Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Farmer, John

FARMER, JOHN (1835–1901), musician, born at Nottingham on 16 Aug. 1835, was eldest of a family of nine. His father, also John Farmer, was a lace manufacturer and a skilful violoncellist; his mother, whose maiden name was Mary Blackshaw, was markedly unmusical, but possessed of considerable mechanical inventiveness. An uncle, Henry Farmer, was a composer and the proprietor of a general music-warehouse in Nottingham. Farmer was apprenticed to him at a very early age after schooling at Hucknall Torkard and at Nottingham, and taught himself to play piano, violin, and harp. At the age of fourteen he was sent to the Conservatorium at Leipzig, where he studied under Moscheles, Plaidy, Hauptmann, and E. F. Richter, and sang in the Thomaskirche. After three years at Leipzig he moved to Coburg, studied under Spaeth, and rehearsed the choral work at the opera and elsewhere. In 1853 he returned to England, and took a position in the London branch of his father's lace business, where, though the work was very uncongenial, he stayed till the death, in 1857, of his mother, who had strongly opposed an artistic career. He then ran away to Zürich, to support himself by music-teaching, solely influenced by the residence of Wagner there at the time; he had helped in the production of 'Tannhäuser' at Coburg, and had experienced a strong reaction from the strict academicism of Leipzig. In 1861 Farmer returned to England, and, after some fluctuations of fortune, was engaged to give daily piano performances at the International Exhibition of 1862. The association with Harrow school, which gave him his chief reputation, was a fruit of this engagement. Some old Harrovians who visited the exhibition and were struck with Farmer's playing invited him to take charge of a small musical society (unconnected officially with the school itself) in which they were interested. He took up his residence at Harrow at the end of 1862. In 1864, in spite of conservative scruples on the part of the authorities, he joined the staff of the school as music teacher. To words by Harrow masters [see Bowen, Edward Ernest, Suppl. II] he composed numerous songs which won great popularity and became an integral part of the permanent tradition of the school. In 1885, when Dr. Henry Montagu Butler, headmaster since 1859, who had given Farmer every encouragement, left Harrow, Farmer accepted an invitation (previously offered, but then declined) from Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, to become organist there. At Balliol he remained till his death. Among numerous other college activities, he instituted, in the college hall, with the Master's full approval, classical secular concerts on Sunday evenings, which aroused for a short time considerable opposition.

There were many side outlets to Farmer's untiring energies. In 1872 a body of friends founded the Harrow Music School, an institution designed to systematise his method of instruction in classical piano music. Special stress was laid on the study of the work of Bach, the educational importance of which Farmer was one of the first in England to appreciate. He was also one of the earliest and firmest champions of Brahms. For the last twenty-five years of his life his method was adopted by the Girls' Public Day School Company, for which (as for many other schools) he acted as musical adviser and inspector. From 1895 onwards he was examiner to the Society of Arts, and he was also busily engaged in teacliing and in lecturing in schools and in universities outside Oxford, taking up towards the end of his life a further interest — the music of soldiers and sailors. He died at Oxford on 17 July 1901, after a long paralytic illness.

Farmer married, at Zürich on 25 Oct. 1859, Marie Elisabeth Stahel, daughter of a Zürich schoolmaster; two of their seven children predeceased him.

Farmer's published compositions include numerous songs for Harrow, Balliol, St. Andrews, and elsewhere; oratorios, 'Christ and his Soldiers' (1878) and 'The coming of Christ' (1899); a fairy opera, 'Cinderella' (1882); a 'Requiem in memory of departed Harrow friends' (1884); and many works of smaller dimensions. Several extended pieces of chamber-music and other works remain in MS. He also edited many volumes of Bach and other standard composers; 'Gaudeamus, songs for colleges and schools' (1890); 'Hymns and chorales for schools and colleges' (1892); 'Dulce domum, rhymes and songs (old and new) for children' (1893); 'Scarlet and Blue, songs for soldiers and sailors' (1896). He had a remarkable gift for writing straightforward healthy tunes suitable for unison singing, and to these compositions he himself attached chief importance. A warmhearted enthusiast of magnetic personality, with a deep belief in the ethical influence of music, he did much to popularise the classical composers and to elevate musical taste in the circles in which he moved.

A portrait in oils is in the speech room at Harrow school.

[Personal knowledge; private information; Abbott and Campbell's Benjamin Jowett (1897); Harrow School, ed. E. W. Howson and E. Townsend Warner, 1898, passim; Musical Gazette, Dec. 1901.]

E. W.