On Tuesday, May 8, All Classical Portland will be naming its Music Library in honor of Harry Rabinowitz (1916-2016), a British conductor and composer known for his television and film music. Rabinowitz is best known for having conducted the scores for over 60 films, and he regularly appeared on TV and radio throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, where he was a conductor on the BBC Radio and later head of music at BBC TV Light Entertainment London Weekend Television. (Scroll to the bottom of this page to explore a photo gallery of Harry Rabinowitz over the years!)
The late director Anthony Minghella, whom Rabinowitz collaborated with on numerous occasions, described him as “the UK’s best kept secret.” Rabinowitz worked with orchestras around the world and played a key role in the British broadcasting and film industries. We honor him today not only for these important contributions but also for his longtime support of All Classical Portland. Let’s step back for a moment to commemorate his wide-ranging and fully lived life.
Rabinowitz was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the age of nine, a neighbor began showing interest in playing piano and dragged Rabinowitz into it. Shortly after, Rabinowitz began taking piano lessons himself, delving into the world of music and never looking back. Rabinowitz attended Witwatersrand University in South Africa, where he studied politics, piano, and composition.
In a way, Rabinowitz’s musical career began with one of his first jobs, where he was a pianist in the sheet music department of a Johannesburg store, playing music for potential customers. With the onset of World War II in 1942, however, Rabinowitz joined the South African army, eventually reached the rank of corporal. During this time, he worked for the Entertainment Unit. Rabinowitz taught soldiers to play music on whatever instruments they could get their hands on. Apartheid would not be established until 1948, but Rabinowitz recalled having to rehearse ensembles with black musicians in secret. “This white man, only 21 years old,” remarked Rabinowitz, “had to write a pass to allow men on to the street.”
After his time with the South African Army, Rabinowitz got his start in conducting the orchestra for a show called Strike a New Note in Johannesburg. In a 2008 interview with Peter Korn, Rabinowitz describes his experience there: “While there I realized there was a discrepancy in timing between the stage and the pit. To overcome it I had to stand up and wave my hands and I seized a rolled-up newspaper – my first baton – and conducted the stage and the orchestra at the same time. And that was the beginning of my feeling that I could really master difficult situations in music.” Rabinowitz never did bother to go out and buy a baton after the newspaper incident. “Working in the studios there was always some jerk of a conductor who left his pencils, erasers and baton,” he described in the same interview. “So all through my professional life I’ve used findings.”
In 1946, Rabinowitz left South Africa to study conducting at the Guildhall School of Music in London. There, Rabinowitz quickly established himself within the industry, largely in thanks to a lucky chance encounter that initially launched off his conducting career. Walking along Piccadilly Street with rainwater seeping through his shoes, Rabinowitz ran into the well-known actor and comedian Sid James, his best man at his wedding in 1944 and a former comrade from the South African army. James promptly brought Rabinowitz to the office of the bandleader and impresario Jack Hylton, where he told Hylton that Rabinowitz would “do anything you like musically.” Just like that, Rabinowitz found himself playing the piano for the BBC radio show Variety Band-Box, and performing as a session musician at EMI’s Abbey Road recording studios. His conducting work began shortly thereafter in 1950 with Philip Torre’s musical Golden City, set in the South African gold rush of 1886.
All Classical’s Edmund Stone on Rabinowitz’s encounter with Sid James:
“Once he told me he was out of work, broke and unable to get work in London. He was walking down a London street when he bumped into Sid James, then a famous comedy film actor and with whom Harry had served in the South African military. Sid immediately took Harry to see a management friend who arranged for Harry to get work conducting for the BBC. This illustrates that even someone as great as Harry, or perhaps WHY Harry is so great, is that he remembers the acts of kindness and knows they are never wasted: he is living proof of that. It is a great, if understated tale, of how one person can make such a huge difference in not only another human’s life but in all our lives due to the ripple effects it has. Harry’s friend reached out to one person, but Harry, through that seminal act of one kindness, reached the whole world.”
