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Sir George Alexander Macfarren [1813 – 1887]

According to the website of the Royal Academy of Music in London, George Alexander Macfarren was the man who “saved the life of the Institution and marked the turning-point of its fortunes. In spite of grave disabilities he left the school in a far better position, in all respects, than he found it.” For this as well as for his many other contributions to music in England – as a composer, teacher, founder of the Handel Society, musicologist and supporter of English music - he was awarded a knighthood.
So why, even in this his bi-centenary year has he been generally forgotten?

Macfarren was born in London in 1813, the same year as the Royal Philharmonic Society was formed and nearly 10 years before the foundation of the Royal Academy of Music at which latter institution he was to begin his studies in piano and trombone at the age of sixteen. One of his teachers at the Academy was the composer Cipriani Potter and with his guidance, Macfarren wrote his first symphony. It was premiered in an Academy concert in 1830 with a second symphony and other large scale works quickly following. It is interesting to note that Macfarren’s orchestral compositions show an unusual usage of the trombone and demonstrate that his instrumental lessons gave him a sound understanding of the instrument’s capabilities.
He was born into an artistic family. Macfarren’s father, as well as being a capable musician and a skilled painter, wrote stage plays and essays. Seeking to promote his son’s musical talent and at the same time fulfill his own desire to raise theatrical standards in London, George Macfarren senior secured the rights to manage the ‘Queens Theatre’ in London. Father and son collaborated on several operas of artistic merit but they all too often failed to reach the stage due to bad timing and bad luck. The Queen’s Theatre venture was abandoned after one year and the management of two subsequent theatres proving equally luckless, in 1836 the young George Macfarren found himself to be the sole breadwinner for his family and, in consequence he took a teaching job at a school on the Isle of Man. It was there that he composed the Overture ‘Chevy Chase’ which was to establish his reputation as a composer both in England and in Germany. Flute players will also be interested to know that Macfarren gained much experience of the flute’s capabilities on the Isle of Man since the school orchestra, for which he wrote music, consisted of sixteen flutes and almost nothing else!
Macfarren was able to quit the school after one year, and returned to London where he was appointed Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at the Royal Academy of Music.
London had become an exciting place for a young musician. Visits by Mendelssohn, and Weber along with concerts of works by Beethoven, Spohr, Hummel and Cherubini were receiving enthusiastic audiences. Macfarren became friends with Mendelssohn who conducted one of the many performances of Chevy Chase. Macfarren likewise supported Mendelssohn’s work and wrote an appreciative article after the composer’s death. The composer’s son, Karl Mendelssohn, was to say that his father and Macfarren were ‘of congenial mind’.
Other critics also noted similarities in the composers’ output, though not necessarily with absolute appreciation. A reviewer in ‘The Musical World’ [March 1842] announced to his readers that ‘the prevailing custom among the best modern composers is to incite the saddest possible feelings so that…. instead of an ecstasy of delight, we feel inclined to walk straight into a river and drown ourselves.….. Mr. Macfarren has fallen into the same notion and usually regales us with melancholy.’
Readers will be relieved to know that Macfarren’s works for the flute include many light hearted movements!
If Macfarren was in any way perturbed by that article, he surely would have been cheered the following year when a review in the Musical Examiner likened his Symphony in C sharp minor to those of the recently deceased Beethoven.
Macfarren was evidently making a name for himself but it did not help his career when, a couple of years later, he made himself especially unpopular amongst vast swathes of the musical establishment by supporting Alfred Day’s new Theory of Music which had otherwise been condemned by all the chief musicians in London Macfarren was, according to his biographer H.C. Bannister, the ‘single believer’ and it resulted in him resigning his post at the RAM. Although reinstated one year later, after Day’s ideas had become generally accepted, the episode will have contributed to Macfarren’s reputation for being dogmatically obstinate with a single-minded approach to people and situations.
To make matters worse, although Macfarren hated pedantry, he was considered to be a pedant. In the 21st century we can, perhaps, appreciate that this ‘pedantry’ with its attention to authenticity and detail was a positive trait, ahead of its time and in keeping with our modern thinking. As an example: acting on his father’s suggestion, he formed the short-lived Handel Society with the aim of producing a complete edition of Handel’s works that would ‘follow the manuscript of Handel as closely as possible’ and make important corrections that had appeared in the old printed copies’. We can imagine how that would upset some of his contemporaries. With painstaking care and despite his failing eyesight, Macfarren produced important editions of three of Handel’s oratorios before the society folded.
Macfarren’s school years had been marred by his deteriorating eyesight and in class the best his teachers could do, was to provide him with an oversize magnifying glass. By the time he was 34, his eyesight had become so bad that he was persuaded to put himself in the hands of an American Oculist and travelled to New York for treatment. Sadly, maybe predictably, it achieved nothing, and his eyesight continued to worsen until in 1865, aged 52, his blindness became total. From that time, Macfarren was forced to rely on the services of an amanuensis for his compositions. There are several touching and poignant accounts by pupils of the outward effect “..the blind man sitting in reach of the keyboard, his head hanging down in the manner so well known, his face illuminated by the look of attention….I remember giving him a snowdrop one day to feel, he held it by the stem with one hand, while with the tips of the fingers of the other hand he felt the blossom ‘how lightly it hangs’ he said ……to watch him seek laboriously by touch for the thing that we could see, was to realize the painful darkness of his life…”
But Macfarren never gave up. He was an industrious, dedicated teacher and composer who produced some of the best operas of his day and who worked hard right until the night before his death at the age of 74. He championed English music, composing all his operas to English words with English subjects and harmonizing all of the traditional melodies for Chappell’s collected editions of national airs. He placed high value upon Purcell’s music, especially Dido and Aeneas, but complained of Italian opera in England that ‘it was during Queen Anne’s sovereignty that the first experiment of Italian opera was made in this country…and [it is on account of] the gross affectation which this bred and nourished, that the degradation of art is wholly to be ascribed.’
His attitude to harmony was detailed and meticulous. He was a popular and frequent lecturer, although his lectures must have been quite difficult to hear since he tended to mumble with his jaw cupped in his hand as his arm rested on the piano lid. He had fixed ideas about most things and when it came to harmony he had definite views on chords, holding some in great esteem, such as the use of the minor ninth for modulation, and shrinking from others including the diminished third, which he described as ‘the hideous interval’. He advised not using too many dissonant chords since, in his opinion, it would detract from the big climactic moments ‘if it was all done here’ he told his students ‘ what was going to happen when the hero was going to shoot himself, or the heroine was tearing her hair?’
In 1875, after the death of Sterndale Bennet, Macfarren was made Principle of the Royal Academy of Music and, shortly afterwards, also Professor of Music at Cambridge University. He took these roles most seriously, giving special attention to both the internal and external examinations and establishing fortnightly meetings of professors with students at the RAM. However his approach to himself in his doctorial robes was more lighthearted, wearing them, he said, made him look ‘like first cousin to the Knave of Hearts’. He shrank from pomp, valuing instead the esteem of his. As a consequence when the knighthood was offered to him, he at first rejected it. Eventually he was persuaded to accept it, although he disliked the title ‘Sir’, preferring to be known as ‘Professor’.
Macfarren had many devoted friends and students. To celebrate his 70th birthday in March 1883 they made a collection of 800 guineas that they presented to him at a surprise party. Amongst the gathering was his brother Walter and, of course, his wife of forty years, Natalia Macfarren [née Clarina Thalia Andrae] who was a singer but became better known as a translator and adaptor of musical works including several by her husband.
Macfarren’s compositions for flute, although currently forgotten, take a unique and important place in the repertoire for flute.
The major items are:
Concerto in G for flute and orchestra
Sonata for flute and piano
Recitative and Air for flute and piano
Three Trifles for flute and piano
Trio for flute, cello and piano
Andante & Allegro [missing]
Go to sheet music by G. A. Macfarren

