S.A. Halfpenny 1873 - 1899

This following piece is based on an article written by Eli Kaufman for the ABF 5 Stringer magazine, which was published in issue 184.

My thanks to Eli for permission to borrow some of the material.

Septimus Augustus Halfpenny was exclusively a zither-banjoist who specialised in playing his own arrangements of popular classics rather than the typical banjo repertoire.
He advocated the use of the thumb and three fingers; never rested his right hand on the vellum; and did not elevate and lower his bass string as he fell it adversely affected the tone of that string.

His arrangements of the popular classics always preserved them invariably in their original keys he considered "that a player should have equal facility in every key.

He started playing the banjo at age 14 and had to overcome family disapproval to take up music professionally –his father originally found him a job in a government office. His father objected even more violently to his sisters (one his accompanist, the other a first-rate mandolinist and a fine banjo player) becoming musicians. It was quite some time before the family accepted his career choice.

A review of his November 17th 1898 concert at the Steinway Hall appeared in the December issue of The Banjo. The concert was opened by a pianoforte solo by Miss Dora Halfpenny (SA's sister) and Denza's A May Morning was sung by Miss Lilias Engholme. In the middle of the first half of Mr. Halfpenny's performance. Mr. Chas. Conyers gave a clever musical sketch, and. at the conclusion of the first half of the concert. Mr. Halfpenny gave "in encore, a bright solo, Quickstep," his own composition. The pianist, vocalist and humorist also performed in the second half. For second-half encores, Mr. Halfpenny played the Chopin Valse in E minor and "in conclusion an exquisite tremolo rendering, without pianoforte accompaniment, of Mascagni's ‘Intermezzo' from Cavelleria Rusticana." The review continues as follows: Mr. Halfpenny's rendering throughout was such as proves beyond question his right to be considered as the foremost zither-banjoist in England. His tremolo effects
in particular were simply superb, and he surmounted the most difficult passages with the ease which stamps the true artist. His playing is more than a mere exhibition of technical proficiency, it is a sympathetic interpretation of that which is most beautiful in musical thought. His touch is at once delicate and powerful, and alike in the gaiety of the "Morris Dance," the pathos of the "Marche Funebre," or the strong sense of rhythm in Kowalski's "Marche Hongroise," where his splendid technical mastery showed, perhaps to the best advantage; he carried his audience with him. One left convinced more than ever the banjo is the instrument of the future.

The Morning Leader reported on the concert as "the first banjo recital ever given in England. Alfred Cammeyer took umbrage at this, and in the December Banjo World wrote: The first banjo recital ever given in England came off at the Steinway Hall in the spring of 1889. I was the giver. I played among other selections: Moskowski's Serenata, Pizzicato from Sylvia, L'lngenue (by Ardatti), Chopin's Nocturn in E Flat, and three excerpts from Gounod's Ballet Music to Faust...I was assisted by the Meister Glee singers, who then made their first public appearance in England.

On December 8, 1898, in London, Essex and Cammeyer held their thirteenth Grand Banjo, Mandoline, and Guitar Festival. This was a huge concert at which Halfpenny played the Kowalski and Chopin's Funeral
March. Other "classical" performances at this concert included Delibes' Pizzicato from Sylvia and the William Tell Overture Finale by Olly Oakley. The Banjo World published a very negative review. They noted that they difficulty of playing classical music on the banjo lies not in picking notes, but in producing music...although firmly convinced that arrangements from the classics, when suitably selected, form the best library of banjo music at the present day, yet...the banjo will create a "classic" as well as "romantic" literature of its own in the not to far distant future. We already touch the fringe, and when all banjoists become musicians then will come the banjo millennium.

The February 1899 issue of The Banjo reported that he was forced to miss an engagement due to a serious illness. In May it was noted that he was weak but recovering. He did return to some playing and teaching in the summer. But, on September 12, 1899, S. A. Halfpenny died at age 26 Although reports indicated that his long illness was due to a severe affliction of the lungs, he apparently suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died several days later. The Banjo commented: It is seems hard to realize this death of one of the greatest of our English banjo artists, harder still when we think of his youth and the future which was before him, and that he leaves a gap in his profession which must remain for, some time to come practically unfilled. For though upon every instrument there are many players, there are but few true artists, as has been brought home many a time and oft to those in days past who have listened to Mr. Halfpenny's playing. The work which he has done for the banjo is very great; that which he would have done, had he been spared, is yet greater. His sisters continued to run his studio and Ida eventually appeared at many concerts playing some of her brother's compositions and arrangements. 

S.A. Halfpenny never made any commercial recordings and only a few of his pieces were ever published.

J.A.T published:
686 Rondo Brillante
701 Quickstep
Both are "A" Grade solos

 

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