Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Macfarren, George Alexander
MACFARREN, Sir GEORGE ALEXANDER (1818–1887), musical composer, born at 24 Villiers Street, Strand, London, on Shrove Tuesday, 2 March 1813, was son of George Macfarren [q. v.] In August 1820 he was sent to Dr. Nicholas s school at Ealing, an establishment in which his father had for many years taught dancing, and at which Cardinal Newman and Professor Huxley were educated. As a youth Macfarren was very delicate, and in 1823 he was removed from the school in order to have his eyesight (which was defective even in these early days) attended to by Mr. Alexander, the oculist. Shortly afterwards he went to a school at Lancing, where he remained eighteen months. His first musical instruction he received from his father, and in March 1827 he was placed under Charles Lucas [q. v.], with whom he continued his studies until 1829, when he entered the Royal Academy of Music. Many years afterwards he wrote a memoir of his old master in the 'Imperial Dictionary of Biography,' At the Royal Academy his masters were Thomas Haydon, William Henry Holmes, for pianoforte, and Cipriani Potter for composition, and one Smithies for trombone, an instrument which he undertook, in accordance with the Academy rules, as a second study.
In September 1830 his first important orchestral work, a symphony in C, was produced at an Academy concert, and was followed in December 1831 by another in D minor. For the opening of the Queen's Theatre in Tottenham Street, under his father's management in 1831, Macfarren wrote an overture in D, and in 1832 the music to a piece entitled 'The Maid of Switzerland.' On 26 June 1833 another overture by him was played at the Royal Academy two days after its author had received the bronze medal for composition and improvement in piano-playing. On 17 July in the same year a 'grand overture' was produced at Paganini's concert at Drury Lane Theatre, and on 24 May 1834 an 'Incantation and Elfin Chorus' were given for the first time.
In 1834 Macfarren made his first attempt at dramatic composition, writing a large portion of an opera on the subject of 'Caractacus,' for which his father furnished the libretto. This work was, however, never performed in public, the censor of plays, T. J. Serle, condemning it on the score of historical inaccuracy. At the first concert of a recently formed society of British musicians, 27 Oct. 1834, a symphony in F minor by Macfarren was produced (Atheæum, 2 Nov. 1834), and a year later, 2 Nov., W. H. Holmes played Macfarren's pianoforte concerto in C minor at one of the same society's concerts; the overture to the 'Merchant of Venice ' also dates from this period (ib. 22 Oct. 1835). In 1836 Macfarren wrote in a single night his overture 'Chevy Chase,' as a prelude to a play by J. R. Planche. This work was the means of introducing Macfarren to continental audiences, and Mendelssohn subsequently produced it at one of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts in 1843.
On quitting the Royal Academy in 1836, Macfarren became music teacher in a school in the Isle of Man, but there practically his sole opportunities for obtaining musical practice were occasional performances in private of Bach's organ fugues on the piano, the pedal parts, being played by a retired naval officer on the contrabass! He devoted much of his spare time, however, to composition, and set to work upon an opera, called at first 'Craso, the Forlorn,' a title afterwards changed to 'El Malechor,' when the opera was enlarged to two acts; for this also his father wrote the libretto. 'El Malechor' was a very ill-fated work; it was accepted for performance by Bunn at Drury Lane in 1839, by Barnett at the St. James's, and by Balfe at the English Opera House in 1840, but as each of these managers became bankrupt before the work could be produced, it never obtained a hearing, only one song being at any time performed in public.
In 1837 Macfarren resigned his post in the Isle of Man, and composed a farewell overture for all the available orchestral resources of the island. The piece was written for sixteen flutes, one clarinet, one violoncello, and some ten or twelve violins — as difficult an orchestra to write for as could well be imagined. On reaching London in 1837 Macfarren was appointed to a professorship of harmony and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, and about the same time wrote the overture to 'Romeo and Juliet.' To the year 1838 belong the conception, composition, and production (13 Aug.) within a month of the 'Devil's Opera,' one of Macfarren's best dramatic works (cf. Banister, Life, and Musical World, 16 Aug. 1838, and Athenæum, 18 Aug. 1838). A jubilee performance of this work was given at Taunton under T. Dudeney in 1888. Later in 1838 the first part of Mr. W. Chappell's 'Collection of National English Airs . . . harmonized by W. Crotch, G. A. Macfarren, and J. A. Wade,' was issued; the whole of the musical part was entrusted to Macfarren.
On the occasion of the queen's marriage in 1840, the Macfarrens, father and son, wrote an 'Emblematical Tribute' for Drury Lane, and in the same year Macfarren joined the council of the newly established Musical Antiquarian Society. For this society he edited Purcell's 'Dido and Æneas,' and several other works by old English composers, and also arranged a pianoforte score of this opera and of the same composer's 'Bonduca.' The former work, however, was subsequently discovered to have been edited from incomplete manuscripts.
In 1844 the Handel Society was founded by Macfarren, in accordance with a suggestion of his father, who died a year earlier. Of this society Macfarren was secretary, and for it he edited 'Belshazzar,' 'Judas Maccabeus,' and 'Jephtha;' it ceased in 1848, owing to want of support.
In January 1845 Macfarren became conductor at Covent Garden, where, under Laurent's management, he produced the 'Antigone' with Mendelssohn's music; on 9 June his C sharp minor symphony, which was composed some years previously and dedicated to Mendelssohn, was given by the Philharmonic Society. In 1846 Macfarren completed an opera on the subject of 'Don Quixote' (begun in 1841), and it was produced on 3 Feb. 1846 under Bunn's management at Drury Lane, with a libretto by the elder Macfarren. Macfarren had already made the acquaintance of Dr. Day, and staunchly championed Day's system of harmony, advocating and teaching it within the walls of the Royal Academy. Macfarren was consequently 'invited to discuss the question' of the system's orthodoxy before a board which consisted of his colleagues at the Academy. After a lively discussion Macfarren resigned his professorship and severed his connection with the Academy rather than abandon a theory which he felt to be sound. He was, however, reinstated in 1851, and permitted to teach any system he pleased.
In 1847, owing to continued failure of his eyesight, Macfarren visited an oculist in New York; but the results of the visit, which extended to some eighteen months, were not satisfactory. During his absence he worked much at composition, and completed an opera, 'Charles the Second,' with a libretto by Desmond Ryan; it was produced at the Princess's Theatre 27 Oct. 1849, E. J. Loder conducting, and immediately met with success, being played throughout the greater part of two seasons. In 1850 (Sunday Review, January 1888) the serenata 'The Sleeper Awakened,' the libretto written by John Oxenford, was performed at Her Majesty's Theatre (national concerts), Sims Reeves taking the part of Abou Hassan. Macfarren's next work of importance was the opera, 'Allan of Aberfeldy ' (libretto again by Oxenford), written for Bunn, manager of Drury Lane Theatre in 1861, but, just as the rehearsals were about to begin, Bunn again became bankrupt, and the opera was never produced. On 26 April 1863 the Harmonic Union gave at Exeter Hall the first performance of a cantata 'Lenora,' the libretto of which was an arrangement by Oxenford of a German ballade by Burger. Julius Benedict conducted, and the work was repeated at the Birmingham Festival under Costa in 1855. The following year witnessed the production of an overture to 'Hamlet' by the New Philharmonic Society, a full analysis of which was given in the programme. For the Bradford Festival of 1857 Macfarren wrote one of his best works, the cantata 'May Day,' Costa conducting. On 9 May 1860 a composition in similar form, entitled 'Christmas,' was produced by the London Musical Society under Alfred Mellon. Five months later one of Macfarren's greatest successes was achieved in the production of the opera 'Robin Hood' at Her Majesty's Theatre. E. T. Smith was the manager, Charles Hall the conductor, and Sims Reeves, Santley, and Madame Lemmens-Sherrington sang the principal parts. In his 'Life and Recollections ' Reeves writes that 'Macfarren composed the principal part in what is now recognised as that master's best opera, for myself.' The 'Musical World' of October 1860 speaks in glowing terms of the success of this work. It was during its composition, and probably owing to the great strain put upon him by it, that Macfarren's eyesight completely failed; henceforth he was compelled to dictate all his compositions and literary works to an amanuensis.
On the occasion of the marriage of the Prince of Wales, Macfarren wrote an allegorical masque, 'Freya's Gift,' to a libretto by Oxenford, for the Royal English Opera at Covent Garden, where it was performed on 10 March 1863, and in October of the same year German Reed commissioned him to compose an opera di camera, the result being 'Jessy Lea,' which was followed in 1864 by a work on similar lines entitled 'The Soldiers Legacy' (libretto by Oxenford). In the former work Madame Edith Wynne made her first public appearance as an opera singer.
The year 1864 was a very busy one, for, in addition to the work just mentioned, Macfarren wrote an opera to a libretto by Edward Fitzball, called 'She Stoops to Conquer,' which was produced at Covent Garden (Royal English Opera), 11 Feb., Alfred Mellon conducting; while another grand opera in four acts, 'Helvellyn' (libretto by Oxenford), was produced at Covent Garden, Mellon once more being the conductor; the orchestra being led by J. T. Carrodus, and Parepa and Lemmens-Sherrington sustaining principal parts. For some time after the production of these works Macfarren remained comparatively idle, the next compositions of importance being a setting of Christina Rossetti's 'Songs in a Cornfield' for female voices, which Leslie's Choir produced in 1868, and a cantata, 'Outward Bound' (libretto by Oxenford), written for the Norwich Festival of 1872.
With the exception of 'Kenilworth,' an opera written about 1880 for Madame Albani, but never produced, Macfarren thenceforth abandoned opera writing, and devoted himself to oratorio. His first work in this form was ' St. John the Baptist,' produced on 23 Oct. 1873 at the first Bristol Festival, the libretto being compiled by Dr. E. G. Monk. This composition was begun in 1870, and was to have been given at the Gloucester Festival in 1871, but, owing to some misunderstanding, Santley retired, and the composer withdrew his work. So pronounced was its success, however, in 1873, that Macfarren immediately received commissions to write two more works of a similar class; one, the 'Resurrection,' was produced at the Birmingham Festival in 1876, and met with a very enthusiastic reception (Monthly Musical Record, 1 Oct. 1876), though it has been rarely performed since; the other, 'Joseph,' was given at the Leeds Festival 21 Sept. 1877. 'Joseph,' if of academic value, was certainly not a popular success. Concessions were made to the popular taste by the 'introduction of two contralto songs, apropos of nothing; but for the rest, it is feared that the public will find the work dry, if not pedantic' (Monthly Mus. Rec. October 1877, p. 155). It is possible that the want of success was due to the badness of the libretto. Both these works were conducted by the composer's brother, W. C. Macfarren. They were quickly followed by a cantata, 'The Lady of the Lake,' which was written for and produced at the opening of the Glasgow Town-hall, 15 Nov. 1877;
In February 1875, on the death of Sir William Sterndale Bennett [q. v.], Macfarren was elected principal of the Royal Academy of Music, and in March, professor of music at Cambridge University. In April the degree of Mus. Doc., honoris causa, was conferred upon him at Cambridge, an example which was followed in 1876 by the university of Oxford, and in 1887 by Dublin University. In 1878 he was also created M.A. by Cambridge, and in 1883 knighthood was offered to him, and was, after much hesitation, accepted.
In November and December 1882 he composed the music for the performances of Sophocles's 'Ajax' in Greek at Cambridge, Stanford directing (Mus. Times, 1 Jan. 1883). In 1883 Macfarren wrote his fourth oratorio, 'King David,' which was performed at the Leeds Festival in October under Sir Arthur Sullivan. 'Its reception was most cordial, this result being no doubt aided by a very fine performance' (ib. November 1883, p. 605). For the opening of the International and Universal Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, April 1884, Macfarren wrote his 'St. George's Te Deum,' when it was performed by the Handel Festival orchestra under Mr. Manns. A curious feature of the performance was the use made of the bands of the Grenadier and Scots Guards, in addition to the ordinary orchestra; and the introduction of the National Hymns of a number of European countries lent the work a peculiar appropriateness. From this date Macfarren devoted most of his time to his duties at Cambridge and at the Royal Academy of Music, and though he wrote some music (sonatas for violin and piano in A and C; a piano sonata in G minor; six other similar works, and a quartet in G minor for strings, most of which are still in manuscript), none of it was in the operatic or oratorio form.
After some months of failing health, he died suddenly on 31 Oct. 1887, at his house, 7 Hamilton Terrace, London. A requisition for his burial in Westminster Abbey was refused, but a memorial service took place in the abbey after the funeral at Hampstead cemetery on 5 Nov. (Sunday Review, January, 1888). Macfarren married, on 27 Sept. 1844, Clarina Thalia Andrae, a native of Lübeck, at Marylebone Church. Madame Macfarren made her début on the stage, in the part of the page in her husband's opera, 'Charles the Second,' 27 Oct. 1849.
As principal of the Royal Academy of Music, Macfarren introduced many new customs; he founded the fortnightly meetings of the professors, which, however, now have 'virtually been merged in the meetings of the R.A.M. club, since established' (Life of Macfarren, 1892, p. 347). He also gave an address at the beginning of each academical year at the Academy, and during his lifetime delivered an immense number of lectures on almost every conceivable musical subject at Cambridge, London (Royal Institution 1867; City of London Institute 1866–67–68–70), and elsewhere. His talents were of a very high order, and he had an extraordinary capacity for work, and an indomitable courage in facing the misfortune of blindness; but he was not a genius, and his works, especially those in the larger forms, lack genuine inspiration. They are consummate masterpieces or ingenuity and of learning; they are admirably constructed; they are the results of incessant labour, and the natural outcome of an intellect trained to the utmost pitch of mechanical skill, but they bear the stamp of artificiality (cf. Musical Times, December 1887). As a composer he exercised little influence over his contemporaries, and none over his successors.
As a writer of theoretical works Macfarren will possibly be known to posterity after his compositions have been forgotten; but these, too, suffer by their dogmatical and one-sided tone. His lectures and his text-book of counterpoint will always be of interest, at least as a landmark in contemporary musical history.
Besides the orchestral and vocal compositions already enumerated, he composed: 1. Quartets for strings, in A, 1843; G minor, 1852; G, manuscript, 1878. 2. Quintet for piano and strings, in G minor, 1844. 3. Violin Concerto in G minor, written for Strauss, and produced at a Philharmonic concert in 1873. 4. Symphonies in D, 1858; and E minor, 1874, for orchestra. 5. Pianoforte Sonatas in E flat and A, 1842. 6. Trio in E minor, for piano and strings, 1843. 7. Anthems, church services, and several hundreds of songs, ballads, glees (Shakespeare's songs for four voices, 860-4); six convivial glees for three voices, 1836; part songs to words by Charles Kingsley, 1865.
Macfarren's chief contributions to the literature of music are: 1. 'Rudiments of Harmony, with Progressive Exercises,' London, 1860; 16th ed. 1887. 2. 'Six Lectures on Harmony, delivered at the Royal Institution,' London, 8vo, 1867; 2nd ed. 1877; 3rd ed. 1882. 3. 'On the Structure of a Sonata.' London, 1871. 4. 'Eighty Musical Sentences,' written in 1867, but first published in 1875. 5. 'Counterpoint, a Practical Course of Study,' London, 4to, 1879; 3rd ed. 1881; another in 1885. 6. 'Musical History briefly narrated and technically discussed,' originally published under the heading 'Music' in the 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' 9th ed., but reissued in book form with the addition of 'A Roll of the Names of Musicians, and the Times and places of their Births and Deaths,' Edinburgh, 1885. 7. 'Addresses and Lectures,' London, 1888, with portrait. He also prepared biographical notices of musicians for the 'Imperial Dict. of Biog.;' analyses of works by the great composers; analytical programmes for the Philharmonic Society, 1868-80; and for the Sacred Harmonic Society, the Birmingham Festivals, &c. The following portraits of Macfarren exist: 1. Life-size kitcat, by Mrs. Goodman, in the possession of Mr. W. C. Macfarren. 2. Life-size three-quarter length by Cyrus Johnson, in the possession of the artist; this was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887, and at the Victorian Exhibition 1892. 3. A bas-relief plaque by Mrs. Henry Holmes, in the possession of the Royal Academy of Music.
[A Life of George Alexander Macfarren, by H. C. Banister, was published with portrait in January 1891; 2nd ed. (unaltered), 1892. See also authorities in the text; Athenæum, 2 Nov. 1834; Mus. World, new series, No. 33, 16 Aug. 1838, p. 262, No. 42, 18 Oct. 1838, pp. 101, 133, 212, 1839, p. 216; Musical Record, December 1887, p. 272; Musical Times, December 1887, p. 713; Argosy, January 1888; Grove's Dict. of Music, and Index to same. The writer has also to thank the composer's brother, Mr. W. C. Macfarren, for several valuable suggestions, for authenticating some dates, and also for information from family records not otherwise obtainable.]