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Book of the Month

December 2005

Henry Farmer


Sp Coll MS Farmer

On the 30th December, 2005, it will be forty years since the death of Henry George Farmer. A bandsman, musical director, scholar, orientalist, writer and librarian, Farmer spent most of his working life in Glasgow but his connections and influences were truly international. This month we therefore celebrate his amazingly varied life, as illustrated by his books and papers now gathered together as the 'Farmer collection' in Special Collections.

MS Farmer 362: photograph at Farmer at the front of his corrected copy of The History of Arabian music

Henry Farmer was born in 1882 in Birr Barracks in the village of Crinkle in what was then known as King's County (now County Offaly) in Ireland where his father, also Henry George, served in the Leinster Regiment. Young Henry's education started at the Regimental School in Birr and music lessons were soon underway. By the age of ten he was playing the violin with his older sister in concerts which received favourable reports in the local newspaper. It is fortunate that his parents were proud of his achievements and kept the cuttings from the paper. This habit was passed on to their son and we have access in the Farmer Collection to countless cuttings giving details of his activities throughout his life.

MS Farmer 327/1/18: Postcard of Birr Barracks (Farmer's birthplace)

At the age of 13 on a visit to London, Henry went with his father to a Sunday afternoon concert given by the Royal Artillery Band, then in its heyday, providing music not only for military occasions but also as a full orchestra for public concerts - all under the directorship of Ladislao Zavertal. Henry was so taken with this event that he made up his mind there and then that he would become a bandsman, and he got his wishes in March 1896 at the age of 14 when he became 'Boy Farmer', playing clarinet and violin. He was an ambitious lad, however, and hoping to get out of the back row of the second violins, he took lessons on the horn privately.

MS Farmer 107: illustration of 'Musician, Royal Artillery Band, 1910' from Farmer's annotated copy of his History of the Royal Artillery Band (page 326)


MS Farmer 110/2: detail from Military Glee Club programme for evening entertainment,  1898

By 1902 he had become principal horn and it was in this position that he first visited Scotland when the band performed at the International Exhibition at Kelvingrove. He also performed on this instrument at concerts given by other local orchestras and had the opportunity to begin conducting on such occasions.

MS Farmer 151/30: Cover of programme for Royal Artillery Band  Reception at Guildhall, 1906

There are several examples of concert programmes from this time in the Farmer collection. These give some idea of the music that was performed: included are  composers such as Schubert, Sousa, Sullivan who are of course well known to us nowadays; perhaps lesser known are names such as Pedrotti, Ritter, Lacombe, Binding and Braga.

MS Farmer 151/30: Toast list and programme of music for Royal Artillery Band Reception at Guildhall, 1906

MS Farmer 105: Frontispiece photograph of Royal Artillery Band, 1901, from Farmer's interleaved copy of his Memoirs of the Royal Artillery Band

In addition to music, other studies occupied Farmer in these early days in London. His father hoped that Henry would find his vocation in the church; he had tuition in theology, divinity, science and philosophy. While this must have helped to provide a solid foundation for the life of scholarship he was about to embark on, the death of his father in 1900 perhaps released him from the obligation to continue with these studies and enabled him to follow paths of his own choosing. His first appearance in print was an article in 1901 on the Leinster Regiment but a much more substantial publication appeared in 1904 with his first monograph, Memoirs of the Royal Artillery Band.

MS Farmer 37: ms anthology by Farmer 'The Rationale of genius'

In 1907 appeared the first of numerous articles in the periodical The freethinker. A few years earlier Farmer had joined the National Secular Society. The Freethinker articles show how far he had travelled away from the church on what might be called an anti-religious journey; many of them are pieces on freethinking artists, musicians and writers. A few items published around this time appeared under pseudonyms, probably because this interest in radical movements started to pose a threat to his army career - there are hints in letters that he was victimized because of these pursuits. Whether there would have been serious consequences we shall never know because a medical condition precipitated his departure from the band in 1910: he developed a hernia which prevented his playing the horn, a condition probably aggravated by the long hours of marching at the funeral of King Edward VII. This was by no means the end of Farmer's interest in military music, however. He published articles on the subject until the end of his life; a substantial work on martial music on which he was working in the early 1960s remains in typescript because it proved difficult to find a publisher (MS Farmer 82-86).

