If you read my piece on the composer Henry Rowley Bishop, you will remember that his most famous melody started life as a song in the opera Clari, or, The Maid of Milan. That song is the lovely “Home, Sweet Home”. The opera was given its first London performance in 1823 at Covent Garden, and it enjoyed great popularity and a long life. When it was revived in the autumn of 1836 at Drury Lane, the conductor was one Frederick Nicholls Crouch, which is a curious fact, because Crouch, like Bishop, was the composer of a remarkably successful and enduring song, namely “Kathleen Mavourneen”.
If, like me, you are fond of Irish ballads, you will be familiar with Crouch’s beautiful and poignant song. I doubt that you will ever hear a finer rendition than that of the great tenor John McCormack, which can be accessed here, complete with a patina of crackles. McCormack had a warm and lyrical voice, and his authentic Irish accent—he hailed from County Westmeath—brought an unforgettable and inimitable emotional intensity to his performances of the song.
Crouch’s story is a fascinating one, and I make no apologies for giving him a place on this website. After all, although he lived in America for many years, and died there, he started life in London. And then I suspect that his name is not well known, even in music history circles. So I would ask you to accept that he is an overlooked Londoner—just!—and to read on.
ON THE BANKS OF THE TAMAR
Frederick Nicholls Crouch—full name Frederick William Nicholls Crouch—was the son of William Frederick and Anna Maria Crouch. He was born in Warren Street off Tottenham Court Road on the 31st of July 1808, and was baptised in St Pancras Old Church in Somers Town on the 24th of September. His family was musical on his father’s side—William Frederick was a cellist with a number of published compositions to his credit—and he was seen to be talented from an early age. Tradition has it that he was only nine when he started playing the double bass in the orchestra of the Royal Coburg Theatre. Thereafter he studied under distinguished teachers, and won a coveted place at the Royal Academy of Music, and along with other achievements he performed at the coronation of William IV in 1831, and was appointed to Queen Adelaide’s private band.
Crouch’s association with the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane has already been touched on, and it should be added here that he was the principal cellist as well as a conductor. But his life was not always so single-mindedly devoted to music. At one point in his younger years he had been obliged to earn a living as an ordinary seaman on the coastal smacks that operated between London and Leith. In his twenties he went into business with Charles Pearce Chapman, a zinc merchant with offices on Cornhill in London and a rolling mill at Dartford in Kent, where they manufactured materials for roofing and shipbuilding. The partnership was dissolved in 1835, but not before Messrs Chapman and Crouch were credited with contributing to the development of zincography, an engraving process in which lithographic stones were replaced with zinc plates.
And it was to return to music that Crouch bade farewell to manufacturing. He had travelled down to Devon to drum up interest in Chapman’s zinc business, and when he heard that his partnership had come to nothing he decided to stay in Plymouth, where he performed before the genteel audience in the concert hall. And one day, while riding on horseback along the banks of the River Tamar, he had an idea for a melody that would go well with a poem that he had read, the title of which was “Kathleen Mavourneen”.
Back in Plymouth Crouch sang “Kathleen Mavourneen” to a friend by the name of Catherine Rowe. She pushed him into performing the song at a concert organised by her husband, Peter Ellison Rowe, who was a music teacher and publisher. In the end Crouch sold the song to D’Almaine & Co. of Soho Square, but not before Mrs Rowe had persuaded him to give her a copy of the manuscript, which her husband went and published behind his back.
The poem that Crouch set to music had been sent to him in Plymouth by its author, Louisa Matilda Jane Montagu, who then published it in the Metropolitan Magazine in 1835. The Montagus were a prominent Wiltshire family who had fallen into debt, and Louisa concealed her origins by writing under the name “Mrs Crawford”, which she had acquired on her marriage to a London barrister. Over the years she wrote a considerable number of poems and songs, but the Metropolitan claimed that she had written “Kathleen Mavourneen” in about 1802 when she was only thirteen years old.
In the years that followed Crouch wrote twelve volumes of songs and two operas. Then in 1849, at the age of forty-one, he accepted an invitation to work with the composer and impresario Max Maretzec in America, an enterprise that ultimately fizzled out. He taught music in Portland in Maine for seven years before moving on in the hope that his luck might turn, eventually settling in Richmond in Virginia after stints in Philadelphia and Washington.
THE OLD IRISH TONALITY
There is a story about a musical party in New York, where the company of singers included the eminent contralto Adelaide Phillipps. The amateur singers tried their best with challenging passages of opera. But
when it came to the great opera-singer’s turn, instead of exhibiting her ability to eclipse those rivals on her own ground, she simply seated herself at the piano, and sang “Kathleen Mavourneen” with such thrilling sweetness, that the young Irish girl who was setting the supper-table in the next room forgot all her plates and teaspoons, threw herself into a chair, put her apron over her face, and sobbed as if her heart would break.
