Sir George Alexander Macfarren - The English Mendelssohn

Sir George Alexander Macfarren - The English Mendelssohn

Sir George Alexander Macfarren (1813 - 1887) ‘saved the life of the Institution [Royal Academy of Music in London] and …. left the school in a far better position, in all respects, than he found it.’ [1] For this and his 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.

Macfarren was born in London, 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 began his studies in piano and trombone at the age of sixteen. There he started to compose and, with the guidance of his teacher, Cipriani Potter, Macfarren wrote his first symphony. After its successful premiere in 1830 at an Academy concert, he wrote a second symphony with other large scale works quickly following. It is interesting to note that Macfarren’s orchestral compositions show an unusual usage of the trombone, demonstrating that his trombone lessons had given him a sound understanding of the instrument’s capabilities.
He was born into an artistic family. His father, as well as being a capable musician and a skilled painter, wrote stage plays and essays. So, seeking to promote his son’s musical talent while at the same time fulfilling his own desire to raise theatrical standards in London, George Macfarren senior secured the rights to manage the Queens Theatre in London. There, father and son collaborated on several operas of artistic merit but which all too often failed to reach the stage due to bad timing and bad luck. The venture was abandoned at the end of one year and, when the management of two subsequent theatres proved equally luckless, the younger George Macfarren found himself to be the sole breadwinner for his family [1836].  Consequently, he took a teaching job at a school on the Isle of Man. There he composed the Overture Chevy Chase which established his reputation as a composer both in England and in Germany. Flute players also will be interested to know that, while working on the Isle of Man, Macfarren gained much experience of the flute’s capabilities because the school orchestra, for which he wrote the music, consisted of sixteen flutes and almost nothing else!
Macfarren quit the school thankfully after one year, and returned to London where he was appointed Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at the Royal Academy of Music.
London then was 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 a friend of Felix Mendelssohn who conducted one of the many performances of Chevy Chase. Likewise, Macfarren supported Mendelssohn’s work. Felix’ son, Karl Mendelssohn, was to say that his father and Macfarren were ‘of congenial mind’.
Other critics also noted similarities in the output of the two composers, though not necessarily with absolute appreciation. One 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.
If Macfarren was in any way perturbed by that article, he surely would have been cheered when a review in the Musical Examiner likened his Symphony in C sharp minor to those of the recently deceased Beethoven.
Things were going well for Macfarren, until he stuck his neck out in support of Alfred Day’s new Theory of Music which all the rest of the musical establishment in London had condemned. According to the biographer H.C. Bannister, Macfarren was the ‘single believer’ and it made him very unpopular, hugely damaging his reputation and resulting in his resignation from the RAM. Although he was reinstated when Day’s ideas had become generally accepted one year later, this episode helped contribute to Macfarren’s reputation for being dogmatically obstinate with a single-minded approach to people and situations. To make matters worse, he was thought of as a pedant - although, Macfarren hated pedantry. Now, with the benefit of hind-sight and new attitudes towards musicology, we can appreciate that Macfarren’s ‘pedantry’ was in fact a positive trait, ahead of its time and in line with our modern thinking on the benefits of authenticity and detail. As an example: acting on his father’s suggestion, he formed the Handel Society with the aim of producing a complete edition of Handel’s works, that would follow the manuscripts of Handel as closely as possible and make important corrections to errors that had appeared in the old printed copies.  The society folded after a short while but before it did so, Macfarren produced important new editions of three oratorios by Handel, working with painstaking care, despite his failing eyesight.
Macfarren’s school years had been marred by the deterioration in his eyesight. 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 by 1865, aged 52, his blindness was total. From that time onward, Macfarren was forced to rely on the services of an amanuensis, Oliveria Prescott. 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 composer and dedicated teacher who produced some of the best operas of his day and who worked hard right until the night before his death, aged 74. He championed English music and harmonised all the traditional melodies for Chappell’s collected editions of National Airs. All his operas have English words with English subjects, including Robin Hood. He rated Purcell’s music very high, especially Dido and Aeneas, and complained about 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 [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 apparently were difficult to hear, since he tended rest his arm on the piano lid and mumble with his jaw cupped in his hand. He had fixed ideas about most things and when it came to harmony, he held very definite views on chords, holding some in great esteem, such as the use of the minor ninth for modulation, and shrinking from others such as the diminished third, which he described as the hideous interval. He advised against 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 would be done happen when the hero was going to shoot himself, or the heroine was tearing her hair?’
After the death of Sterndale Bennet in 1875,  Macfarren was made Principle of the Royal Academy of Music and, shortly afterwards, also made Professor of Music at Cambridge University. He took these roles most seriously, establishing fortnightly meetings of professors with students, and giving special attention to both the internal and external examinations. However, was more lighthearted about wearing his doctorial robes, which, he said, made him look ‘like first cousin to the Knave of Hearts’. He shrank from all pomp, valuing instead the esteem of his contemporaries and, as therefore rejected the knighthood, when it was offered to him. 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 Natalia Macfarren [née Clarina Thalia Andrae], his wife of forty years. She 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 mostly forgotten, take a unique and important place in the repertoire for flute. The major items are:
Concerto in Gfor 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]

