Robert Harkness -10
Robert and Ruth worked harmoniously together in California until Ruth died in 1958. She had been a wonderful Christian partner to her husband and had worked on all his visits, projects and publications for over 45 years. Robert continued on until his own death 3 years later, still travelling (including 7 trips to his home in Bendigo) until he died of cancer in 1961, aged 81. He was cremated and his ashes buried with Charles and Helen Alexander in a London cemetery.
Of his visits back to Australia several living witnesses pay tribute to his common practise during many of his sacred concerts of calling for an audience member to give him a verse of Scripture. Within a few seconds Robert would produce a short chorus and set it to music, then after a few practises have the audience singing away enthusiastically. He never forgot these impromptu moments and included them in the total of 2500 songs and choruses he composed over those years.
Residents of Bendigo also remember that Robert used to play Christian songs on his father’s foundry steam whistles, a feat not believed by the Scottish manufacturer of the whistles until he was given a Harkness demonstration in 1959.
Keith Cole, Robert’s biographer, already referenced, writes as follows:
“Robert’s undisputed position as one of the world’s most outstanding composers of gospel song melody was achieved, not only because of his natural talent and not just because he loved and served his Lord and Saviour, but also because by hard work he became a brilliant musician.
“He mastered the techniques of piano and organ playing at a very early age. He had a sound knowledge of musical theory. He was an accomplished accompanist. He was a prolific composer. He was a polished presenter of sacred recitals. He was an astute businessman, publishing hymn books and planning correspondence courses.
“Above all he was a musical evangelist, who loved the Lord completely and without reserve, and dedicated the whole of his life and talents to the proclamation of the gospel through song.”
On this last point the story has been told that Harkness in his older age was performing at a sacred meeting for a group of school children. He was asked to accompany them in some secular dance and he politely refused. “I can’t do it,” he said, “These hands are totally dedicated to play only the Lord’s music.”
This total and serious dedication on his part reminds us of the vow he made in New Zealand as a young man in 1902 (See Part 3). We may laugh at his attitude but we cannot question the dedication which lasted all his life.
Robert Harkness deserves to be long remembered, if not for his hymns which are becoming dated, then as a musical pioneer who produced a new form of accompaniment for Christian music and singing, in a style still emulated today and no doubt into the future.