About this Recording
8.660306-07 - MACFARREN, G.: Robin Hood [Opera] (N. Spence, Hulbert, John Powell Singers, Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Corp)

George Alexander MacFarren (1813–1887)
Robin Hood


A romantic English Opera in three acts
Libretto by John Oxenford (1812–1877)
Performing Edition by Valerie Langfield

Robin Hood (in disguise as Locksley) - Nicky Spence, Tenor
Sir Reginald d’Bracy (Sheriff of Nottingham) - George Hulbert, Baritone
Hugo (Sompnour, Collector of Abbey dues) - Louis Hurst, Bass
Allan-a-Dale (a young peasant) - Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, Tenor
Little John John Molloy, Bass; Much, the Miller’s son Alex Knox, Baritone; Marian (daughter of Sheriff) - Kay Jordan, Soprano
Alice (her attendant) - Magdalen Ashman, Mezzo-soprano
Villagers, Citizens and Greenwood men - John Powell Singers and Victorian Opera Chorus

Macfarren and English Opera

‘Those who knew Macfarren well could not but revere him’, declared Frederick Corder, a former student and the historian of the Royal Academy of Music. 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 (the same year as Wagner and Verdi). 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 far 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, he became Principal, and presided over the RAM until his death, ‘with more strength of personality than any of his predecessors’ according to Corder.

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 midnineteenth-century English opera: John Barnett (1802–90), Julius Benedict (1804–85), Michael William Balfe (1808–70), William Vincent Wallace (1812–65), and Edward Loder (1813–65). It explains the greater technical polish of his music, and to some extent his greater interest in a truly ‘English’ product. (Macfarren was English, not Scottish as his name might suggest). Macfarren also showed a much greater commitment to other genres of music than these other composers, writing much orchestral music, and many oratorios, cantatas, and songs.

The sweeping success of Barnett’s The Mountain Sylph at the English Opera House in 1834 opened a new chapter in the history of English opera. Barnett, strongly influenced by Weber, and to a lesser extent by French and Italian opera, kept spoken dialogue to a minimum, and abandoned the ‘drama with songs’ convention that had prevailed in the age of Henry Bishop (1786–1855) in favour of real musical drama, the music now conceived as a whole rather than number by number. The Mountain Sylph inaugurated the period of what has come to be called ‘English romantic opera’, the principal form of English musical theatre until the mid-1860s.

Barnett’s limited talent was largely exhausted by this landmark work, and leadership in the new style quickly passed to the prolific Balfe, who had trained in Italy and brought a Continental flair to his opera writing that none of his British contemporaries could match. Though generally happy to accommodate spoken dialogue to suit English taste, Balfe also showed a desire to move towards all-sung English opera on the Italian model: something he demonstrated in Catherine Grey (1837) and The Daughter of St Mark (1844).

Macfarren was in no doubt about the significance of Barnett’s breakthrough, writing later that The Mountain Sylph ‘opened a new period for music in this country, from which is to be dated the establishment of an English dramatic school’. But Macfarren, of all this group of composers, seems to have had the most ambivalent feelings about the general movement towards all-sung opera. He never attempted an all (or nearly all)-sung English opera, and in general seems to have sought a rapprochement with the older style of English opera that Barnett had largely abandoned. This loyalty to an English tradition had much to do with the nineteenth-century rediscovery of Purcell and English folk music.

Macfarren was, revealingly, a member of The Musical Antiquarian Society (MAS), for whom he edited the first published score of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in 1841. The MAS had strongly nationalistic leanings, and sought to promote the comparatively little-known Purcell as ‘the father of the English Lyric Drama’. Remarkably, they considered Dido and Aeneas a minor, ‘Italianate’ work of the composer’s teenage years. They understood Purcell as subsequently rejecting ‘the authority of Italy’ and moving toward an English style of opera that built music into the existing rich tradition of spoken drama. When the MAS published Purcell’s King Arthur in 1843 it was presented as a sort of blueprint for what English opera should be, and there can be little doubt that a good deal of the polemic about ‘needless and intrusive’ music was aimed at Balfe, who seemed all too inclined to bow to Italian authority. An opera, it was claimed, should be ‘a Drama of which Music formed a necessary, frequent, and integral part, but of which the dialogue was spoken’. Another key pointer to Macfarren’s enthusiasms is his important work with William Chappell on The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time (1855–59).

