In June 1902, Dr. R.A. Torrey and Mr. Charles M. Alexander held a meeting in Bendigo, Australia. Here Mr. Alexander first met MR. ROBERT HARKNESS, a brilliant young musical genius, who is the subject of this sketch. Mr. Alexander at once recognized his superior musical gifts and engaged him as his pianist, a position he still holds. He also led him to Christ. Mr. Harkness made the decision to accept Christ as he rode along on his bicycle after a long talk with Mr. Alexander at a hotel in Bendigo.
Mr. Robert Harkness was born in Bendigo, Australia, March 2, 1877. He was reared in a Christian home, his father being a godly man, a local preacher and one of the most honored and respected men in Bendigo: his mother, one of those saintly women, commands the highest respect of all who know her.
Mr. Harkness is an accomplished musician, with several years of training and experience as a church organist and choir director. He wanted to compose music at an early age. His first published song appeared in 1896. He has since achieved international fame as a composer of gospel songs as well as a pianist. He has written some of the most popular hymns used by Mr. Alexander. Among the best known are: “Is He Yours?” “No Burdens Yonder,” “He Will Hold Me Fast,” “Christ Needs You,” “Bearing the Cross,” “Shadows,” “Oh, What a Change,” “Does Jesus Care?” “The Crown of Thorns,” “The Joy Awaiting,” etc.
“How do you write your hymns, Mr. Harkness?” asked an interviewer. “How do I write them?” returned the composer. “Why, I write them when I've got them, and when I haven't got them I don’t write. You can’t write what you haven’t got, you know. Of course, my work varies. Perhaps I will write the music to thirty hymns in one day, then again I may not write but one a month. It depends upon the inspiration. I get my inspiration from incidents. When at the piano at an evangelistic service I keep a note-book and pencil handy, and as the service proceeds some suggestion for a hymn may come to me, possibly several suggestions. These I jot down for reference later. Perhaps in these there is the suggestion for the melody to a hymn. I get a melody in my mind and then I sit down to the piano and play it; if it pleases me I write it down and examine it afterwards.”
Mr. Harkness in company with Mr. Alexander has belted the globe. While in the United States, as well as in Europe, he visited many cities, serving as accompanist in the great Torrey-Alexander and Chapman-Alexander meetings—and everywhere was royally received.
Mr. Harkness commented in an interesting way on the method of making the song service in these great meetings successful. The weather has much to do with his adjusting the music to the assembled company. If it is a stormy night the voices of the people as a rule have not got the range that they have on a crisp cold night. In the first instance they will not sing as high as on a cold night. In the morning the voice is lower in range. He explained that if he played in the same key morning and evening, the singing would not be the success that it should be. In the morning the audience will sing up to D, while in the evening it will sing up to F.
“If church organists would watch this to keep the music of the hymns within the range of the voices of the people of the audience they would have better singing, and therefore a better tone to the service. In a small hall, or one where the ceiling is low, it is also necessary to keep the voices down as regards the range, otherwise what would sound well in a large hall would sound like screeching.”
Mr. Harkness at present is living in London, England, where he is composing gospel songs for Mr. Alexander. It is not the belief of the writer that this musical genius was found in that far-away country by mere chance by Mr. Alexander. Undoubtedly the Lord was leader and guide.
by J.H. Hall
Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers (1914)
Note: J.H. Hall reported Harkness’ birth as 2 Mar. 1877, but most other sources give 2 Mar. 1880.