By this time of his departure from the army, Farmer had already gained experience in conducting and he took on the job of musical director at the Broadway Theatre, New Cross, London. For the next few years this position and others with touring companies were his livelihood, but a major change took place in 1914 when he was offered the musical directorship of the Coliseum Theatre in Glasgow. Some months later he transferred to the Empire Theatre where he remained for 33 years. From now on he lived in the west of Scotland.

Now gone, the Empire had a reputation for being a dangerous stage for performers, and it is still referred to sometimes as the 'English comics' graveyard' .

Photo B1/9: Empire Theatre Orchestra, 1915

Photo B1/10: Gracie Fields

The Farmer Collection includes many photographs and programmes from his period at the Empire, including an album (Photo B1) of signed photographs from the stars of the day.

Shown to the left is Gracie Fields. Born in 1898 above a chip shop in Rochdale, she became a star of the music hall and a major recording artist - the first to sell four million records. This picture was given with her best wishes to Dr Farmer in 1937.

To the right is Harry Lauder. According to Jack House's book on music hall memories, 'At the Monday morning rehearsal for his appearance at the Empire, Lauder started thumping his stick on the stage to give his timing. This was too much for the conductor Dr Henry Farmer ... He stopped his band and said, "Excuse me, Sir Harry, but do you intend to do that stick thumping in your act?" Somewhat surprised, Sir Harry said he did not. "Well", said Dr Farmer, "Kindly don't do it now".'

Photo B1/22: Harry Lauder

MS Farmer 67/31: Musicians' Union (Farmer in back row)

Not content with conducting at the Empire, Henry involved himself with other musical matters. Before moving to Glasgow he had joined the Amalgamated Musicians' Union and from then on was active in union matters. He was elected to the committee of the Glasgow branch in 1917 and became branch president that same year. In 1927 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Musicians' Union which was a fusion of the A.M.U. and the National Orchestral Union of Professional Musicians. The collection includes much material on Union matters and gives an indication of his considerable input. Farmer took over the editorship of the Union's journal from 1929 until 1933. He was also one of its main contributors although he used a variety of pseudonyms to hide this fact, presumably so that he would not appear to have taken over the whole enterprise. Nonetheless, Padraig Krinkill, Haydn O'Donnell, Evan Williams, Gerald Barry, Stan Brunton, Bibliakos, not to mention Abe Beeseer were all in fact Henry Farmer.
Another indication of his concern for his fellow workers was the setting up of a fund to raise money to help musicians and their dependants in times of illness and other difficulties. This Scottish Musicians' Home and Orphanage Fund later became the Scottish Musicians' Benevolent Fund - an organization which continues to give assistance where needed, although there is no longer a separate Scottish fund and it is incorporated with the UK Musicians' Benevolent Fund.

With the arrival of the 'talkies', this period was a critical one for musicians because many of them lost their jobs as they were no longer required to provide music in the cinemas. This problem was aggravated by the engagement of foreign musicians, particularly American bands, and also by the regular employment of service bands mainly at seaside resorts. These matters were all aired and discussed at great length in the pages of the Musician's Union journal.

MS Farmer 67A: Musicians' journal: cartoon at front of issue of July 1929, 'The key to the situation'

MS Farmer: 35 officials of a brass band contest (including Farmer) held in Winter Gardens, May 1929

These were the early days of the BBC and as a member of the Musicians' Union's executive committee, Farmer was involved in negotiating terms for musicians who played for broadcasts. At the invitation of Sir John Reith he joined the Music Advisory Board and thus played a part during the formative days of this new medium. The collection contains some letters relating to BBC matters, and also interesting minutes of meetings of the board.

In 1918, Farmer formed the Glasgow Symphony Orchestra with the idea of performing concerts in the Glasgow parks on Sunday afternoons. He also formed 'Dr Farmer's Sax Band' for the same purpose - it first appeared in the Winter Garden on Glasgow Green. For most of these concerts, he was the person who also wrote the programme notes. Other events occasionally took his attention - such as conducting at a community song festival or adjudicating at a band championship. The photograph to the left shows him with other officials at a brass band contest in 1929.

MS Farmer 616: Photograph (from The Bulletin) pasted in album of programmes, showing Farmer conducting at the first Sunday concert in Kelvingrove, 1918

Farmer also had ambitions as a composer himself. Very little music by him has survived, however; although documents indicate that he composed quite a number of pieces, their absence from his collection suggests that he may have destroyed some of them. In a rather rueful note, he says that he initially found it unbelievable that 'people - whom I thought should have known better - looked upon my compositions as merely passable' and that 'It took nearly a couple of decades ere disillusionment came and I followed my true vocation in musicology'. Farmer's nightly appearances at the Empire Theatre gave him his livelihood, but more importantly, it was 'the only position of which I know where I can earn a living with ample leisure for research and literary work'. It was this research and literary work which gave him his greatest fulfilment and in which he was something of a pioneer - the theory of Arab music and the history of Arab musical instruments.