Sadly, we are not told what it was in the song that so affected the young girl. Was it the memory of a lover from whom she was parted? Was she weeping for one who had loved her but had died, as Gretta, stirred by another Irish song, The Lass of Aughrim, wept for Michael Furey in James Joyce’s beautiful story “The Dead”? Was she simply homesick, yearning for her native Ireland? The lyrics of “Kathleen Mavourneen” are affecting in so many ways, especially when sung in “the old Irish tonality”—Joyce again—of a McCormack.
The song’s popularity in America must clearly be seen in relation to emigration from Ireland at the time of the Great Famine. The Irish soprano Catherine Hayes made a point of including it in her sensational transatlantic concert tours, which made it widely known and loved in the early 1850s. Inevitably it was imitated, and in 1865 a playwright by the name of William Travers even wrote a Kathleen Mavourneen, or, St Patrick’s Eve, a “domestic Irish drama” in four acts. Nor did the song escape the attention of the newspaper wits, and in 1849 the Newry Telegraph declared that the second line—“The horn of the hunter is heard on the hill”—had been written
for the express purpose of confounding the Cockney warblers, who sing it thus: “The orn of the unter is eard on the ill”.
SCRATCHING A LIVING
But nothing did more to promote the song than the American Civil War. Many thousands of Irish soldiers fought in the ranks of the Union Army, and the shared experience of conflict sharpened their collective sense of attachment to the country of their birth. There was even an Irish Brigade, which sustained more losses than any other army unit. Crouch played his part in the war, although it is ironic that the man who had written the music for the quintessential Irish ballad fought not with the Unionists but with the Confederates.
Virginia, where Crouch was living when hostilities broke out in 1861, was one of the eleven southern states that had voted to secede. Although at the time he was in his fifties, and therefore legally too old to enlist, he served first with the Richmond Greys, and later with the Richmond Howitzers. The conflict brought him to his knees. He sustained not only physical injury—“I left the battlefields with three broken ribs and my right hand badly mashed”—but also financial hardship. Having exchanged a professor’s salary of four thousand dollars a year for a soldier’s pay of twelve dollars a month—which he claimed he never even received—he was now forced to scratch a living as best he could. He moved around with his family in tow, but eventually, at the age of seventy-five, he settled in Baltimore, where he had sent all his belongings many years previously, intending to sail to California. Now all was gone, his library and his musical manuscripts reduced to ashes by the ravages of war.
OLD AND WEATHER-BEATEN
Looking back over a long life—he was well into his eighties when he died in 1896—Crouch questioned his decision to come to America. In a letter to his nephew written shortly before his death he confided his misgivings:
When I made the false step of leaving England for America I literally buried myself, and have been lost to the world ever since. England gave me a reputation and a name; America cremated me.
His private life was turbulent, and having abandoned his first wife, Lydia Pearson, he entered into three further marriages. (One of his sixteen children was the famous courtesan Cora Pearl.) Although he enjoyed recognition, and was awarded honorary titles, he also experienced poverty, and in old age his sight gradually failed him.
There were calls to raise a subscription for the old composer, who, in the words of one newspaper, was living “in an obscure street” in Baltimore. But the most remarkable—and moving—demonstration of affection was surely the petition of James Marion Roche in 1883. Roche had been born in New Ross in County Wexford, and had a passionate attachment to “Kathleen Mavourneen”. Later he went to America, and visited Baltimore, where, quite by chance, he heard about Crouch’s predicament. So distressed was he that he filed a petition in the city court that would entitle him to change his name to James Marion Roche Crouch, his argument being that
by adopting the name of Crouch he can better look after and care for his adopted father in his declining years, and after he is gone his little children can have a brother to look up to and call upon for aid and protection.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of the story is that in the civil war Roche had served with the Union navy, and so he had fought against the man whose lovely music he so admired. Crouch was deeply appreciative, and thanked his benefactor for his “disinterested regard for an old weather-beaten musician”.
A SONG STILL RINGING
In the autumn of 1892 a journalist working for a Toronto newspaper visited the elderly Crouch at his home in Baltimore. He was saddened to find the composer of “the immortal song” living in a mean tenement in Parkin’s Row. The furniture was old and worn, and heaps of music and manuscripts sat unsorted on the piano, which was now rickety with age and use, and covered with a faded green cloth.
At one point in the interview Crouch gave his visitor a photograph of himself. “Soon the old bard will be forgotten,” he said as he signed the back, “and this may be a little reminder that you knew him.” The journalist, sensitive to the mood of the moment, congratulated Crouch on his good health. “Yes, I feel like a fighting cock,” the old man said, “but I have had my day.” And then he recalled a tender tribute that he had recently been paid by the poet James Whitcomb Riley. With its uplifting opening —“Kathleen Mavourneen! The song is still ringing / As fresh and as clear as the trill of the birds”—and its bleak ending—“The old vision dims, and the old heart is breaking: / Oh, why are we silent, Kathleen Mavourneen!”—the poem captures perfectly the melancholy brilliance that was the life of Frederick Nicholls Crouch.
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