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 considered suitable for publication in the magazine.
The Sonata in B flat for flute and piano [also 1883] must take an important and exceptional place in the repertoire being neither salon music, nor a transcription, nor French. It is in fact that rarest of beings – a sonata in the German classical tradition written specifically for the flute in a style more often associated with works for clarinet or violin [viz Brahms, Schumann etc]. It had its first performance as part of a piano recital given by Charlton T Speer at the Royal Academy of Music on May 2nd 1883. The flute part was played by Oluff Svendsen. The work is in four movements:
The first movement Allegro gentile is essentially a conversation between the piano and the flute. It opens in the key of B flat major with a theme based around the tonic arpeggio in Classical style. However, this simple opening is a duplicitous ploy because chromatic notes are introduced after only two bars and thereafter much of the strength of the movement lies in its tantalizing efforts to reach a ‘satisfactory’ second subject dominant key. With much use of pedal notes, Macfarren keeps hinting that we are there but then side steps at the last moment by such devices as false relations, interrupted cadences and chromatic passing notes. A particularly fine example of this occurs from bar 70: we are lead to believe that a perfect cadence into F major is imminent, but seven bars of pedal C are rudely interrupted by a C sharp false relation and shifts to unrelated harmonic areas. Another attempt to reach F major at bar 84 is cut short by an interrupted cadence. A rising bass stepping upwards over the next four bars finally brings us to the desired key at bar 90 where the flute sings out the main theme in the key of F major cheerfully accompanied by the left hand of the piano playing tonic arpeggios. However the right hand, like a naughty child, refuses to comply and defiantly playing E flats remains in the key of B flat major. In order to achieve a good performance, players need to maintain an awareness of the subtle nature of the chord progressions.
The second movement Presto is a duple time Scherzo with fast tonguing, octave passages and the same restless energy. The first section is in G minor but once again the tonality is never settled and before sixteen bars are over he has already visited six tonal centres. There is a contrasting middle section in B flat major.
The third movement Andante con moto forms a lyrical interlude in E flat major compound duple time. The flute sings out a melody with the piano obediently trundling along. Then, when the piano takes over the melody, the flute twitters gracefully overhead (rather as in the manner of the flute part in Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco). Emotions are twice stirred by short affretando sections but the movement eventually closes quietly without fuss.
There is much to be understood about Macfarren’s approach to compostion from his writings. In his article ‘ On the Structure of a Sonata’ originally delivered to students of the RAM in 1860 and later published by Rudall, Rose and Carte in No. 5 of the Journal of the London Society of Amateur Flute Players as an appendix to the Sonata for flute and piano, Macfarren tells us that the purpose of a Finale seems ‘generally to be to maintain the character of the entire work without severely taxing the hearer’s power of penetration.’ And in his lecture on harmony he describes last movement Rondo Sonata form as being ‘An amalgamation of the forms of a first movement and a Rondo ….. after the completion of the first part with its tonic and dominant subjects, an episode in a strange key is introduced instead of the working of the Second Part. Then, most frequently, the first subject recurs in its original key prior to the appearance of the episode, and again, after its conclusion, initiating in the latter case the Recapitulation of the First Part; and it mostly recurs once more as the Coda so that it’s impression on the memory is the last and the strongest of all the features of the movement.’
The Finale of the sonata for flute and piano is marked Allegro Vivace and sets off in what we now realize is the style of the work. The Rondo theme in B flat major hints at three other keys within its sixteen bars and thereafter we are plunged rapidly into far flung tonal territories transported by pedal notes and enharmonic shifts. Passion and energetic good humour abound throughout the movement giving something for both piano and flute player to really get their teeth into.
The Concerto, dedicated to the English flute player, John Radcliffe, may have been written some years earlier, but received its first performance on 24th February 1864 at the Hanover Square Rooms in London [2]. We know of at least two further performances several years later: in Australia [1883] at Gunsler’s Café, Victoria, and in London [1890], when the slow movement was performed as a stand-alone item in the Covent Garden Promenade Concert. The full score of the concerto is missing but there is an edition for flute with a piano reduction created by Natalie Macfarren, in Australia [3].
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 states that Macfarren's 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 still 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’ composers such as Wagner, were taking the audiences by storm. Macfarren always 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 a great deal of ‘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 and amongst those I would place the works of G. A. Macfarren with a high recommendation.

[1] RAM, London
[2] The Orchestra 27th Feb 1864
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.
[3] thanks to the Library of the University of Western Australia for their help in supplying the score.
Much information also from the biography written by his brother Walter Macfarren.