MS Farmer 503: Congress of Arabian music, volume 1: Farmer and other delegates (page 18)

William Reeves, who had published Farmer's work on the Royal Artillery Band, wanted to produce an English translation of a work by Salvador-Daniel called La musique arabe - a subject about which very little had been written in English. Farmer was already interested in Francisco Salvador-Daniel, director of the Paris Conservatoire, who was involved in the uprising in Paris at the time of the Paris Commune; the Paris Commune was one of the numerous movements which Farmer had studied, and indeed on which he had already published a series of articles in 1911. Farmer was commissioned to translate this work on Arab music and provide notes on it. He started research into the subject and soon realized that there were many conflicting theories amongst the experts. He was not happy with this publication and later wrote that 'that hotchpot has given me more headaches than the conducting of any first night in the theatre'. He resolved that he must study Arabic so that he could go back to the sources for himself - and so began his long association with Glasgow University. Firstly he studied as an external student and then as an undergraduate; and in 1924 he obtained his master's degree. He proceeded with research and received his doctorate in 1926 with his thesis, A musical history of the Arabs. There followed numerous books and articles relaying the fruits of his studies.
This line of study before long earned him an international reputation - English-speaking scholars at the time researching this esoteric subject were thin on the ground. Indeed, when a conference on Arab music was set up in Cairo in 1932, Henry Farmer was the only participant from the United Kingdom. In one of the rare personal letters in his collection he describes some of his travels on this occasion. In one sent from Cairo, for example, he says '...We sailed at 4 o'clock for Port Said with Charlie Chaplin aboard with his brother Syd. He is a real snob. I will tell you more when I come home ...' He is shown to the right with some of the other distinguished scholars at the conference. Paul Hindemith is also shown here, but not Bartok who was also a participant. These pictures are to be found in the journal which Farmer compiled, describing the events at the conference where he was appointed president of the Commission of Manuscripts and History. The journal also shows that he was his usual industrious self, making full use of his time in Egypt - conferring, visiting, listening - and in it he gives some indication of irritation that not everyone was prepared to work as hard as he was!

In a 1990 journal article, the Arabist scholar S. Burstyn wrote 'For some fifty years ... Farmer flooded the musicological literature with studies of Arabic music and its contribution to Western music ... From a distance of six decades, Farmer still impresses with his powerful, often insightful advocacy of the "Arabian influence" thesis ... '. While certain academics have reservations about some of Farmer's conclusions, there is no doubt that he was a significant figure in this discipline.

MS Farmer 503: Congress of Arabian music, volume 1: group at reception and tea, 14th March 1932 (page 89)

MS Farmer 502/1: engraving of 'An Arab Bagpiper & Soldier' (1816) from collection of  miscellaneous photographs and ephemera on Arabic music

Despite all these achievements, Farmer never managed to finish what he described was to be his magnum opus, 'a fully documented history of Arabian musical instruments, with special reference to their influence on the music and culture of Mediaeval Europe ...'. He worked on the project for some twenty years, devoting himself to it after his retirement from the Empire Theatre in 1947. Various translations and analyses of Arabic texts did appear as a result of all this research but the work was never completed - perhaps because of the complications of trying to classify hundreds of instruments from various regions of the Arab countries. In the Farmer Collection here are numerous drafts which demonstrate his attempts to get to grips with this aim.
Closer to home, Farmer was also an zealous supporter of Scottish music. One outcome of this enthusiasm was the inauguration in May 1936 of the Scottish Music Society; this aimed to compile, edit, publish and distribute compositions and books on music relating to Scotland, and to arrange lectures on the subject. Other inaugural members included Dr W. Gillies Whittaker who was at that time both the Principal of the Scottish National Academy of Music (now RSAMD) and Professor of the Gardiner Chair of Music at Glasgow University, and also Ian Whyte, first director of music at the BBC and founder of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.  This work was carried forward enthusiastically with a number of broadcasts in a series entitled 'Music from the Scottish past' from 1936 to 1938. Unfortunately the onset of the Second World War put paid to the society's plans.

