Above: Plaque erected in 1992 by English Heritage at Albert Hall Mansions, Kensington Gore, Kensington, London, SW7 2AN, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. “SIR MALCOLM SARGENT 1895-1967 Conductor lived and died in a flat in this building”.
“Sir Harold Malcolm Watts Sargent (29 April 1895 – 3 October 1967) was an English conductor, organist and composer widely regarded as Britain’s leading conductor of choral works. The musical ensembles with which he was associated included the Ballets Russes, the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Royal Choral Society, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and the London Philharmonic, Hallé, Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Symphony and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. Sargent was held in high esteem by choirs and instrumental soloists, but because of his high standards and a statement that he made in a 1936 interview disputing musicians’ rights to tenure, his relationship with orchestral players was often uneasy. Despite this, he was co-founder of the London Philharmonic, was the first conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic as a full-time ensemble, and played an important part in saving the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from disbandment in the 1960s.
As chief conductor of London’s internationally famous summer music festival the Proms from 1948 to 1967, Sargent was one of the best-known English conductors. When he took over the Proms from their founder, Sir Henry Wood, he and two assistants conducted the two-month season between them. By the time he died, he was assisted by a large international roster of guest conductors.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Sargent turned down an offer of a major musical directorship in Australia and returned to the UK to bring music to as many people as possible as his contribution to national morale. His fame extended beyond the concert hall: to the British public, he was a familiar broadcaster in BBC radio talk shows, and generations of Gilbert and Sullivan devotees have known his recordings of the most popular Savoy Operas. He toured widely throughout the world and was noted for his skill as a conductor, his championship of British composers, and his debonair appearance, which won him the nickname “Flash Harry”.
Away from music, Sargent was elected a member of The Literary Society, a dining club founded in 1807 by William Wordsworth and others. He was also a member of the Beefsteak Club, for which his proposer was Sir Edward Elgar, the Garrick, and the long-established and aristocratic White’s and Pratt’s clubs. His public service appointments included the joint presidency of the London Union of Youth Clubs, and the presidency of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Sargent’s moral character attracted comment throughout his life. Early on, he developed a taste for luxury: Adrian Boult commented on his travelling to college by taxi, but Sargent rejoined, “All the more room for you, Adrian, on the bus.” Despite Sargent’s vanities and rivalries, he had many friends. Sir Thomas Armstrong in a 1994 broadcast interview stressed that Sargent “had many good generous virtues; he was kind to many people, and I loved him…”. Nevertheless, even friends such as Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, Secretary of the Literary Society, considered him a “bounder”, and the composer-suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth called him a “cad”.”*
*Frank McNally in the Irish Times: “Hemingway first asks Ford why he “cut” him (“because a gentleman always cuts a cad” is the reply); and then, leading the older man on, inquires whether a gentleman should always cut a “bounder” as well as a cad (no, “because it would be impossible for a gentleman to have known a bounder”).”