b. 1929 – d. 2007
James Harding was an expert on French music and a lover of bizarre facts. He shared his interest in French musical and theatrical culture through the 20 or so books he wrote, their subjects ranging from Saint-Saëns, Rossini and Gounod through French operetta to Maurice Chevalier and Jacques Tati. A French teacher in later life, he achieved this prolific output as a holiday activity.
James Harding remembered – by Roger Nichols
From the bibliography of James Harding’s 1965 biography of Saint-Saëns we learn not only that no life of the composer in English had been published since 1923, but that the author’s research took in 964 manuscript items from the Dieppe Museum and some 500 others, including 151 from his own collection. Add to these factors an uncommon gift for understanding character and an attractive English style, and it is no wonder that for many music lovers Harding’s books constituted inviting gateways into the formerly neglected world of nineteenth-century French music.
He was born in Bath on 30 May 1929, the younger of two sons, and the Hardings soon moved to Trowbridge, where James attended the boys’ high school. There was no music anywhere in the family. From Trowbridge he went on to study French at Bristol University, the course including a year at the Sorbonne. After the War he worked as a copywriter, first for the Clarks shoe company in Somerset and then in London. In 1956 he married, and his wife Gillian was occasionally called upon to help with the column for women that he wrote in the News of the World under the name Jane Dunbar.
For a first book, Saint-Saëns and his Circle was astonishing in its command of the many new facts it contained, and in its portrayal of the links and tensions between the composer and his times. If Saint-Saëns was not, as Harding conceded, an ideal subject for biography, his life containing ‘no Immortal Beloved, no Heiligenstadt Testament, and no Mysterious Stranger’, this book gives no sign of difficult birth, and alerts us also to the value of much of Saint-Saëns’s music beyond The Swan and Danse Macabre.
From here on Harding’s writing was fitted in round a job at Woolwich Polytechnic, teaching business French from 1969 to 1994, but the pace remained remarkable – some twenty books over the next 40 years, including theatrical subjects such as Ivor Novello, George Robey, C.B. Cochran, Gerald du Maurier and Emlyn Williams. But composers remained his chief interest. In 1973 he treated Gounod with sympathy but not blindly, and demonstrated a copywriter’s sharpness in dealing with the composer’s ‘manageress’ in England, the awful Mrs Weldon.
Massenet (1970), Rossini (1971) and Satie (1975) followed, together with two books of wider scope, The Ox on the Roof (1972) and Folies de Paris: The Rise and Fall of French Operetta (1979). Both topics gave Harding unlimited opportunities for recounting the bizarre, which he seized with alacrity: we learn that the 1920s rage for the Eton crop was instigated by Coco Chanel after the geyser exploded while she was running her bath, scorching off half her hair. But there is well-founded criticism too. How many writers in 1979 were sufficiently up in Lecocq’s operettas to be able to judge that the score of Giroflé-Girofla ‘is not so uniformly excellent as that of Madame Angot’? Moreover Harding was generous in sharing his knowledge, as the present writer can testify.
The persona of Jane Dunbar was not Harding’s only exercise in the unusual. In 1973 he gained a doctorate at Birkbeck College with his thesis on the diarist Paul Léautaud, attracted by a man whose last words were ‘Maintenant, foutez-moi la paix!’ He had also, through several of his Far Eastern pupils at Woolwich, recently become interested in Malaysian culture. He taught himself Malay and published a book on the film actor and director P. Ramlee, which the Premier of Malaysia helped to publicise. James Harding is survived by Gillian and by their son and daughter.