Harry Sparnaay studied at the Conservatory of Amsterdam with Ru Otto. After graduating with a performer's degree for clarinet, he specialized in bass clarinet and won the first prize at the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition, the first time ever a bass clarinettist had won this prestigious competition.
He played solo at numerous important music festivals including Warsaw, New York, Los Angeles, Zagreb, the Holland Festival, several ISCM Festivals, Madrid, Paris and Athens. Other festivals at which Harry Sparnaay has performed include Witten, Aarhus, Como, Bolzano, Naples, Torino, Bourges, Middelburg, Graz, Salzburg, Huddersfield, Saarbrücken, Royan, Houston and many others.
Sparnaay was a featured performer with many major orchestras and ensembles including the ASKO Ensemble, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra[disambiguation needed], Concertgebouw Orchestra, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Melbourne Symphony, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Residentie Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Schönberg Ensemble, Seymour Group and has appeared with leading conductors including Luciano Berio, Riccardo Chally, Richard Duffalo, Peter Eötvös, Reinbert de Leeuw, Diego Masson, Jacques Mercier, David Porcelijn, David Stock, Mark Summerbell, Lucas Vis and Hans Vonk.
He gave concerts and made radio recordings throughout Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and South America, performing works written for and dedicated to him. More than 650 pieces have been written for him by composers such as Claudio Ambrosini, Luciano Berio, Gerard Brophy, Paul-Heinz Dittrich, Franco Donatoni, Morton Feldman, Brian Ferneyhough, Mary Finsterer, Andrew Ford, Jonathan Harvey, Maki Ishii, Suhki Kang, Tristan Keuris, Mark Kopytman, Helmut Lachenmann, Ton de Leeuw, Theo Loevendie, Roderik de Man, Takayuki Rai, Michael Smetanin, Gérard Grisey, Maurice Weddington, Iannis Xenakis, Isang Yun and many others.
He gave the world premiere of In Freundschaft (bass clarinet version) and Solo (bass-and contrabass clarinet version-adaption Barry Anderson) by Karlheinz Stockhausen and was one of the soloists in Die Verwandlung by Paul-Heinz Dittrich and in the opera's Naima by Theo Loevendie, Prometeo by Luigi Nono and A King, Riding by Klaas de Vries. During the Holland festival 1999 he was one of the instrumental soloists in Kopernikus by Claude Vivier.
His composition “Bouwstenen" (Building Blocks) for bass clarinet and multiple tape delay system was chosen for the ISCM World Music Days in Denmark.
Harry Sparnaay was musician-in-residence and gave masterclasses at several universities all over the world and he was Professor of bass clarinet and contemporary music at the Conservatory of Amsterdam for 35 years, where his unique bass clarinet program attracted students from all over the world, many of them prize winners during major competitions.
Sparnaay founded the duo Fusion Moderne with pianist Polo de Haas, and also the Bass Clarinet Collective (9 bass clarinets, including 3 contrabass clarinets).
Together with flautist Harrie Starreveld and pianist René Eckhardt he formed Het Trio in 1984. Over 180 pieces have been written for this group. With Annelie de Man (Harpsichord) he founded the Duo Double_Action performing new compositions written for them for bass clarinet and harpsichord by composers such as Joe Cutler, Roderik de Man, Victor Varela, David Vayo and Raymond Deane. With his wife Silvia Castillo (organ) he formed the Duo LEVENT and together they performed in Europe, Canada, Mexico, Australia and the United States, playing several new pieces for organ and bass clarinet, especially written for them by composers such as Dai Fujikura, Matthias Kadar, Roderik de Man, Toek Numan, Ignacio Baca Lobera and Lucien Goethals.
He played as soloist, with the trio,or in other combinations on more than 60 CDs and his CD with HET TRIO of music by Ton de Leeuw received an EDISON award.
In Barcelona he formed the Trio PHONOS with Jean-Pierre Dupuy piano and Peter Bacchus flute and with pianist Jean-Pierre Dupuy the Duo Sparnaay/Dupuy.
His television productions have been broadcast in the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and Yugoslavia. He has been a jury member at the International Gaudeamus Contest several times and has also been a member of the Dutch Section of the ISCM. As the conductor of the ensemble for New Music he conducted compositions by Arnold Schönberg (Pierrot Lunaire and Serenade), Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Olivier Messiaen, Theo Loevendie, Franco Donatoni, Ross Harris, Joe Cutler, Toshio Hosokawa, Mary Finsterer, and Iannis Xenakis, and during the International Gaudeamus Music Week he conducted the ensemble in pieces by the youngest generation.
From September 2005 till September 2010 he was Professor for bass clarinet at the ESMUC in Barcelona.
In April 2004 he was honoured by the Queen and decorated by the Mayor of Amsterdam and became KNIGHT IN THE ORDER OF THE LION OF THE NETHERLANDS.
He won the following awards: First Prize Gaudeamus Contest (1972), Swedish Record Prize (1985), Bulgarian Composers Union Award (1987), Inaugural Sounds Australian Award (1988), Edison Award (1995), and Jan van Gilse Prize (1996).
Sparnaay's notable students include Michael Lowenstern and Lori Freedman.
Harry Sparnaay played the new model Prestige Bass Clarinet/GreenLine by Buffet Crampon and on Gonzalez reeds.
- Diederichs-Lafite, Marion. 1976. "Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik". Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 31 (July–August): 382–84.
- Heim, Norman. 1979. "Music for the Bass Clarinet". The Clarinet 6, no. 3 (Spring): 18–21.
- Heim, Norman. 1979. "Music for the Bass Clarinet Part II". The Clarinet 7, no. 1 (Fall): 22–23, 26.
- Heim, Norman. 1980. "Music for the Bass Clarinet Part III: A Sparnaay Collage". The Clarinet 7, no. 3 (Spring): 22–24.
- Heim, Norman. 1980. "Music for the Bass Clarinet Part IV: An Interview with Harry Sparnaay". The Clarinet 7, no. 4 (Summer): 14–18.
- Schwartz, Elliott. 1972. "Current Chronicle: The Netherlands". The Musical Quarterly 58, no. 4 (October): 653–58.
- Slonimsky, Nicolas, Laura Kuhn, and Dennis McIntire. 2001. "Sparnaay, Harry". Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, centennial edition, 6 vols., Nicolas Slonimsky, editor emeritus; Laura Kuhn, Baker's series advisory editor, 5:3416. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-865525-7. [In the online edition as "Spamaay, Hany", New York: Schirmer Reference, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library. (Subscription access)]
- Sparnaay, Harry. 2011. "The Bass Clarinet: A Personal History", translated by A. de Man and P. Roe. Barcelona: Periferia Sheet Music. Accompanied by a CD with over 100 audio examples.
- Tra, Gijs. 1978. "Bass Clarinet Identity (Interview with H. Sparnaay)". Key Notes 7, no. 1:36–37.
- Werker, Gerard. 1972. "Vrijpostig musiceren: het Gaudeamus-Concours 1972". Mens en Melodie, Tijdschrift voor muziek 27 (June): 171–74.
- Werker, Gerard. 1974. "Harry Sparnaay, basklarinettist—de emancipatie van de basklarinet". Mens en Melodie, Tijdschrift voor muziek 29 (December): 370–73.