Of course, Rabinowitz’s first gigs weren’t all just luck. In a 2015 interview, Rabinowitz credits much of his success to learning to read music “very quickly and very accurately” at an early age. “A score which would normally take somebody 20 minutes to put right,” he noted, “…I reckon I can do it in seven-and-a-half minutes.” This skill would become especially useful in 1953, when Rabinowitz became a conductor of the BBC Revue Orchestra. The Revue Orchestra was a house band for BBC’s “Light Programme,” a radio station which streamed light entertainment and music from 1945 to 1967. The orchestra also played for TV shows such as Hancock’s Half Hour and The Goon Show: this was during a time when variety and comedy shows were often backed by a live orchestral accompaniment. In the meantime, Rabinowitz remained active as a pianist, playing on Midday Music Hall and Piano Playtime.
Rabinowitz moved through several different posts through the 1960 and ‘70s. In 1960, he became the head of music for BBC TV Light Entertainment, conducting the orchestra for shows including the Val Doonican Show, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore’s Not Only… But Also. Rabinowitz composed the music for several shows as well, including The Frost Report (1966). During this period, Rabinowitz had the opportunity to conduct the United Kingdom’s Eurovision Song Contest entries on two occasions, in the years 1964 and 1966. Eurovision is an annual TV song competition where each participating country submits an original song to be performed live, with viewers casting votes to determine the winner (akin to an international version of shows like American Idol or The Voice).
Rabinowitz struck out as a freelancer in 1977, the same year he was awarded the title of Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to music. Rabinowitz began venturing beyond his reputation as a conductor and arranger of light and popular music to pursuing directing and composing opportunities in theatre, films, and broadcasting. He served as the music director for several West End musicals, including the first-ever run of the Andrew Lloyd Weber and TS Eliot musical Cats (1981) and Don Black and Lloyd Weber’s Song and Dance (1982). In the composing realm, Rabinowitz wrote the music for the TV series the Agatha Christie Hour (1982) and Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983), and his theme music for Love for Lydia (1977) was nominated for an Ivor Novello award.
Where Rabinowitz was arguably in the greatest demand, however, was for his film scores. (In one year, 1991, he recorded the music for nine movies!) Some of his best-known scores include Chariots of Fire (1981), Return to Oz (1985), The Remains of the Day (1993), The English Patient (1996), and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Rabinowitz’s final film score assignment, at the age of 87, was Cold Mountain (2003).
Additionally, during this period Rabinowitz collaborated with London Symphony Orchestra in the recording of over twenty film soundtrack and studio session recordings. As his reputation as a conductor of light and popular music spread to the U.S., Rabinowitz spent seven seasons as a guest conductor with the Boston Pops Orchestra (1985-1992), and appeared at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1980s. Rabinowitz was certainly a busy man, and he was regarded as a popular and highly professional conductor among his colleagues. Not wasting his colleague’s time by over-rehearsing was an important value for Rabinowitz as a conductor, and he once said in an interview that “In almost all the sessions I’ve conducted the musicians have left smiling.”
Edmund Stone gives us another story of Rabinowitz, this time with the London Symphony:
“When Harry was 94 he was scheduled to conduct the London Symphony in a film music concert. He asked if I would produce a CD of the program for him to follow along with the scores. Later I learned the concert was a huge success and there had been an unscripted piece of entertainment. During a particularly vigorous upbeat Harry’s baton broke in two on the music stand, with the top half of his baton flying over his shoulder into the audience. Without missing a beat Harry continued conducting with what was left of his baton. The other half was caught by an audience member who then passed it along until it reached the front row. With the Maestro still conducting the baton stub was then given to a bass player who passed it, section-by-section, until it reached the concertmaster who waited until the music was over before handing it to Harry. The conductor immediately asked the lead violinist to kneel, and knighted him on the spot.”
Even after retiring for good at the tender age of 94, Rabinowitz continued to involve himself in the arts and tried his best to play the piano every day. In his later years, he divided his time between his home in Provence, France, and Portland, Oregon, where he stayed from November to April. Portland is where his second wife, Mitzi Scott, was from, whom he had met in France. Together, they were active participants in the arts community, regularly attending the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, chamber music concerts, and theater productions.