Macfarren’s own early stage works, several of which were described as ‘operettas’ or ‘farces’, are remarkable on one hand for their musical finesse and on the other for their lack of ambition and determination not to be taken seriously. The spoken element is always dominant. But though consciously ‘minor’ works they must have taught him a good deal about popular taste and how theatre works; opera was, for Macfarren, never the sort of ‘high culture’ medium that it later became. The Devil’s Opera of 1838, ‘begun, rehearsed, and finally brought out within a month’, was his first major success in the theatre, and effectively marked the end of his apprenticeship. It contained strong pantomimic elements, and might be considered lower-middle-brow in its appeal, unlike the upper-middle-brow tendencies of contemporary works by Barnett and Balfe.

The success of The Devil’s Opera behind him, and perhaps—given his academic position—feeling some increased sense of responsibility to aim higher, Macfarren went on to write An Adventure of Don Quixote in 1841, much more carefully composed than his earlier theatrical works, and the first to respond cautiously to the Barnett-Balfe revolution. Unfortunately, due to various accidents, its first production was delayed until 1846, when it proved very successful. Macfarren’s stage ambitions revived, he went on to write King Charles II, his first unquestionably major and entirely characteristic opera, premièred in 1849. By this time he had seen what his rivals were capable of: Balfe had achieved his biggest success with The Bohemian Girl (1843), Wallace had exploded onto the scene with Maritana (1845), Loder had his greatest triumph with The Night Dancers (1846). He knew he wanted to do something different.

King Charles II is a romantic romp set in Purcell’s England. Though dramatically lightweight, Macfarren dignified it with music both sophisticated and delightful, and considerably more ambitious than anything he had written for the theatre before. Most importantly, the subject matter encouraged him to evoke a ‘Merrie England’ atmosphere which he did skillfully by incorporating clearly English elements like a madrigal and morris dancing into a basically Mozartean style. The critics were highly approving, praising the opera as a thoroughly individual work, Macfarren’s best to date, and even the most satisfactory English opera ever(!) The critic for the Musical World summed up the reaction in glowing terms:

The triumphant success…has been chronicled by the whole of the metropolitan press. We have not heard one dissentient voice, nor read one dissentient opinion as to the merits of King Charles II. That it is the finest and most complete operatic work of a native musician ever produced on the stage is no less universally allowed. The production of such a work and its reception must be regarded as an epoch in the history of the music of the country.

King Charles II showed Macfarren what he was good at, and his later operas show a clear predilection for British subject matter with a strong historical flavour that would shape the music: Allan of Aberfeldy (1850), Robin Hood (1860), She Stoops to Conquer (1864), and Helvellyn (1864). Critics in Macfarren’s own time and since have generally considered Robin Hood the finest of all his operas, and it has seemed the obvious one to revive.

Robin Hood

In the 1940s the great musicologist and opera scholar Edward Dent (1876–1957), a governor of Sadler’s Wells, was giving much thought to how the theatre could promote ‘native British opera every season’. He believed that Charles Villiers Stanford’s Much Ado About Nothing (1901) was eminently worthy of revival, and looking further back he drew up the following shortlist:

Other revivals I should suggest are Macfarren’s Robin Hood (1860) which is very full of good fun and on the way to Sullivan; Wallace’s The Amber Witch and Love’s Triumph; Goring Thomas’s Esmeralda and The Golden Web.

Unfortunately, as is still the case, persuading a British opera company to explore Britain’s operatic heritage was beyond even Dent’s considerable powers of persuasion: none of the proposed revivals took place. But his pithy recommendation of Robin Hood—‘very full of good fun and on the way to Sullivan’—remains the best short introduction to Macfarren’s masterpiece.

