Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rooke, William Michael

ROOKE, WILLIAM MICHAEL (1794–1847), musical composer, the son of John Rourke, a tradesman, was born in Dublin on 29 Sept. 1794. In youth he joined an orchestral society, practised the violin, and mastered a number of wind and stringed instruments; proficiency on the pianoforte he gained with greater difficulty. He also studied harmony. His first composition was a song, ‘Fair one, take this Rose.’ In 1813 Rourke, being freed by the death of his father from an uncongenial trade, adopted music as a profession, and modified his surname to Rooke. He earnestly applied himself to the violin, and studied counterpoint under Dr. Cogan. In 1817 he was appointed chorus-master and deputy leader at the Dublin Theatre Royal, Crow Street. A polacca of his composition, ‘O Glory, in thy brightest hours,’ sung by Braham, was one of his earliest successes. Rooke's pupil, Balfe, on his first appearance in May 1816 as a child-violinist, won a triumph for his preceptor as well as for himself.

Rooke found it difficult to earn a livelihood in Ireland, and sought his fortune in London. In order to fit himself for the struggle, he read much English literature, and studied languages. In 1821 he is said to have obtained employment as director at the English opera, and later at Drury Lane. For many years he was one of the principal second violins at the Philharmonic and other concerts. He also took pupils for singing, among whom were Miss Forde and William Harrison. Meanwhile he devoted his leisure to the composition of an opera, ‘Amilie,’ which was produced at Covent Garden on 2 Dec. 1837. This work gave evidence of powerful and original musical genius. Seldom before had an English composer so conspicuously satisfied at once both scientific and popular demands. Yet Rooke failed to rise above the restrictions of the operatic system in vogue. The libretti were unworthy of musical setting, and scenes of dramatic action, in which foreigners would employ recitative, were left by English composers without musical accompaniment. ‘Amilie’ had a long run, but apparently brought small profit to the manager. Rooke's second venture, ‘Henrique,’ played at Covent Garden on 2 May 1839 and received with favour, was withdrawn after five nights' performance. Some complaint was made of the ill-treatment which all parties received from the management. The opera was not repeated, and other operas by Rooke, ‘Cagliostro’ and ‘The Valkyrie,’ were never performed.

Rooke died, aged 53, after a long illness, at Claremont Cottage, St. John's, Fulham, on 14 Oct. 1847, and was buried at Brompton. He was survived by a wife and a large family.

[Memoir printed for private circulation; Grove's Dict. iii. 157; Musical World, 1837 iv. 203, 1839 ii. 19, 44, 1847 p. 672; Fitzball's Thirty-five Years of a Dramatic Author's Life, ii. 127; Bunn's The Stage, iii. 199.]

L. M. M.