The English composer and pianist, Thomas Harold Hunt Craxton, was the son of a publican, and essentially a self-made man. His early musical instruction was typically provincial but he made a first public appearance at the age of 5 and took the Trinity College Grade One piano examination when he was 7. Some surviving manuscripts, while undated, are in such a childish hand as to suggest he was composing by his early teens at least. He next went to the Tobias Matthay Pianoforte School where he studied with Cuthbert Whitemore and Matthay himself.
Following this Harold Craxton rapidly established himself as an accompanist and for an intense period toured the world in the train of the likes of Madame Albani and Dame Nellie Melba. During some concerts for troops he met a violinist called Essie Faulkner and married her in about 1915. It was a highly successful marriage, ending only with Craxton's death in 1971 (Essie died in 1977). As well as providing him with six children Essie seems to have had a naturally hospitable disposition and the Craxtons always found space under their roof for many of the current students and protégés. Ronald Kinloch Anderson, Alexander Kelly, Alan Richardson and Denis Matthews were notable beneficiaries and I am assured that there were rarely fewer than twenty people at the dinner table. Fortunately their houses, both pre- and post-war, were large. Craxton died on March 30, 1885.
Harold Craxton's work as a pianist did not stop with his new family commitments; he continued to collaborate with some of the greatest soloists of the day and to give piano recitals which were notable for the inclusion of much early music in his own transcriptions. This activity petered out with old age but he never entirely retired from the platform. However, after his marriage his concert-giving was more home-based and teaching became central to his life. He taught briefly at the Tobias Matthay Pianoforte School from 1914 and in 1919 took up a professorship at the Royal Academy of Music which was to last till 1961; to the end of his life he continued to receive pupils at his studio.
As a composer his first publication was Three Pieces for Pianoforte, Op.1 (Bosworth 1911) and his last a group of easy pieces brought out by Curwen in 1961. His activity falls into a number of quite clear phases. Up till about 1917 he wrote fairly copiously in a romantic vein close to that of fellow-Matthay pupils such as Bowen and Swinstead. While not usually virtuosic this music is clearly intended for concert use. Not much of it was published. The Woodland Lullaby (J. Williams 1917) is one of the best and is most effectively laid out for the piano, while the simplicity of A Shepherdess in Porcelain, from the same year, points the way to his next phase.
During this period Harold Craxton was also fairly prolific as a song-writer, publishing 12 songs between 1914 and 1919 (several others remain in manuscript). Dame Nellie Melba does not seem to have deigned to sing any of them, but Dame Clara Butt, her husband Kennerley Rumford, Carrie Tubb and John McCormack all did (the latter recorded Mavis). Most are in the vein of the popular ballads of their day, outrageously so in the case of Oh! To see the Cabin Smoke (Dame Clara must have loved it), though their melodies are always fresh and well-constructed. Others, notably Hearts in Love with its delicate alternation of major and minor, Shepherd Love and the dignified R. L. Stevenson setting A Requiem belong to the same world as contemporary works by Quilter. After a short hiatus two further songs (the last to be published) appeared, The Snowdrop (Cramer 1924) and Beloved, I am lonely (Boosey 1926), respectively Quilter- and ballad-like. The Shakespeare songs will be dealt with shortly; meanwhile Craxton's work was moving in a different direction.
In 1920 Harold Craxton edited and arranged five pieces by Purcell, thus signalling his interest in early music. During the 1920's and 1930's a whole series of volumes were brought out, making many of the pieces available for the first time. Most of it was British but the Craxton-Moffatt Collection of Old Keyboard Music ranged widely. Even today, alternative editions of the Praeludium in D minor by Carbonelli or Signora Auretti's Dance by Hasse would not be easy to find. By modern standards they are unacceptable but their sins are not too heinous (a bit of thickening and a shortage of ornaments) and they did sterling work in their day. Though mostly for piano solo, a few also had a solo instrument, and Craxton had the parts for the cello and viola pieces edited respectively by Sheridan Russell and Watson Forbes. He does not seem to have trusted himself to write for an instrument other than his own, though a small amount of unpublished violin music exists.
This interest in early music clearly taught Harold Craxton the virtue of simplicity, and the bulk of his music from then on consisted of teaching material. The principal exceptions were the 8 Preludes (J. Williams 1955) and a number of very free transcriptions made in the early '30s: The Plaint of Love (a piece with a very special meaning for him), Siciliano and Rigadon, Meditation, and Bourrée Humoresque . In their quiet way these have both originality and integrity. No one else has quite written "old meets new" music in the same way (the nearest parallel might be Ralph Vaughan Williams's Hymn-Tune Prelude on Gibbons's 'Song 13' which, significantly, was published in 1930). To these might be added at least two of the cello pieces; Farnaby's Maske is brought into the world of Elgarian romanticism and the Arne Sonata assumes a character independent of its original.
Harold Craxton's love of the Elizabethan world surely prompted his return to song-writing in 1944. Previously he had been content to set texts by conventional ballad-mongers (the Bible and R. L. Stevenson excepted). The four Shakespeare songs evidently cost him a lot of trouble since each exists in several variant versions, with dedications to a number of celebrated singers, including Isobel Baillie and Roy Henderson. In 1944 they must have seemed old-fashioned (there are no harmonic procedures to which Stanford would have objected fifty years earlier) but in 2001 this need not worry us and they have an unassuming rightness which should make them among the more durable settings of these words.
