During the period of the Commonwealth, in the mid seventeenth century,
Puritanscontrolled the country and organ music was banned. Many organ makers left England for the continent, including Harris' father, Thomas. It was while the family was living in Francethat Harris was born. After the Restoration the family returned to England.
Harris grew up in his father's business and eventually became one of the two most prominent organ builders of his generation, along with his hated rival "Father"
Bernard Smith. Harris had a flair for publicity and was not above using under-handed tactics against Smith.
The rivalry between the two men led to the famous "Battle of the Organs" in 1684, when both were bidding for the contract to build the new organ for the
Temple Church, London. Each erected an organ in the Temple Church and they hired prominent organists Giovanni Battista Draghi, John Blowand Henry Purcellto demonstrate the superiority of their instruments. Harris lost out to Smith, but in 1697, after Smith reneged on a contract for a new organ at Christ Church cathedral in Dublin, Harris appositely installed the instrument which had lost there instead. Harris's organ, which was installed and maintained by John Baptist Cuvillie, and later Philip Hollister, was replaced by an organ by John Byfield in 1752. However, the Harris-Cuvillie organ which survived the 'Battle of the Organs' today survives in St John's Church, Wolverhampton.
He died in August or September, 1724.
Among Harris' surviving organs are those of
Bristol Cathedral(1685), St Bride's, Fleet Street(1694), All Hallows, Twickenham(1700), and St Peter Mancroft, Norwich(1707) The Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors' Hall, City of London(1722) (Restored by Mander Organsin 1966).
A Harris organ at
Christ Church Greyfriars, also known as Christ Church Newgate, in Londonwas destroyed along with the church during the Blitzin December 1940.
Peter F. Williams, ‘The organ in the church of St. John, Wolverhampton’, The Organ, xli, 161 (July 1961), 8-16.
E.P. Hickman, A history of the Renatus Harris organ in St John’s church Wolverhampton (Wolverhampton: St John’s Church, revised ed., 2003).
Barra Boydell (ed.), Music at Christ Church before 1800: documents and selected anthems (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999).
Barra Boydell, ‘The flourishing of music, 1660-1800’ in Kenneth Milne (ed.), Christ Church cathedral, Dublin: a history (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000), 298-314.
Barra Boydell, A history of music at Christ Church cathedral, Dublin (Boydell Press, 2004).
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