Retrospect Opera

Great British Operas On Record

The Soldier’s Legacy - The Recording
CDWe are  delighted to announce that our next recording will be The Soldier’s Legacy by George Alexander Macfarren. This will take place at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, in September, and our singers are Gaynor Keeble (Widow Wantley), Quentin Hayes (Christopher Caracole), Rachel Speirs (Lotty) and Ranald McCusker (Jack Weatherall). Rachel and Ranald are post-graduate students at the RNCM, and Quentin and Gaynor have sung for us before - we're delighted to have them all on board! Jonathan Fisher is our pianist, and Edward Dean will play the harmonium.

The Soldier’s Legacy

George Alexander Macfarren (1813–1887) was, in Nicholas Temperley’s words, ‘the pioneer of English musical nationalism’, and The Soldier’s Legacy of 1864 ‘his most thoroughgoing nationalist opera’. While his British contemporaries were still, very consciously, seeking out and absorbing influences from Italian, German and French Romantic opera, Macfarren, equally consciously, sought to create a truly English style of opera inspired by folksong. His extensive work with William Chappell on what eventually became The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time (1855–1859) was the bedrock on which Macfarren’s mature music was built.

The Soldier’s Legacy is a delightful rural comedy for four singers with an exceptionally localised setting in and around Tutbury, Staffordshire, in 1814. Jack Weatherall, a hussar, returns from the Napoleonic wars seeking to fulfil a promise he made to his dying friend Dick Firebrand. Little does he know that his act of kindness will bring him the ultimate reward: a loving wife! The libretto by John Oxenford, Macfarren’s regular collaborator, unfolds naturally into a sparkling series of musical numbers, all imbued with the flavour of folk music. Reviews were extremely positive; The Era reported a ‘triumphant success’, and noted: ‘Of Mr. Macfarren’s music it may be most truthfully said, that had he given to the world nothing but this charming composition, it would have been alone sufficient to proclaim him an honour as a musician to any country.’

The Soldier’s Legacy was composed for the famous Gallery of Illustration, opened by Thomas German Reed and his wife Priscilla in 1856—an intimate 500-seat theatre designed to offer refined, family-friendly entertainment. In 1863 the German Reeds began presenting what they called operas di camera there, the first such work being Macfarren’s Jessy Lea. The Soldier’s Legacy was a second effort in the same style, and the Morning Post declared: ‘we congratulate Mr. German Reed upon having advanced one more step towards the attainment of a most desirable object—namely, the institution of a permanent English operetta house.’ Later in the decade, both W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan would have works performed at the Gallery of Illustration, and it was here that they first met. Macfarren’s pioneering operettas have long been recognised as an important influence on Gilbert and Sullivan’s subsequent development of English comic opera.

© 2019 David Chandler

George Alexander Macfarren
George Alexander Macfarren

‘Those who knew Macfarren well could not but revere him’, declared Frederick Corder, a former student and important composer in his own right. Macfarren’s devotion to the cause of English music, as composer, teacher and administrator, was unsurpassed in his own time, and the more remarkable in that he had seriously impaired sight throughout his adult life, and was totally blind in his later years. He was one of those Victorians with apparently superhuman energies, and not the least of his achievements was to win a reputation, with many contemporary critics, as the best English opera composer of the middle third of the nineteenth century.

George Alexander Macfarren was born in London in 1813. There was then no musical academy of any kind in Britain: composers picked up the secrets of their trade where they could, and inevitably lagged behind their Continental counterparts in terms of musical craft. In 1822, however, the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) was founded in a patriotic spirit to allow British musicians ‘to enter into competition with, and rival the natives of other countries’. Macfarren, who had shown musical promise as a boy, was accepted as a student in 1829, and never really left. A few months after he completed his studies in 1836, he was appointed Professor of Harmony and Composition. In 1875, by now totally blind, Macfarren became Principal, and presided over the RAM until his death in 1887, ‘with more strength of personality than any of his predecessors’ according to Corder. He was knighted in 1883, on the same day as Arthur Sullivan and George Grove.

As an institutional man, for whom teaching, administration and the general promotion of English music took precedence over commercial success in the theatre, Macfarren differed from his main rivals in mid-nineteenth-century English opera. Nevertheless, his impressive legacy of over twenty stage works included several notable successes, especially The Devil’s Opera (1838), King Charles II (1849), Robin Hood (1860), Jessy Lea (1863), She Stoops to Conquer (1864), and the work we are recording, The Soldier’s Legacy (1864). The whole history of English opera starts to look different when Macfarren is brought properly into focus. For example, the critic for the Musical World, reviewing King Charles II, stated: ‘it is the finest and most complete operatic work of a native musician ever produced on the stage … The production of such a work and its reception must be regarded as an epoch in the history of the music of the country.’ Subsequent historians of British music, unable or unwilling to explain such assessments, have generally chosen to say very little about Macfarren.

© 2019 David Chandler

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