If pushed to say more, Dent would doubtless have noted that Robin Hood not only anticipates the more consciously ‘English’ aspects of Sullivan’s style, but nods back affectionately to the work of Purcell, especially King Arthur, which Dent (like members of the nineteenth-century Musical Antiquarian Society) was inclined to consider the English opera par excellence. Here again was a leading English composer treating a national myth, not with high seriousness à la Wagner, but in a spirit of patriotic jollity and with a good admixture of romance. Macfarren can have been in no doubt about the deeply popular nature of his material; The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time, on which he worked for many years with William Chappell, had noted emphatically that ‘of all the sources from which the fertile muse of the English ballad-maker has derived its subjects, no one has proved more inexhaustible, or more universally acceptable to the hearers, than the life and adventures of Robin Hood’. Chappell saw this popularity as rooted in the attractions of Robin’s ‘free, manly, warm-hearted, and merry character’, his ‘hatred of all oppressors’, and his enduring association with May-Day games.

Macfarren was fortunate to have as his librettist John Oxenford (1812–77), the most capable British librettist of his generation. The two men knew each other well, having first worked together on a farce in 1835, and then on many cantatas, as well as Allan of Aberfeldy. Oxenford clearly knew what Macfarren wanted in terms of verse to set to music, and skillfully managed to simplify the complex mass of Robin Hood material into an easy-to-follow plot suitable for an opera. The major elements of the traditional legends can be found in Macfarren’s opera, though so organized as to produce a conclusion in which everyone except the villainous Sompnour is ‘happy at last’. Macfarren’s delight with his subject can be felt in almost every number. The elements of national style he had been developing since the 1840s now find full expression, and justify Nicholas Temperley’s conclusion that Macfarren was ‘the pioneer of English musical nationalism’. Macfarren’s long study of traditional English popular music bears fruit time and time again, not in an academic or pastiche way, but as a deeply absorbed melodic and harmonic language, a key element in a confidently individual style. Like all Macfarren’s later operas, Robin Hood is carefully crafted, with drama built up through extended ensemble scenes and interweaving motifs creating a sense of continuity.

Macfarren had perfectly judged his talents, subject and audience. Robin Hood was an even bigger hit than King Charles II, enjoying the sort of reception a really popular musical would obtain today. The Examiner reported that Macfarren’s opera drew dense crowds to the great house [Her Majesty’s Theatre] on every night of its performance. Every point even of standing-room is occupied before the rising of the curtain.

The critic felt this success was thoroughly deserved, for Robin Hood,

English essentially in theme and treatment…is a work of musical genius superior to any works of Verdi or Donizetti, [and] doubtless the chef d’oeuvre of the English school.

Anyone inclined to scoff should at least listen to this recording first. The critic for the Daily News was no less pleased:

Mr Macfarren has put forth all his strength in this work…he has exerted his utmost powers, and achieved a work not only much superior to any of his own previous productions, but not excelled by any English dramatic composer, from the days of Purcell to our own. We are convinced that this is not saying too much.

Robin Hood was revived regularly to the end of the century, and in 1891 was touring while Sullivan’s Ivanhoe, with its closely related subject matter, was running in London. It is noteworthy that the young George Bernard Shaw judged Sullivan’s score not ‘in any essential point an advance upon that of Macfarren’s Robin Hood.

Robin Hood certainly anticipates Ivanhoe and some later attempts at a truly English style of opera, but it also marks the end of an era. It belongs to the last and greatest period of the Victorian English romantic opera, along with Loder’s Raymond and Agnes (1855), Wallace’s exactly contemporaneous Lurline (1860), the same composer’s The Amber Witch (1861), and Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney (1862). It is totally distinct from these contemporary works however, and an impressive monument to Macfarren’s enduring and largely successful efforts to fashion a truly English species of musical theatre, at once looking back and looking forwards.

