GEORGE MACFARREN (1813 - 1887)
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.
© David Chandler