Harold Craxton's dedicatees are worth a mention, for a study of the names at the head of his scores, published and unpublished, provides a picture-gallery of the many people who populated his life. A good number of the names are female, and some of his lady-pupils were very attractive indeed. The success of his marriage depended at times on Essie's worldly wisdom and tolerance. She was no doubt flattered to be the dedicatee of the evocatively poetic Two Pastoral Preludes and it is to be hoped she was not given to rummaging through her husband's manuscripts, for she would have found that the first was originally inscribed to another woman, the actress Jean Forbes-Robertson. The first of the Two Mazurkas, dedicated to an unidentified "C", achieves a poignantly personal effect by the way in which it is wrapped punningly around the note C.
The picture we have, then, is of a composer with considerable early ambitions who never fully developed yet who never entirely lost his inspiration either. A study of the manuscripts both amplifies and explains this. From the beginning it is clear that composition was not always going to come easily to him. One score of a piece entitled Little Robin Goodfellow - Scherzetto, probably the definitive one, is dated 22.06.1915, rev. 01.1917. Even this "definitive" version is full of pencilled changes, mostly too faint and confused for a present-day editor to take them into account. There are a further nine versions or fragments. The piece was written out sometimes in thrfour, sometimes in three-eight (and sometimes just called Valse), many variants have different secondary material altogether, details of figuration but also the basic harmonic structure are changed again and again. His one attempt at an extended piece apparently belongs to the same period and covers pages of sketches. It seems that something on the lines of a ballade or even a one-movement sonata was intended, but it is too fragmentary to tell. Evidently Craxton realised he was not up to writing a piece of any size, or which needed real development.
This wrestling with composition went on right through his life. A brief piece called A Quiet Tune, probably dating from the 1930s and intended as an elementary teaching piece, exists in five versions. They all begin the same; different continuations are tried, as are different endings. Yet one is never led to feel "this time he's got it", and in view of the blandness of the beginning one wonders why he went on trying. From about the same period, no fewer than eight attempts exist for a piece entitled "Hear the mermaids softly singing", many of them crossed out and bearing such startling differences that it sometimes seems a different piece.
Pianoforte: original pieces:
3 Pieces, op.1 (1911); Gavotte in E flat (1917); A Shepherdess in Porcelain (1917); Woodland Lullaby (1917); Timothy's Pieces (1921) (2 pieces); Tuneful Topics (1925) (5 pieces); Here and There (1930) (4 pieces); Two Little Studies (1930); Two Soudanese Pieces (1930); December and May (1931) (4 pieces); Springtime (1931) (3 pieces); Tahitian Dance (1931); Two Pastoral Preludes (1931); The Happy Hunter (1932); The Plaint of Love (from a lute book c.1535, freely transcribed) (1935); Siciliano and Rigadon (c.1735, freely transcribed) (1935; 2-piano version 1950); Aeroplanes and Trains (1936) (2 pieces); Two Mazurkas (1937); Meditation (Vita in ligno moritur) (from a lute book c.1530, freely arranged) (1938); Bourrée Humoresque (founded on an 18 th Century tune) (1938); Five Impromptus, designed as studies for hand (or wrist) touch (1939); Seven Pieces (1947); An Album Leaf (1955); Eight Preludes (1955); Two Studies (1959); Six Pieces (1961); Three Album Leaves on the initials E. F. (MS: 1911); Little Robin Goodfellow - Scherzetto (MS: 1917); Pianoforte: transcriptions; Purcell: Five Pieces (1920); Bull: The King's Hunt (1923); Weelkes: Galliard (1923); Anon (16th Century): Alman (1924); Boyce: Tempo di Gavotta (1926); Bach: Largo from Clavier Concerto in F minor (1927); The Craxton-Moffatt Collection of Old Keyboard Music (23 pieces; 1928-1937); Schubert: Nacht und Träume (1928); Eccles: A Trumpet Tune (1928); Couperin: The Gossip (1931); Easy Elizabethans (1933) (10 pieces, including 2 by Byrd and 4 by Farnaby); Airs and Graces from the Early 18 th Century (1935) (10 pieces); Two Pieces (1936) (by Anon. and Matheson); The Fiddler at the Feast (1936) (7 tunes from Playford's Dancing Master); Anon: Minuet and Rigadoon (1936); Dance Tunes of Other Days (1937) (7 pieces); Arne: Gavotte from Sonata no.5 (1945); Two 18th Century Minuets (1959).
Violin and Pianoforte:
Romance in B minor, op.2 (MS: 1909)
Viola and Pianoforte: transcription:
Boyce: Tempo di Gavotta (1948).
Violoncello and Pianoforte: transcriptions:
Arne: Sonata in B flat (1931); G. Farnaby: A Maske (1931); R. Johnson: Two Almans (1931); Bach: Largo from Clavier Concerto in F minor (1932).
String Quartet and Pianoforte: transcription:
Matthew Dubourg's Jig and Sarabande (arr. with Alfred Moffatt) (1938).
Oboe and Pianoforte: transcriptions:
Three Elizabethan Pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (1944).
Voice and Pianoforte:
Come you, Mary! (Norman Gale) (1914); March on! Canada! (L. A. Lefevre) (1914); Mavis (L. A. Lefevre) (1914); A Requiem (R. L. Stevenson) (1914); Bless thou the Lord, O my Soul (Psalm 104) (1915; also orchestrated); Hearts in Love (Edward Oxenford) (1915); Oh! To see the Cabin Smoke (P. J. O'Reilly) (1915); Timothy (Norman Gale) (1915); Shepherd Love (Helen Taylor) (1916); Sorrow no more (Fred G. Bowles) (1916); The Country Faith (Norman Gale) (1917); Bless my Brooms (Janet Begbie) (1919); The Snowdrop (Norman Gale) (1924); Beloved, I am lonely (May Aldington) (1926); Two Songs from Shakespeare (O Mistress Mine; It was a Lover and his Lass) (MS: 1944); Two Songs from Shakespeare (Come away death; Sigh no more, ladies ) (MS: 1944)