Monday, August 1, 2016

Henry Russell in Melville's Albany

Henry Russell

English singer and composer Henry Russell (1813-1900) was the father of Herman Melville's friend W. Clark Russell, to whom Melville dedicated John Marr and other Sailors in 1888. You can find the electronic text with other of Melville's dedications here. In print, the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Published Poems has the edited text of Melville's dedication to W. Clark Russell. The facsimile edition of John Marr and Other Sailors, edited by Douglas Robillard, is published by the Kent State University Press.


In the dedication to John Marr Melville notes the fact of WCR's birth in New York City, but does not name his famous and flamboyant sire Henry Russell. Melville would have known of Henry Russell (he wrote the music for Woodman! Spare that Tree! and A Life on the Ocean Wave) from the popular singer's time in Albany, where another son was born in 1837. Russell had first gone to Canada around 1833-4, then made his way eventually from Toronto to Rochester, New York. Russell did not stay long. He continued to tour America in 1837-1841 and then returned to England.

In February 1837, Albany newspapers reported and welcomed the rumor of Russell's decision to become a permanent resident:
"We have great pleasure in announcing the arrival in this city of Mr. HENRY RUSSELL, the justly celebrated composer and vocalist. We understand it is his intention to become a resident, and to establish a musical institution amongst us, which shall be worthy of his reputation, and of the capital of the state.” --Albany Daily Advertiser (February 23, 1837), quoted approvingly in the Albany Argus, Friday, February 24, 1837.
The Albany Female Academy sponsored Russell, after Trustees
“resolved to appropriate the Chapel of their Academy, at such times as it may not be required for the ordinary exercises of the institution, to the use of a school, or ACADEMY OF MUSIC, and have guaranteed to Mr. Russell such compensation for his services as has induced him to determine to remain with us, in the full confidence that they will be sustained by their fellow citizens in this enterprize, and that they shall be suffered to sustain no pecuniary loss.”  --Albany Argus, February 1837
As announced in the Argus, Russell ("with whose rich melody our citizens are always charmed") gave a concert on the Fourth of July, 1837 "at the Female Academy, North pearl-street." Herman Melville's sister Augusta Melville was enrolled that year in the Second Department of the Albany Female Academy. Herman himself was in and out of Albany that year, working over the summer at his uncle's farm in Pittsfield, then teaching for a term in the Sikes District School. The proposed Academy of Music was never realized, as recalled in the Albany Evening Journal, December 23, 1837.

In September 1837 one reviewer in Albany criticized Russell for the "idle comic songs" in his repertoire.
Mr. RUSSELL’S Concert, last evening, went off admirably. The large hall of the Institute was filled with a highly fashionable audience. The interest produced by Mr. R’s singing is as fresh and exciting as when he first appeared among us. On this occasion, he was assisted by Professor ANDREWS and Mr. UNDERNER, whose Violin and Flute solos were delightfully executed. Mr. RUSSELL was himself in fine voice and gave several of his best pieces with the happiest effect. He is indeed a most gifted singer. Few melodists, like him, have the power, for a whole evening, to keep an audience entranced with emotion and delight.

But Mr. R., in our judgment, is acquiring one injurious habit. His comic songs are in bad taste. He destroys the effect and mars the beauty of his great powers, by descending from the touching sweetness of “The Old English Gentleman,” the rich, rolling melody of “The Bare Old Oak,” the thrilling interest of the “Wind of the Winter’s Night,” and above all, the sublimity of the “Sceptic’s Lament,” down to the light, vapid, senseless nothings which he too frequently introduces. These idle comic songs are unworthy of Mr. R.’s voice and powers. And besides, we can hear them better sung at the Theatres, the Circus and the Museum.
To mistake its forte, however, is one of the infirmities of genius. GARRICK, the soul of comedy, always had a passion for the tragic muse.— JOHN QUINCY ADAMS, the ablest prose writer in America, runs into the folly of perpetrating doggerels which all but disgrace him. Mr. RUSSELL, in the kindest manner, volunteered several songs last Evening, but they were all calculated to undervalue his genius. His admirers are from the intellectual classes, and cannot be interested with trifles and frivolity. They want the gold without the dross. --Albany Evening Journal, Wednesday, September 13, 1837
The closing aesthetic judgement of John Quincy Adams and his weakness for "perpetrating doggerels" sheds light on Melville's marginal comment in his Milton volume. Annotating Milton's reference to Caesar's abandoned tragedy of Ajax in the preface to Samson Agonistes, Melville wrote
 "J. Q. A. might have followed his example."  --Melville's Marginalia Online
As the unsigned review of Henry Russell's concert shows, JQA's "folly" of versifying was already a staple of cultural criticism in Melville's Albany by September 1837.

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