Singing Soldiers: Military Musicians and English Opera

By Eamonn O’Keeffe, written January 2019

Faced with the existential threat of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, Britons bore arms on an impressive scale between 1793 and 1815, with more than one in five able-bodied men in full- or part-time service by 1805.[1] The expansion of the regular army and proliferation of auxiliary corps generated unparalleled demand for military musicians, providing boys and young men from humble backgrounds with new opportunities to develop musical skills. Many veterans of this wartime ‘musical armed nation’ became professional performers, composers and music instructors after discharge, enriching cultural life in the United Kingdom and the wider British empire.

Examples of civilian musicians who began their careers in the armed forces are legion (and the topic of much of my PhD research). This article opens by examining the life of one such martial minstrel, John Sinclair, to illustrate the legacies of Napoleonic-era mass mobilization for British musical culture before exploring the military connections of other nineteenth-century musical celebrities.

John Sinclair was born near Edinburgh in 1791, the son of either a cotton-spinner or a “respectable tradesman”, depending on the source.[2] He displayed precocious interest in music and theatre as a child and ultimately joined the band of one of Edinburgh’s part-time volunteer corps. Sinclair soon became a proficient performer, attracting “general admiration” for his abilities on both the flute and clarinet. John Campbell of Shawfield, Colonel of the Argyllshire Militia and a musical amateur himself, was keen to add the accomplished Sinclair to his own regimental band; he eventually succeeded in securing the teenager’s services under “the most liberal” terms.[3]

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Thomas Rowlandson’s Review of the Northamptonshire Militia at Brackley (Yale Center for British Art)

Sinclair’s talents made a considerable impression during his subsequent posting in Aberdeen. As one eyewitness later recalled, after the Argyllshire militia band played the regiment to church on Sundays, Sinclair would approach the precentor’s desk – “in his military dress of course” – and lead the congregation in song “in a peculiarly delightful manner”.[4] His local reputation soon established, Sinclair began moonlighting as a music instructor; he taught singing “in most of the principal families” of the city and ultimately purchased his discharge from the army to devote himself to freelance teaching and performance full-time.[5] In the summer of 1810, Sinclair decided to try his luck on the London stage.

The Scotsman soon achieved metropolitan renown as a tenor, performing initially at the Haymarket Theatre and then for several seasons at Covent Garden, debuting there in September 1811 as Don Carlos in Sheridan and Linley’s comic opera The Duenna. On tour, Sinclair received provincial plaudits at Bath, Bristol, Liverpool, and Edinburgh, and visited Dublin in 1814, where newspapers pronounced him “a singer of very first rate talents.”[6] He also married Catharine Norton, the daughter of a deceased Royal Scots captain, in 1816.[7]

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John Sinclair, 1811 (National Galleries Scotland)

Determined to visit Italy to further hone his skills, Sinclair left for the Continent in 1819, studying under accomplished musicians in Paris and Milan before taking lessons from Gioachino Rossini, “the Italian Mozart”, in Naples in 1821. The following year Sinclair performed, mostly in Rossini’s operas, in Pisa, Bologna, Modena and Florence, besides singing for the Russian and Austrian emperors in Venice.[8] In November 1823 he returned to the London stage as Prince Orlando in Thomas Dibdin’s opera The Cabinet, his voice and singing style “decidedly improved” by his continental sojourn, making him “a greater favourite with the public, if possible, than he was before his departure.”[9]

But not all critics were so enamoured by Sinclair’s crooning. According to an acerbic 1826 review in the London Magazine: “Of all the bad singers of the day, and we have a lot of them, he is about the most tasteless and afflicting.” Although once “rather a pleasing ballad singer”, Sinclair had “returned from Italy with nothing but noise and mannerism.” The reviewer ended his tirade by censuring the British public at large for poor taste![10]

