George Alexander Macfarren
Born: 2 March 1813
Died: 31 October 1887
Sir George Alexander Macfarren is one of the most fascinating ‘lost masters’of nineteenth-century British music. A cultured musician in every sense, he brought formidable energies to bear upon almost all aspects of mid-Victorian musical life.
He entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1829. A symphony by him was played at an Academy concert in 1830; for the opening of the Queen's Theatre in Tottenham Street, under the management of his father, in 1831, he wrote an overture. His Chevy Chace overture, the orchestral work by which he is perhaps best known, was written as early as 1836, and in a single night. On leaving the Academy in 1836, Macfarren was for about a year a music teacher in the Isle of Man, and wrote two unsuccessful operas. In 1837 he was appointed a professor at the Academy, and wrote his Romeo and Juliet overture. In the following year he brought out The Devil's Opera, considered one of his best works.
In 1845 he became conductor at Covent Garden, producing the Antigone with Mendelssohn's music; his opera on An Adventure of Don Quixote was produced under Alfred Bunn at Drury Lane in 1846; his subsequent operas include King Charles II (1849), Robin Hood (1860), She Stoops to Conquer (1864), and Helvellyn (1864). A gradual failure of his eyesight, which had been defective from boyhood, resulted in total blindness in 1865, but he overcame the difficulties by employing an amanuensis in composition, and made hardly a break in the course of his work.
He was made Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in succession to Sterndale Bennett in February 1875, and in March of the same year professor of music in Cambridge University. Shortly before this he had begun a series of oratorios: St John the Baptist (Bristol, 1873); Resurrection (Birmingham, 1876); Joseph (Leeds, 1877); and King David (Leeds, 1883). In spite of their solid workmanship, and the skill with which the ideas are treated, it is difficult to hear or read them through without smiling at some of the touches of quite unconscious humour often resulting from the way in which the Biblical narratives have been, as it were, dramatized. He delivered many lectures of great and lasting value, and his theoretical works, such as the Rudiments of Harmony, and the treatise on counterpoint, will probably be remembered longer than many of his compositions. He was knighted in 1883, and in 1887 he was succeeded by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford as professor of music at the university of Cambridge. He died suddenly in London on 31 October 1887.
As a composer he was technically superior to most of his British contemporaries and, in view of the total blindness which struck him in 1865, extraordinarily productive. An output which includes eighteen operas, thirteen oratorios and cantatas, nine symphonies and one hundred and sixty-two songs might well be thought impressive by any standards.
Among his theoretical works was an analysis of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (described as Beethoven's Grand Service in D, and published in 1854).
Two of his symphonies have been recorded (his fourth and seventh, by the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Werner Andreas Albert), as has his overture Chevy Chace. It is possible that the fourth symphony is the F minor symphony that was played in 1834 by the Society of British Musicians.
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List of choral works by George Alexander Macfarren
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Arrangements by George Alexander Macfarren
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