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John Havelock Nelson (1917 - 1996):
Conductor, pianist, composer and broadcaster

Havelock Nelson

John Havelock Nelson made an immense contribution to the development of the cultural life of the province - and beyond - over the second half of the 20th century. Nelson was born of middle-class parents in Cork, his distinctive forename being taken from a cousin of his mother who lost his life in WWI. Despite his birthplace, both his parents’ ancestral roots lie firmly in Northern Ireland.

His father Robert came from Larne where he was raised. However, the early years of his mother Grace were quite eventful : she was born in the then Belgian Congo on account of her father’s placement there as a missionary in the latter years of the 19th century (his family hailed from Tobermore, Co Tyrone). Havelock’s mother was eventually sent home at an early age, due to the threat of malaria, and was raised in Belfast by an aunt and uncle who had no family of their own. It would appear that Nelson inherited his musical genes from both parents: although his father trained as a chartered accountant, he was a capable baritone singer who studied in the early 1900s with CJ Brennan (later to become the organist and choirmaster at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast,1904-1964). Meanwhile, his mother had shown talent as a pianist during her upbringing in her adopted city and by her early 20s was offering her services as an accompanist.

By chance, this is how his parents were to meet. His parents married in 1916, shortly before their arrival in Cork where Robert took up his first accountancy job. Within a month of Havelock’s birth, the family then moved to Dublin where his father had secured a better post, eventually settling near Dun Laoghaire, just south of the capital city. From the age of five (now the eldest of four brothers born a year apart), young Nelson started piano lessons and had made such rapid progress that, by the age of ten, he was able to play in a piano trio and to accompany his father in informal concerts. By the age of twelve, he had won a scholarship to the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin giving him the opportunity to study piano and theory and helping him to establish his core musical skills; soon he added conducting and organ lessons to his study programme.

As far as his general education was concerned, this was completed at St. Andrew’s College, Dublin where he excelled in three subjects: English, History and the Sciences. By his late teens, Nelson was determined to pursue a professional career as a musician. But his father exercised caution in this regard, advising him to take a Science degree in the first instance. Consequently, he gained entry to Trinity College, Dublin in 1935 to read Natural Science, then made a decision the following year to change to Medical Science. By 1939, he completed his primary degree in Medical Science, leading to doctoral research in bacteriology. At the same time he began a 4-year music degree at TCD while remaining musically active outside the university in relation to his piano studies, and also co-founded and conducted the Dublin Orchestral Players, a body that continues to provide an invaluable platform for amateur performers. He completed his university studies in 1943 when he graduated with a PhD in Medical Science and a primary Music degree. Seven years later he was also to complete a doctorate in Music from the same university. His university career now behind him, like many fellow Irishmen, Nelson felt a desire to contribute to the World War II effort, and applied for a commission in the medical branch of the RAF in 1944. Eventually, he was called up and located at RAF Halton, Bucks., where he remained until after the end of the War (only returning to Dublin for his marriage in 1945). By nature, an outgoing, sociable person, Nelson wasted no time in immersing himself in music-making activities when off duty, both inside and outside his RAF base. It was during this immediate post-war period that Nelson became convinced that he wanted to pursue a career in Music. By chance, his attention was drawn to a BBC advertisement regarding a number of regional posts for staff accompanists, including Northern Ireland. His application was successful and he reported for duty at BBC Belfast in March 1947, where he was to remain for the next 30 years. In his new post, Nelson’s main role was to play and accompany on the piano. To this end, he became involved in a number of new radio programmes, notably Children’s Hour. Elsewhere, Nelson would compose and arrange music for adult dramas and serials, the best known being The McCooeys. Another responsibility was to assist in auditioning local musicians for broadcasting opportunities, a process that uncovered much local talent, including a young James Galway! While his activities revolved around radio work in the 1950s, the next 20 years embraced opportunities arising from the new medium of television, including the popular Songs of Praise which involved him as conductor.

His decision to retire from the BBC in 1977 enabled him to focus fully on his free-lance career which had been running parallel, up until then, with his broadcasting work. In this capacity he was able to give full rein to his diverse range of musical skills as choral and orchestral conductor, chamber musician, music-festival adjudicator, composer and arranger. One should not overlook his role as animateur in founding the Studio Symphony Orchestra (1947) and the Studio Opera Group (1950) - both became integral parts of the local cultural scene during Nelson’s lifetime. His contribution as a festival adjudicator was an important activity, notably when undertaking tours abroad, including to Canada and the Caribbean. His visits to the latter area led him to form the Trinidad and Tobago Opera Company shortly after his BBC retirement. In his busy lifestyle, he would make time to satisfy his creative energy as a composer and arranger. In total he had published over 100 pieces; many are inspired by his love of Irish traditional song, are of short duration and scored for a variety of vocal combinations. That he enjoyed a reputation as a piano accompanist of international standing is confirmed by his association with some of the leading Irish and British professional singers of the period, including Bernadette Greevy (soprano), Margaret Marshall (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor) and Ian Wallace (bass-baritone).

During his lifetime, Nelson’s outstanding services to music, both inside and outside the province, were recognised by a number of awards. The first of these was an OBE (1966), followed towards the latter part of his life by four honorary doctorates, three from local universities. A gifted and versatile musician, Nelson’s personality was described by one colleague as "magnetic"- he had the unique ability to reach out to everybody irrespective of their age, status and position in life in whatever role he performed. In his best known role as a conductor, a critic said of him that, "Dr Nelson has a remarkable touch in getting people to do what he wants in the pleasantest way possible". Nelson’s vision and determination helped to establish a vibrant music culture throughout Northern Ireland - it is this achievement that will remain his lasting legacy.

Havelock Nelson was survived by his three children and eight grandchildren, his wife Hazel having predeceased him in 1983.

Born: 25 May 1917
Died: 5 August 1996
Graham Nelson
Peter Downey: "Nelson Havelock", The Encyclopaedia of Music In Ireland, ed Harry White and Barra Boydell, Dublin (UCD Press, 2013), pp 732-3; Harry Grindle: "Reprise: an Irish church musician looks back", Newtownards (Colourpoint, 2009); Alasdair Jamieson: "Music in Northern Ireland: Two Major Figures: Havelock Nelson (1917-1996), Joan Trimble (1915-2000)", Tolworth (Grosvenor House, 2017); Havelock Nelson: A Bank of Violets, Antrim (Greystone Books, 1993).