While Henry Balfour Gardiner must be ranked among the more significant English composers of his generation, he is generally viewed as having made his greatest contribution to music when in the period of 1912-1913 he arranged and subsidized a series of concerts to promote the compositions of fellow composers Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bax, Grainger, and several others. On his own behalf the privately wealthy Balfour was generally modest and very self-critical. Indeed, he would cease compositional activity altogether in 1925. Nevertheless, the artistic worth of his own music cannot be overlooked. His most popular piece, the 1908 Evening Hymn (Te lucis ante terminum), scored for organ and chorus, has been widely praised and recorded, and his orchestral works News from Whydah and Overture to a Comedy (both 1906) might be ranked as masterpieces. Today, though some of Balfour's music is available on recordings (from EMI, Naxos, Hyperion, and smaller labels), it is usually contained on collections with works by other composers.
Balfour was born in London on November 7, 1877. He was a talented child, starting piano lessons at five and writing his first compositions at nine. Balfour entered the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory as a teen to study piano with Lazzaro Uzielli and composition with Iwan Knorr.
Though Balfour was quite active as a composer early on, it seems he had aimed for a career primarily as a concert pianist. A partial paralysis of the hands in the mid-1890s derailed his plans and he focused instead on composition, taking further lessons from Knorr and on conducting.
Balfour's first important works appeared early in the next century and included a string quintet (1903) and many other compositions, now lost. His 1911 Shepherd Fennel's Dance was a great success at a Queen's Hall Proms concert. The aforementioned 1912-1913 concert series promoting the music of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bax, Grainger and other colleagues also took place at Queen's Hall.
In the post-World War I years, Balfour was still active as a composer, but turning more doubtful of his creative powers. His financial support of the Royal Philharmonic Society during this time was among his most invaluable contributions. By the mid-'20s Balfour had destroyed many scores of his he deemed inferior. In 1927, having given up composition, he began devoting much of his energy to an afforestation program on a farm he purchased and relocated to in Dorset.