Rabinowitz made friends with people from all over town, and was adored by many for his amiable and witty personality. He met former All Classical Senior Announcer Robert McBride in 2007, when he and his wife Mitzi joined All Classical Portland on a trip to Russia. “I loved them both immediately and we remained friends,” Robert later remarked to an Oregonian reporter. Harry and his wife were long-time supporters of All Classical, even calling in from France to donate to All Classical’s annual fundraiser. On his program The Score, Edmund Stone worked with Harry as a guest several times (and once even filled in for Edmund as host!)
Edmund Stone recounts his time with Rabinowitz on The Score:
“Harry was my co-host several times on The Score but our best moments were after the recordings when we visited a local pub. His anecdotes were legendary, like the time he was conducting a film music recording session in London. There was a power outage and together with the engineer Harry asked musicians who had driven to the session to quickly get their car batteries. By connecting these they were able to complete the recording session. This may be the only time 20-30 vehicles were involved in a recording as much as the musicians.”
Rabinowitz died at his house in France in June of 2016, only three months after his 100th birthday. He is survived by his wife Mitzi Scott, his three children, Karen, Simon and Lisa, from his first marriage to Lorna Anderson, and four grandchildren.
Click the “read more” button below to explore a photo gallery featuring Harry Rabinowitz (thanks goes to Mitzi Scott for providing these wonderful images).
- “Harry Rabinowitz.” Wikipedia.com. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Rabinowitz
- “Dessert Island Discs: Harry Rabinowitz: Music Played.” BBC Radio 4. Web. Retrieved 3 April 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0606vtx#play
- “Harry Rabinowitz – Chariots of Fire, The Remains of the Day, The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley – is 100 today.” Classical Source. 26 March 2018. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. http://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_news.php?id=3630
- “Harry Rabinowitz, composer and conductor, dies at 100.” BBC News. 23 June 2016. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-36606891
- “Harry Rabinowitz, TV and film composer and conductor, dies aged 100.” Classic FM. 23 June 2016. Web. Accessed 23 June 2016. http://www.classicfm.com/music-news/latest-news/harry-rabinowitz-obituary/#HmvY6Fc7yWFGbEug.99
- Korn, Peter. “Q and A with Harry Rabinowitz.” Pamplin Media Group, Portland Tribune News. 17 Jan 2008. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. http://pamplinmedia.com/component/content/article?id=61914
- “Harry Rabinowitz Biography.” IMDb.com. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0704948/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
- “Obituary: Harry Rabinowitz (1916–2016).” London Symphony Orchestra. 23 June 2016. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. https://lso.co.uk/more/news/561-obituary-harry-rabinowitz-1916-2016.html
- Laing, Dave. “Harry Rabinowitz Obituary.” The Guardian. 23 June 2016. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/23/harry-rabinowitz-obituary
- Wang, Amy. “Harry Rabinowitz, conductor who lived part time in Portland, is dead at 100.” OregonLive. 1 July 2016. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. http://www.oregonlive.com/art/index.ssf/2016/07/harry_rabinowitz.html
- “Harry Rabinowitz.” AllMusic. Web. Accessed 3 March 2018. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/harry-rabinowitz-mn0000506631
- Harry Rabinowitz. The Times. 24 June 2016. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/harry-rabinowitz-m8w0p03pz
- “Farewell, Harry Rabinowitz.” All Classical Portland. 30 June 2016. Web. Accessed 3 April 2018. https://www.allclassical.org/spotlights/harry-rabinowitz-dies-at-100/
- “History Pub: Harry’s First Hundred Years: A Rousing Conversation with Recent Centenarian Harry Rabinowitz (28 March 2016).” http://portland.daveknows.org/2016/03/28/history-pub-harrys-first-hundred-years-rousing-conversation-recent-centenarian-harry-rabinowitz-28-march-2016/