Harrison, May (1891–1959)

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Harrison, May (1891–1959)

English violinist known for her recordings of Delius as well as for her concerts. Born in Roorkee, India, in March 1891; died in South Nutfield, Surrey, England, on June 8, 1959; daughter of Colonel John Harrison (an officer in the Royal Engineers) and Annie Harrison (a singer); sister of Beatrice Harrison (1892–1965), the cellist, Margaret Harrison, and Monica Harrison; studied at the Royal College of Music and in St. Petersburg.

May Harrison's mother Annie Harrison studied singing with Sir George Henschel and Gustave Garcia but gave up hopes of a career after her marriage to John Harrison. A colonel in the Royal Engineers, John was posted to India

where May was born in 1891. John loved India; Annie hated it. Though she had taken her piano, Annie missed the rich musical life she had known in England; so the family returned shortly after May's birth.

Both parents encouraged their four daughters' musical development, and all four were extremely talented. John gave up his career in the War Office to devote himself to their musical careers, and Annie did the same. Beatrice Harrison and May became concert string players while Margaret Harrison was a concert pianist. As an infant, May played "God Save the Queen" on a rubber band stretched from her teeth. She sang in tune before she could walk; her pitch was perfect. By three, she was playing the piano and at five the violin. At age ten, May beat out 3,000 competitors of all ages and both sexes to win the Gold Medal of the Associated Board's Senior Department. She was also awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.

Harrison studied with Leopold Auer (1845–1930), founder of the Russian school of violin playing. She also studied with Spain's Enrique Fernandez Arbos and the Spanish-American Sergei Achille Rivarde. In 1904, she made her London debut with Sir Henry Wood conducting at St. James' Hall. This performance led to many private concerts and recitals in Spain as well as two appearances before the Spanish royal family. That same year, three Harrison sisters were at the Royal College of Music. In 1908, May and her older sister Beatrice went to Frankfurt where they learned German at a local school and attended concerts or the opera. From there, they went to Berlin where they were joined by the entire Harrison family. In the winter, May and her mother went to St. Petersburg to study with Auer for three months. While there, her face was badly burned by a faulty stove, but she played in concert nonetheless to rave reviews. Her Berlin debut was in 1909. In 1911, Harrison was in London where she played the Brahms' Double Concerto with Beatrice. The two were soon touring throughout European capitals. In St. Petersburg, Harrison appeared in a concert conducted by Glazunov, a good composer but poor conductor, especially when he had been drinking, and he drank a great deal. Under the influence, Glazunov had to be tapped on the arm to begin, then proceeded to conduct all movements at the same tempo. Nonetheless, May had the thrill of playing Glazunov's Concerto under the composer's baton and lived to tell about it.

Harrison was often a soloist at London's popular Promenade Concerts. Very much at home in the upper echelons, she performed everywhere and spent many weekends at country houses where she often met the best conductors and composers. Princess Victoria (1868–1935) was a great admirer which guaranteed that the diminutive violinist was on the guest list for major royal occasions. While her sister frequently appeared in the United States, May played mainly in Great Britain. From 1935 to 1947, she taught at the Royal College of Music.

Among musicians, she was highly regarded because of her marvelous playing and professional manner. It had taken her only two weeks to learn the Elgar Concerto in 1919. When Delius wrote his Double Concerto, the Harrison sisters advised him during its composition. May so impressed the composer in 1920 that he asked her to record it. Sir Arnold Bax's Third Sonata in 1930 was dedicated to her as he also admired her technique.

After World War II, Harrison's career declined, and she performed less and less, but every recorded note is fortunately available on compact disc. She excelled in the Late Romantic music of Delius and Bax but lived in an age when orchestras played quietly, so some find her playing "delicate." May Harrison began her career when women were routinely excluded from symphony orchestras. Despite the fact that she worked in an area dominated by males, she was extremely successful on the concert stage. Her career helped doom the stigma of gender which had dominated the musical world for centuries.


Potter, Tully. "May Harrison," in The Strad. Vol. 101, no. 1204. August 1990, pp. 628–630.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 20 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1980.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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