Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harrison, Samuel

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HARRISON, SAMUEL (1760–1812), vocalist, was born at Belper, Derbyshire, on 8 Sept. 1760. Burton, a bass singer, was his earliest instructor. Harrison was trained as a soprano to sing solos at the Ancient Concerts and at the Society of Sacred Music in 1776. Not until he was eighteen did his voice break (Lysons). He cultivated his tenor voice with the utmost care, and became the most finished singer of his age. George III, hearing him at one of the queen's parties, had the artist engaged for the Handel Commemoration, 1784, to open the ‘Messiah;’ he thus sprang into the notice of musicians and fashionable people. He had made his first appearance at the Three Choirs meeting as principal tenor in 1781, at Gloucester; from 1786 until 1808 he sang at each of the Hereford meetings, and from 1801 till 1808 was a principal also at Gloucester and Worcester. The meeting of 1811 was managed by Harrison with others. In London he was a member of the Catch Club, and performed at the Professional Concerts from about 1783, at Saloman's from 1786, and the Society of Sacred Music from 1785 until 1790 (when Kelly succeeded him). In conjunction with Ashley, Harrison conducted (and sang in) oratio at Covent Garden Theatre during the Lent of 1791; he sang in the Drury Lane oratorios in 1794, and at the Lenten concerts at the King's Theatre in 1795.

Harrison was principal tenor at the Ancient Concerts from 1785 until 1791, when he seceded, and, with Charles Knyvett the elder, established the Vocal Concerts. The first was given on 11 Feb. 1792 at Willis's Rooms. Here excellent performances of English chamber music were provided, but ceased to attract after a few seasons, Harrison and the chief promoters of the enterprise returning to the Ancient Concerts. In 1801 the Vocal Concerts were revived on a much larger scale than heretofore, with an orchestra; they were very successful until newer musical attractions drew the public away. In 1821 Harrison repeated some of his most popular performances (see Grove) at his benefit concert on 8 May 1812. He died of internal inflammation on the following 25 June at Percy Street. He was buried in Old St. Pancras graveyard. An inscription on the stone gives lines by the Rev. T. Beaumont (Roffe, Monumental Inscriptions, No. 66).

‘Nature had bestowed upon Harrison but slender materials’ (Rimbault), but he had learnt to exercise complete control over his delicate organ, which was two octaves in compass, although limited in power. ‘Had his physical powers been equal to his taste,’ wrote a contemporary, ‘Harrison would have been in all points unrivalled.’ The aria cantabile showed his capacity to most advantage. His favourite songs were Pepusch's ‘Alexis,’ Handel's ‘Lord, remember David,’ and ‘Pleasure, my former ways resigning;’ Boyce's ‘Softly rise;’ Zingarelli's ‘Ombra adorata;’ Webbe's ‘A Rose from her bosom had strayed;’ and in later days, Attwood's ‘Soldier's Dream’ and Horsley's ‘Gentle Lyre’ (Dictionary of Music, 1827).

Harrison married, on 6 Dec. 1790, Miss Cantelo, a ‘pleasing and well-toned soprano singer, free from English brogue and vulgarity’ (Burney). Before she married Harrison her musical career ran in parallel lines with his. She was a favourite at the Ancient Concerts and at the Three Choirs festivals, and earned some measure of praise for her performance at the Handel Commemoration of 1784. Her style of singing, particularly in its negative virtues, seems to have resembled Harrison's. She died in 1831.

[Lysons's Annals of the Three Choirs, pp. 56, 60, &c.; Dict. of Music, 1827, p. 333; Grove's Dict. i. 692, iv. 318; Gent. Mag. 1812. pt. i. p. 669; Pohl's Haydn in London, p. 34, &c.; Burney's Handel Commemoration; Harmonicon, 1830, p. 181; Quarterly Musical Review, i. 81.]

L. M. M.