‘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.