MS Farmer 227/1: minutes of the inaugural meeting of the Scottish Music Society, 22 May 1936

MS Farmer 271/5: first page of Mozart's letter to his wife, Konstanze (after 14 October 1791): from Zavertal's collection

The culmination of Farmer's research on the Scottish music scene was the publication in 1947 of his A history of music in Scotland. Although more than half a century has passed since it appeared, it is a mine of information which is still an essential source for anyone interested in the subject.

Along with this enthusiasm for historical research went a keen interest in contemporary Scottish music. Over the years, Farmer complained about the neglect by orchestras of the work of Scottish composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was anxious to ensure that such music did not get 'lost' and persuaded a number of composers and/or their families to deposit their works in Glasgow University Library. Thus through his efforts we have here music by Sir John McEwen, Learmont Drysdale, Hamish MacCunn, Frederic Lamond, William Gillies Whittaker and also the aforementioned Ladislao Zavertal - his first 'boss' at the Royal Artillery Band.

In his spare time, Farmer was also instrumental in cataloguing for the library much of this newly acquired material. His retirement gave him the opportunity to continue with this type of work, and one of the most significant tasks carried out by him was the cataloguing of the most important music collection in the library, that amassed in the nineteenth century by the Glasgow insurance broker, William Euing. In 1951 his position was formalized when he was appointed music librarian, a post he held until his 'next' retirement, shortly before his death in 1965.

MS Farmer 587: Farmer in doorway of Glasgow University building, Kelvingrove Museum in background

As we have seen, Farmer produced articles and wrote books tirelessly on a wide variety of musical subjects, but despite our archive of documents related to him, few details of his personal life are revealed. Although he was quite assiduous in promoting his own scholarly publications, he was almost obsessed with keeping himself and his family out of the limelight. The contrasting aspects of his life do attract some curiosity, as expressed in a letter in 1943 from a Scottish Sunday Express reporter (MS Farmer 320/6): 'You see Dr Farmer it is the dual nature of your life that makes you so interesting. A professor of ethnology who is just a professor of ethnology is nothing to the press. An expert ethnologist who is also a popular musician is news'. The 'ethnology' tag came from not just his music researches but the work he carried out during World War Two on artefacts which had been damaged when Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery was hit by bombs.

MS Farmer 587: presscutting from the Scottish Sunday Express, January 10, 1943

Farmer 54: volume of pantomime libretti:
Sinbad the Sailor, 1905

It was Farmer's intention to write an autobiography which was to be called Tunic - tinsel - toga to reflect the different stages of his life: tunic, telling of his years with the Royal Artillery Band; tinsel, describing the years of his theatrical career; and toga, covering what he called his 'musico-literary career'. It is to be regretted that the work was never written, and perhaps it would have revealed more of Farmer the man, as opposed to Farmer the workaholic. Nonetheless, the thousands of books, photographs, manuscripts and other papers that survive in his collection today are a fascinating testament to a man of many talents, and a wonderful resource for musicologists and historians.

It is with popular theatre that we shall end. With Christmas approaching fast, some seasonal inspiration may be found in a book of pantomime libretti dating from 1897-1911 and collected by Farmer (Farmer 54). Shown here is the offering one hundred years ago of Sinbad the Sailor, performed at the Royal County Theatre, Kingston-on-Thames. As the final chorus goes:

We wish you a happy
Right prosperous New Year.
Be healthy and wealthy,
Our wish is sincere.
Peace reigning triumphant,
War clouds all past;
To new friends and to old friends,
Good luck to you all;
To new friends and to old friends,
Good luck and Good Night.

This article is based on a talk prepared by Sheila Craik, former music librarian at Glasgow University Library.

See also:
S. Burstyn: "The 'Arabian Influence' Thesis Revisited" Current Musicology, nos. 45-47 (1990), pp. 119-146 Music Pers CU 740 (also available online): Carl Cowl and Sheila M. Craik; with essays by Trevor Herbert and Amnon Shiloah Henry George Farmer: a bibliography Glasgow: 1999 Level 4 Main Lib Music Bibliog HF122 1999-C and Sp Coll Reference; Sheila Craik and David Weston Tunic, tinsel, toga: an exhibition to mark the centenary of Henry George Farmer 1882-1965, Glasgow University Library 11 Oct-27 Nov 1982 [Glasgow]: [1982] Level 4 Main Lib Music qHF122 TUN and Sp Coll Reference; Jack House Music hall memories: recollections of Glasgow music hall and pantomime Glasgow:1986 Sp Coll STA H.i.6



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Sheila Craik (edited by Julie Gardham) December 2005