When the Recitative and Allegro was published in the Journal of the London Society of Flute Players 1883, the editors added a note to say that this was the first work in a long time that they felt suitable for publication in the magazine.
The Sonata, also 1883, is a substantial work that is unique in being a ‘proper’ sonata written specifically for the flute.
The Concerto was dedicated to the great English flute player, John Radcliffe, who gave the first performance in London in 1864. Only a single copy of the work is known to exist. The full score is missing but one copy, an edition for flute with a piano part created by Natalie Macfarren, is in Australia and is the basis for the re-orchestration of the work currently being [thanks to the Library of the University of Western Australia for their help in supplying the score].
Macfarren was a skilled orchestrator and much of the effect of his compositions lies in his use of the instruments so the re-orchestration of the concerto is no light task. Few of his works are available to hear - symphonies nos. 4 & 7, the opera ‘Robin Hood’, the overtures Chevy Chase and She stoops to Conquer – but reviews by listeners show that they are all surprised and delighted by what they hear.

So why has Macfarren been forgotten? It is apparent that the neglect began whilst he was still alive for the Dorset County Chronicle in 1867 stated ‘his works have been undeservedly neglected’.
Macfarren lived at a time when English music was generally disregarded even by English people. England was ‘the land without music’. The German Hanoverians had come to power a hundred years previously and foreign music was fashionable. European composers, especially Mendelssohn, were in vogue. Macfarren wrote in a style similar to Mendelssohn throughout his life but, unlike Mendelssohn, he went on living and composing into an era when music was changing and ‘modern’ music was taking audiences by storm with composers such as Wagner. Macfarren maintained a serious attitude to music and had a reputation for being obstinate. Although he had friends, he did not have the disposition to ‘sell’ himself in the salons of London and, in the words of Oscar Wilde ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’
It is true that much ‘forgotten music’ is best left forgotten, buried in dusty archives. However, after several decades of research, I can say unreservedly that there are a significant number of compositions that deserve to be better known and included in the regular repertoire. Amongst those I would place the works of G A Macfarren with a high recommendation.
Trubcher Publishing is celebrating his bicentenary by publishing new editions of his music for flute, including a re-orchestration of the Concerto for flute [the original is missing presumed lost]. Also the Entracte from Robin Hood for oboe and piano.

Go to sheet music by G. A. Macfarren