David Chandler

Macfarren’s Robin Hood

Resurrecting an entirely unknown opera is a daunting task, at times requiring a leap of faith. In the case of Robin Hood the vocal score suggested quite simple music. However, in examining the manuscript (held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), and building up a new score, the individuality of Macfarren’s orchestral lines soon became apparent—quite clearly there was simply too much detail to fit into a vocal score. The score is full of such details: the sparkling woodwind ‘punctuations’ in Robin and Marian’s Act I duet are but one example of many. Composers in this period often double, giving the same notes to two instruments, but Macfarren rarely does this—each instrument really does have its own voice. He scores very lightly: not for him the ophicleide or serpent of the low brass line, that Balfe and others used, nor Wallace’s opulent sound requiring bass clarinet, and a second flute as well as a piccolo. The result is very clear, light and airy.

A new performing edition was necessary because no parts survive and the manuscript score was in a spidery hand, not easy to read. Transcribing a score, correcting mistakes, adjusting for modern instruments (especially transposing brass instruments)—all this offers a revealing glimpse of the composer’s mindset, and the possibilities and limitations of the instruments of the day. In this way, it became clear that Macfarren wrote for the 3-string double bass, which keeps the sound light, matching the subject matter. His attention to detail (and sense of humour) is manifest in his vocal writing, too, from the use of falsetto in the Sompnour’s song in Act I (CD 1 7), to the choral writing in the ‘Arrow scene’ in the Act 2 Finale, which hints at Edward German’s Merrie England; and the very beautiful Act II Quintet (CD 2 6), which anticipates Sullivan. The rustic elements are well served by the chorus ‘Confusion to the Norman’ and Robin’s stirring ‘Englishmen’ melody (CD 1 9); and the ‘True Love’ theme appears at suitable moments, first on oboe in the Overture and finally on flute in the Act 3 Finale, accompanying Marian’s glorious coloratura outburst.

Valerie Langfield

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, London, premièred Robin Hood in 1860 when leased to E.T. Smith.
A disastrous fire destroyed the theatre seven years later in 1867. Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh,
it suffered from two fires and had to be totally rebuilt by Charles J Phipps in 1897 to give the theatre we see today.

Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Music


Act I: The High Street of Nottingham

In the busy street, armourers work at their forge with women spinning yarn while a little flirting goes on between Allan and Alice. Robin Hood soon appears, masquerading under the name of Locksley, and meets Marian, the Sheriff’s daughter. Their intimate conversation is overheard by the Sheriff who will accept Locksley as son-in-law if he proves his marksmanship at tomorrow’s fair. The Sheriff issues a proclamation, offering a reward for the capture of Robin Hood, unaware that he is present as the yeoman, Locksley. The Sompnour enters to ask the Sheriff for protection through the forest as he carries the dues collected for the abbey from the peasantry. Allan, unable to afford his taxes, is ordered to the stocks by the Sheriff despite protests by the townsfolk. Locksley steps forward to pay Allan’s dues for his release. As the sun sets, the Sompnour and Sheriff leave for the castle. Locksley and Marian declare their affection before departing.

Act II Scene 1: The Trysting tree in the Greenwood

Deep in Sherwood forest, by the trysting tree in moonlight, the Merrie Men relax after their toils, with a fat deer roasting. Robin appears to tell Little John of the Sompnour’s expected journey through the forest. They prepare to entrap him: the outlaws conceal themselves while Robin, John and Much, the miller’s son, disguise themselves as shepherds and tend to the fire. The Sompnour appears and tells his guards to arrest the shepherds for stealing the King’s venison. With affected humility they plead for mercy. When this is sternly refused Robin throws off his disguise and sounds his horn. The Sheriff’s men flee, leaving the Sompnour to be captured. Much proposes that he be hanged, but merciful Robin invites the Sompnour to supper. Yet he must pay generously for it. To escape the hanging he must dance for the outlaws’ amusement.

Scene 2: Marian’s bower

Marian watches the dawn break, imploring Heaven to assist her lover’s marksmanship and gain her father’s approval. The Sheriff appears and gives encouragement. Much reveals to the Sheriff that Robin Hood will be at the fair and asks for the reward, but the Sompnour recognises him from the forest and he is taken away. In the guise of a friar the Sompnour promises to find Robin and claim the reward himself. To this the Sheriff agrees.

