Henry Balfour Gardiner

1877 - 1950



He learnt the piano from the age of five, and four years later had begun composing. In 1891 he entered Charterhouse School, where he was awarded a senior scholarship. Before going to university he studied at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt (1894-6) under Knorr for composition and Uzielli, a pupil of Clara Schumann, for piano; Knorr called him his most understanding pupil. At Frankfurt he was strongly influenced by Wagner, whose operas he heard for the first time, and by Tchaikovsky.

In 1896 he went to New College, Oxford, but he returned to Frankfurt for vacations and for further study after leaving Oxford with a pass in classics. He then studied conducting for a few months at Sondershausen, where some of his early orchestral works were performed. Performances in England began in 1903, when his Quintet in C minor was performed at a Broadwood Concert. By then he had decided to devote his time to composition - though at Oxford he had cherished hopes of becoming a concert pianist - and he settled in London and Ashampstead, Berkshire, except for a term on the music staff of Winchester College in 1907 (he also spent some time, in 1905-6, collecting folksongs in Hampshire).

Several of his published works became very popular, but an arguably greater achievement at this time was the remarkable series of eight concerts which he organized and financed at the Queen's Hall in 1912-3, conducting many of the items himself. These helped considerably to establish the music of his English contemporaries, particularly Bax, Holst and Gardiner's Frankfurt fellow students, Grainger, Quilter, Scott and O'Neill. Throughout his life Gardiner used his private means to help his colleagues in unassuming but very generous ways: for instance he arranged a performance of The Planets in 1918 for Holst's benefit, and enabled Delius to continue living at Grez-sur-Loing by purchasing his house.

As a composer Gardiner was frustrated by the narrowness of his early musical environment, to which even Wagner was a novelty, by his academic tuition, which he saw as a severe curb on originality, and by an almost pathological self-critical sense. By 1925 he had ceased composing altogether and he devoted the rest of his life to pioneering afforestation in Dorset: he felt that his muse, belonging essentially to the Edwardian age, could not flourish in the radically different postwar climate.

Nevertheless, at his best, as in Overture to a Comedy and News from Whydah, his music has an infestious vitality and exuberance and a vivid, resourceful wealth of orchestral colour, while in April, Philomela and A Berkshire Idyll a more poignant, strongly Delian side to his personality is revealed. It is a pity that these minor masterpieces of the period have been overshadowed by the more popular but less representative Evening Hymn, Shepherd Fennel's Dance and Cargoes.

© The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie