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Russell, Henry (1812-1900) (DNB01)

RUSSELL, HENRY (1812–1900), vocalist and song composer, was born at Sheerness, where his father held a government appointment, on 24 Dec. 1812. He made his first appearance on the stage at the age of three, in connection with a travelling theatrical company. At the age of six he began to study the pianoforte, but for a time he was a boy in a chemist's shop in Seven Dials. Russell appeared as a vocalist in 1828 at the Surrey Theatre, under Elliston's management, at a weekly salary of 30s., when he sang the ' Pilgrim of Love ' and similar popular ditties. In his teens he went to Italy, first becoming an outdoor student of the Bologna conservatoire, subsequently studying under Rossini at Naples, and meeting Balfe, Bellini, Donizetti, and other musical celebrities. Upon his return to England he was for a short time chorus master at Her Majesty's Theatre.

In order to find a remunerative field of work Russell went to Canada, where he started his one-man entertainments that made him famous. For a short time he was organist of the presbyterian church, Rochester (N. Y.) From 1833 to 1841 he travelled incessantly in Canada and America, singing his songs, 'Cheer, boys, cheer,' 'There's a good time coming, boys,' 'A Life on the Ocean Wave,' 'O Woodman, spare that Tree,' and many others with extraordinary success. In 1841 he returned to England, and, in giving his entertainments in London and the provinces, repeated in his native country the triumphs which had attended him in the American continent. He subsequently, with Dr. Charles Mackay [q.v.], ran an entertainment entitled 'The Far West, or the Emigrant's Progress from the Old World to the New,' with scenery painted by Mills. This, in addition to being remarkably successful, had a distinct influence upon emigration to the far west. About 1865 Russell retired from public life. He died at 18 Howley Place, Maida Vale, on 8 Dec. 1900, and his remains are interred in Kensal Green cemetery.

Russell composed about eight hundred songs, of which not a few of the verses were written expressly for him by his old friend, Dr. Charles Mackay, other authors drawn upon being Longfellow, Eliza Cook, Charles Dickens, and other homely poets. Their themes were of so essentially domestic and popular a nature that they at once caught the fancy of the public. Not a little of the success, however, which attended them was due to their composer's remarkable enunciation of the words in the singing of his songs, combined with a dramatic intensity which thrilled his hearers. This feature of his entertainments was suggested to him when listening to the orations of Henry Clay, the great Kentucky orator. 'There is no reason why I should not apply his methods to my singing of songs,' said Russell: the success of the experiment was unprecedented. In addition to the large number of detached songs already referred to, Russell composed (1) a series of songs from Scott's 'Lady of the Lake;' (2) Scripture melodies; (3) dramatic scenes; (4) cantatas, &c., with a memoir, London, 1846; (5) two vols. of copyright songs, 1800; (6) 'L'Amico dei Cantanti' ('The Singer's Friend, a Treatise on the Art of Singing'), 1830, dedicated to Princess (afterwards Queen) Victoria. In 1889 the admiralty authorised the use of his melody, 'A Life on the Ocean Wave,' as the regimental march of the royal marines, and on 12 Oct. 1891 Sir Augustus Harris [q. v. Suppl.] organised a Henry Russell night at Covent Garden Theatre, when the veteran composer was present and made a speech. In 1895 Russell published a book of gossipy reminiscences, entitled 'Cheer, boys, cheer,' named after his most popular song.

[Russell's 'Cheer, boys, cheer,' 1895; James D. Brown and S. S. Stratton's British Musical Biography; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Musical Times, January 1901, p. 27.]

F. G. E.