Scene 3: The Fair outside Nottingham

We discover a scene of sport, dancing and games. Robin, as Locksley, recognises the Sompnour and tells Allan to get rid of him. After a dance Allan has the Sompnour blindfolded to play a game of ‘Hoodman Blind’. The archery match commences and Locksley proves his skill, enabling him to claim Marian’s hand. The Sompnour returns, recognises Locksley, and denounces him as the infamous Robin Hood. Amidst turmoil Robin is seized by the Sheriff’s men and led away.

Act III Scene 1: The Castle garden

Allan and Alice lament the execution of Robin, to take place on the following day. Alice informs the Sheriff that Marian has escaped from her apartment. The Sompnour arrives to claim his reward, but is first told to go to the King for a warrant for Robin Hood’s execution.

Scene 2: The Greenwood at noon

Marian appears, dressed as a boy, to tell the outlaws that Robin is to be executed. She leads them to the castle.

Scene 3: Prison cell

In isolation, a distraught Robin awaits his fate. He then hears Marian with his Merrie Men singing outside. This renews his hopes.

Scene 4: The Courtyard of the Castle

Robin is brought from the castle and given time to confess his sins. With his arm freed, he then blows his horn to signal his faithful followers. They appear, led by Marian, to release him but are overpowered. However, the document assumed to be the death warrant is in fact a pardon, given on the understanding that they enter the service of the King. The Sheriff once again consents to the union of Robin and Marian, for which there is general rejoicing.

Raymond Walker

The vocal score, when published in late October 1860, contained text improvements made during the opening run.
Sheet music is believed to have been printed for up to 25 of the numbers.

Victorian Opera is grateful to those enthusiastic singers, musicians, sponsors and subscribers who have made the revival of this neglected music possible.The group is indebted to the following for their generous financial support: David Chandler, Gordon Cooksley, Ida Carroll Trust, The Donizetti Society, Luke and Sara Baxter, Sue McInerney, John Wright, An Opera Lover, Waitrose (Wilmslow), Cheshire East Council.

Ronald Corp and Victorian Opera wish to thank the following for their valuable assistance: David Chandler for recommending and supporting the project and providing the copy of the original vocal score; the Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for access to the autograph score and Valerie Langfield for kindly undertaking the preparation and editing of the full score; Michael G Spinks, Headteacher of Urmston Grammar School; Jill Lowe, Headteacher of Bradshaw Hall School, Cheadle Hulme; Nether Alderley Spring Water Company, Hawk Green Brass Band, Janet Adamson, Gillian Ellis, Anthony Noden, Janet Snowman, Elva Towler and John and Jan Wilkin.

Subscribers: Skipton Building Society; Robert and Beryl Farr; Peter and Susan Graham, Michael and Jenny Natham, Brian and Sandra Thompson, Jeremy and Alison Wilkinson, Anne Asquith, Godfrey Berry, Hilary Chaplin, Christine Clark, Sally Cooper, Michael Fawke, Ronnie Fox, Olive Freeman, Colin Garrett, William Gandy, Victor Hayward, Ernest Howells, Clive Hughes, Andrew Lamb, Nick and Mandy Parr, Ivan and Elizabeth Sampson, Sue Sawyer, John Sheppard, Henry Steffen, Miranda Strahand, Michael Symes, Elva Towler, David Watkins.

Key productions

1860 Her Majesty’s Theatre, London 1861 Her Majesty’s, Theatre, London 1872 Crystal Palace, London 1880 Queen’s Theatre, Stoke, Staffs (tour) 1889 Princess Theatre, London 1891 1st Carl Rosa Opera tour

Knighted at Windsor Castle on the same day in 1883 George Macfarren was knighted for his services to English music at the same time as Arthur Sullivan, composer (another Royal Academy of Music alumnus), and George Grove, first director of the Royal College of Music and Grove’s Musical Dictionary founder.
Courtesy of the Manchester Gilbert & Sullivan Society Archives

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