In addition to his impressive career as an orchestral conductor, Sargent was a renowned interpreter of choral music. He was particularly successful with large choral forces, as is evident in the many recordings he made. For nearly 25 years, Sargent served as the conductor of the Royal Choral Society, with which he also performed Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha at Royal Albert Hall. He was also the conductor of the Huddersfield Choral Society. As a choral conductor, Sargent was in great demand, especially in northern England.
While some criticized Sargent for his narrow musical interests, these claims seem a bit exaggerated, as he gave many premieres. It is true that he was particularly devoted to the works of the classical-era composers. He also performed works by late-Romantics such as Dvořák and Sibelius. In addition, he performed much British music, from composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Walton. He also gave the UK premieres of Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra and Hindemith’s Viola Concerto no. 2, both times featuring the respective composer as soloist. He also premiered Walton’s cantata Belshazzar’s Feast. With the BBC Symphony Orchestra alone, Sargent conducted more than 50 premieres. It is true, however, that his musical range diminished with age. By the end of his career, he did not venture further than the music of Britten or Shostakovich. He also became fonder of oratorios and the music of Delius. During this later period, he reportedly referred to much of contemporary music as ‘an awful lot of tripe’.
Sargent made a number of appearances as an operatic conductor, including premieres of three of Vaughan William’s operas—High the Drover (British National Opera Company, 1924), Sir John in Love (RCM, 1929) and Riders to the Sea (RCM, 1937). He also premiered Holst’s At the Boar’s Head with the British National Opera Company (BNOC) in 1925 and Walton’s Troilus and Cressida at Covent Garden in 1954. He gained much of his operatic training in 1927 and 1928 as the assistant conductor for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes during their London seasons. Sargent conducted the D’Oyly Carte company on numerous occasions beginning in 1926. He also made a number of recordings of Sullivan’s operettas with the company.
Sir Malcolm Sargent was a popular but controversial English conductor during the first half of the 20th century. He was successful in bringing classical music to the masses, which was certainly no small feat. He was often criticized for his flashy personality and perceived lack of depth. Sargent was an active orchestral conductor, but thrived as a choral conductor. He was most well-known for his organization and leadership of the famous London Promenade Concerts, or the Proms.
Malcom Sargent was born into a working-class family in Ashford, Kent on 29 April 1895. His father worked as a coal merchant and was also an organist and choirmaster. As a young boy, Sargent learned piano and organ and sang in his father’s choir. He was exposed to much of Gilbert and Sullivan’s music and trained in secular and well as sacred church music. At the age of 16, Sargent became an organ student of Keeton at the Peterborough Cathedral. From 1914 to 1924, Sargent held the position of organist at Melton Mowbray Church. During this period, he also studied musicology at Durham. After graduating in 1919, he went on to study piano with Benno Moiseiwitsch until 1921.
While Sargent’s talent as a performer was well-recognized within his community, he was relatively unknown until 1921 when he conducted his own Impression on a Windy Day with Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra, first in Leicester and then again at the Proms in London. Impressed with the young musician, Wood encouraged him to pursue a career in conducting. Sargent followed Wood’s advice, and devoted himself to conducting from that point on. He founded the amateur Leicester Symphony Orchestra in 1922, which he conducted until 1939.
In 1923, Sargent joined the teaching faculty of the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), moving to London in 1924. Also in 1924, he was appointed chief conductor of the Robert Mayer Children’s Concerts. In 1929, he was named musical director of the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts. Sargent was also heavily involved with the London Philharmonic Orchestra beginning in 1932, when Thomas Beecham founded it. He often conducted the orchestra, and was respected for his decision to tour with them during the Blitz. His career was briefly interrupted from 1933 to 1934 due to tuberculosis. After returning to the concert stage, he was appointed chief conductor of the Hallé Orchestra from 1939 to 1942. Thereafter, he served as the chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for six years. Sargent went on to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1950 to 1957. In 1948, he was named chief conductor of the Promenade Concerts in London, a position he held until his death.
Sargent was met with much resistance from his orchestral players. These players, who had supported him during his illness in the early 1930s, were later degraded by the conductor, who declared that orchestral musicians shouldn’t have a ‘job for life’, as they were undeserving of this luxury. From this point on, the musicians turned on the conductor and were often hostile.
In addition to his harsh words about orchestral musicians, Sargent was known as a hard taskmaster. He once claimed that ‘the curse of English conducting is amateurism’, which explains why he worked so hard to overcome this stereotype. He was known for ‘rehearsing meticulously, and drilling the correct notes into choirs bar-by-bar, if he thought it was required’. While not everyone appreciated his approach, Toscanini once called Sargent ‘the greatest conductor of choirs in the world’. Beecham also praised him as ‘the greatest choirmaster we have ever produced…he makes the buggers sing like blazes’. One critic summed it up nicely, essentially explaining that Sargent ‘may not have made classical music seem profound, but he made it exciting and glamorous’.
Sargent was also known for his impeccable style and smooth-talking skills with the public (and with women). These traits, combined with his tendency to conduct in quick tempos early on his career and run from recording to recording, led to the nickname ‘Flash Harry’.
Despite their musical opinion, most critics agree that Sargent helped boost the public morale during the depressing war years. During this period, he didn’t shy away from tours and conducted for a very low wage. Most famously, he conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 that was interrupted by an air raid. Instead of panicking, he calmly stopped the orchestra and turned to the audience to tell them that they were much safer in the concert hall than outside on the streets. He then continued on with the concert. Afterwards, he said that ‘no orchestra had every played so well and that no audience…had ever listen so intently’.
During his final years, Sargent suffered from Pancreatic cancer. He left his bed to make a final appearance at the Proms. There, he handed the baton over to Colin Davis and gave a speech which was rewarded with a standing ovation. Sargent died two weeks later, on 3 October 1967 in London. More than 3000 people attended his funeral.
Sargent is remembered for his many recordings and his work with the Proms concerts. He received a number of awards during his lifetime including the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1959. He was knighted in 1947.