England to tour Canada (80 concerts) and the US in 1899, and brought many British artists to North America. He initiated and organized the extensive Cycle of Musical Festivals in 1903. He formed a Montréal choir, the Philharmonic Union, which was active in 1906–07, and performed his “choric idyll,” Pan, with the Pittsburgh Orchestra. Harriss also organized: the 1906 British Canadian Music Festival in London, England, which featured a performance of Pan with the soprano Pauline Donalda; the Canadian tour of Sir Frederick Bridge in conjunction with the Festival of English Cathedral Music in May 1908; the tour of the Sheffield Choir under Sir Henry Coward later that year; and the tour of His Majesty's Scots Guard Band in 1922.

He established the Empire Day Concerts in London in 1907. In 1909, he founded the 4,500-voice Imperial Choir, made up of several large London choirs, which formed the nucleus of the 10,000-voice choir heard in those concerts in 1911 and again on the occasion of the Peace celebrations in 1919. He also took 2,000 members of the Imperial Choir to perform at the 1913 Ghent Exhibition. Harriss travelled extensively in 1909–10 in Australia and South Africa, lecturing, conducting and organizing the Musical Festival of the Empire — a world music tour of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the US that took place in 1911. The Sheffield Choir and conductor Henry Coward played a prominent role in this festival, and performed in Canada. (Edward Elgar toured with the choir in the US and Toronto. He conducted the Dream of Gerontius at Massey Hall on 4 April 1911.) Harriss's last major appearance came in 1924 on his appointment as music director of the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley (London).


Harriss enjoyed the rare privilege of having his compositions performed not only in his adopted country, but also throughout the British Empire during his lifetime. His first major work, the cantata Daniel before the King (1884), was performed on 18 April 1890 in Canada and published that same year by G. Schirmer. Other works, all of which show a solid English foundation supporting traditional and contemporary continental influences, include the opera Torquil (1894), Festival Mass (Boosey, 1901), Coronation Mass for Edward VII (Boosey, 1903), Pan (Novello, 1904), the ballad The Sands of Dee (Novello, 1906) and the ode The Crowning of the King (Novello, 1911). His comic opera, The Admiral, was performed in 1902, his Canadian Fantasie for orchestra in 1904. Over 50 of his songs, anthems and keyboard works were published.

Honours and Legacy

In 1905, Harriss received an honorary fellowship from the Royal Academy of Music and the Lambeth doctorate from the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Canadian Musical Heritage Society reprinted his popular song “A Brigand Bold” (vol. 3), his organ work Allegro pomposo (vol. 4), his piano piece “Happy Moments” Gavotte (vol. 6), and two anthems: “Lead, Kindly Light” and “Shepherds in the Field Abiding” (vol. 9). Some of his manuscripts are held by the McGill University Archives and other papers are held at Library and Archives Canada.

A version of this entry originally appeared in Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Further Reading

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