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Henry RUSSELL - A Life on the Ocean Wave – The story of a composer, singer, entertainer by Andrew Lamb

398 pp.
ISBN-10: 0952414961
ISBN-13: 978-0952414964
Publ. Fullers Wood Press, Croydon, UK

Available post-free for £25 pre-paid, from author, Andrew Lamb, 12 Fuller's Wood, Croydon, CR0 8HZ, UK

Henry Russell (1814-1900) started out as a minor songwriter and pianist with good musical training. Although he boasted that he had been a pupil of Rossini, Bellini and Meyerbeer it was noticed that his songs robbed a singer of the fireworks, trills, quivers and shakes that training by these masters might have encouraged. Experience as a chorus master of the Kings Theatre, London, would later stand him in good stead. With flamboyant personality he set out to put together a one-man show of singing and telling amusing anecdotes. His stamina must have been considerable to play and sing for over two hours each performance. His regular appearances not only advertised his published songs, but also got his name widely known.

Little has been written about Russell until now. He left an autobiography of sorts, but its content suffers from inaccurate dates, order of events and exaggerated claims. Either his memory had been failing or he deliberately set out to deceive his readers. Perhaps his only excuse in this is for us to remember that he was a member of the theatrical profession!

Andrew Lamb’s writing gives us a clear and thorough account of the development of Russell’s career both in London and other British cities, as well as his adventures in Italy, America and Canada. One of the joys of this book is to find out about the interaction between Russell and his musical contemporaries including composers Charles Horn, Michael Balfe, Edward Loder, and singers such as Henry Phillips, Priscilla Horton (later Mrs German Reed of the Gallery of Illustration) and Louisa Pyne, (who later formed her own opera company with Harrison). These and other theatre names of the period crop up with regularity: the information presented allows us to view them from a different angle to that previously known. A keen traveller, at one point he found himself in Italy, and formed a duo of roaming singers with Michael Balfe. Their concerts provided recompense enough to allow both of them to live well and even save. The role of Russell’s publishers and their methods of working give insight to the vagaries of marketing in those days. We are shown the resulting insecurity that the composer of a popular song is left with in days before copyright. Russell’s publishers were not altogether fair with him in their gain from the additional promotion of published songs brought by his concerts, but Russell cleverly encouraged pianoforte manufacturers like Kirkham to supply their best pianos for his performances.

Henry Russell was fortunate in acquiring good lyricists such as Charles Mackay who would tell a good story within the lyrics, and supported him over a number of years. Eliza Cook of America, likewise, supplied good lyrics that immortalised certain Russell songs written when he toured over there. He was fortunate in having other useful lyricists who would write in with good lyrics. Consequently, we have a small-time composer with material that could provide the basis for good songs; unlike certain more accomplished composers who were fed dross by the likes of Alfred Bunn or Henry Chorley. Russell’s success we learn is partly due to the inclusion of vivid descriptive elements within a song that could be amplified by an appropriate musical setting to give the audience an extra dimension of realism. Another element of Russell’s marketing success was that he would immerse himself fully in the community and township where he was staying. This happened more so in America where his tours were lucrative. His generosity extended to staging charity and benefit performances or dedicating songs to local dignitaries rather than London-based friends, or even christening a son/daughter after a theatre friend who had extended hospitality. Born a Jew, he unusually found himself organist and choirmaster with the Presbyterian Church and a teacher at the Academy of Sacred Music when in Rochester, New York.

An interesting period occurred during Russell’s American tour when his reputation was clouded by a storm of harsh criticism. A knowledgeable musician wrote in the press that the Russell songs he heard contained music of different composers, and in one song was lifted note by note from a work by Rodolphe; yet Russell never gave these composers credit. The critic accused him of plagiarism and challenged Russell to either admit or disprove. The heated exchanges that followed, along with further accusations and court cases, make interesting reading. Later on, he is shadowed and mimicked by a Henry Smith who used his songs and stories without permission or acknowledgement. Since Smith followed Russell from America to London it is perhaps likely that he sparked off the original accusation of plagiarism.

His most popular numbers were ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’, the sentimental ‘Woodman, spare that Tree’, and graphic songs like ‘The Maniac’ and ‘The Drunkard’ with their moralising themes. With the latter, Russell found himself applauded by the Temperance Society. His favourite London venue for concerts was the elegant and fashionable Hanover Rooms, where leaders of society enjoyed being seen. Here he introduced some of the American Negro Spiritual and Plantation songs composed on his recent travels. This was to bring about the introduction to England of the Ethiopian Singers from America, who were white singers blacked up with fuzzy wigs. In turn, this development would lead to the Christy Minstrels and others using banjo-led rhythms that were popularised in the 1870s.

His legacy of more than 350 songs and a few short oratorios has been largely forgotten. They are not pieces that are regularly found cropping up in second-hand bookshops, but nevertheless whether an original composer or not he believed strongly in his skills and expended enormous amounts of energy in providing good entertainment. Interestingly, a son by Russell’s mistress, Hannah Ronald, grew up to be knighted for his services to music. That was Landon Ronald, a close friend of Elgar who had had his first composition published at the age of eight and had once been associated with the Queen’s Hall as a principal conductor.

In this excellent volume, Andrew Lamb has amassed an extensive collection of newspaper reports and reviews to piece together a correct account of the progressive activities of this entrepreneur. Lamb has been careful to justify errors in Russell’s autobiography by cross-referencing with multiple sources. It was discovered that information gleaned from censuses proved to contain errors and this only served to complicate matters.

Raymond J Walker



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