Such criticism was clearly unrepresentative of public opinion, however, and Sinclair’s “sweet and pure” voice, along with his “singularly fine falsetto”, continued to delight London audiences at Covent Garden, Drury Lane and the Adelphi theatre through the late 1820s.[11] Sinclair visited the United States in 1830-31, performing in New York and Philadelphia, and also found time to compose several Scottish ballads, including “The Mountain Maid” and “Hey the bonnie breast knots”. On retiring from the stage, Sinclair moved to Margate, a seaside resort town in Kent, and became proprietor of the “picturesque and enchanting” Tivoli Pleasure Gardens, a popular venue for balls and concerts replete with landscaped promenades, fountains, an ornamental lake and a bowling green.[12] He died in 1857.[13]

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Tivoli Pleasure Gardens, 1830s (Margate Local History)
Charles Mackay, c.1854 (National Galleries Scotland)

John Sinclair is an excellent example of a musician trained in the army who later achieved fame in show business, but his story is not even unique in his regiment. Charles Mackay (1787-1857), another alumnus of the Argyllshire Militia band, initially struggled as a comic singer and small-time actor but found fame playing Bailie Nicol Jarvie in Isaac Pocock’s operatic dramatization of Sir Walter Scott’s 1818 novel Rob Roy.[14] This ex-military bandsman became a key figure in the nineteenth-century development of ‘National Drama’, a distinctively Scottish theatrical genre that helped renew appreciation for Caledonian history and culture. His portrayal of the Bailie, a caricature of a Lowland gentleman, proved wildly popular and impressed even Scott himself, who urged London friends to go see Mackay’s performance at Covent Garden in 1821, “for I am not sure I ever saw any thing in my life possessing so much truth and comic effect”.[15] Though Mackay went on to receive plaudits for a range of roles, he continued to double as the Bailie for decades; in February 1852 Mackay was said to be giving his 1,134th performance as the character.[16]

The palpable impact of the mass mobilization on cultural life was no secret to contemporaries. On 6 June 1842, The Salisbury and Winchester Journal published a list of fourteen distinguished singers and instrumentalists (including John Sinclair) who had served in the armed forces during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, adding: ‘Numerous other vocalists, from the militia regiments, have risen owing to their superior singing.’

Several leading lights of the nineteenth-century British operatic scene also benefited from early exposure to the Napoleonic-era ‘musical armed nation’. Michael William Balfe (1808-1870), the son of an Irish dancing instructor, was enthralled by the music of an infantry band stationed in Wexford and profited from the mentorship of its master, a Mr Meadows. The precocious Balfe supposedly composed a fine polacca for Meadows’s band at age six and certainly gave his first public violin performance in Dublin aged nine.[17] Balfe grew up to be a distinguished composer, conductor and opera singer; his best-known work, The Bohemian Girl (1843) was translated into Italian, French and German and became the only nineteenth-century English opera to achieve truly international renown.[18]

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William Vincent Wallace, 1853 (National Gallery of Ireland)

One of Balfe’s most illustrious contemporaries, Waterford-born William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865), was the son of Spencer Wallace, a North Mayo Militia fifer who later became bandmaster of the 29th Foot. Tutored by his father in music, the young William briefly served in the 29th himself in the mid-1820s alongside his brother, Wellington, before all three Wallaces purchased their discharges to avoid being posted to Mauritius. While still a teenager, William served as a violinist in the Dublin Theatre Royal orchestra, taught music at the Ursuline convent in Thurles, Co. Tipperary and featured as a supporting act to Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. Although mid-nineteenth-century biographers partly ascribed Wallace’s impressive precocity to his innate abilities, they also highlighted the head start provided by his martial musical upbringing: Wallace, “though a young leader” at fifteen, was already “an old musician.”[19]

The Wallace family decamped to Australia in 1835, performing in Sydney concerts and establishing the continent’s first music school soon after arriving.  Dubbed “the Australian Paganini” for his instrumental talents, William Vincent imported pianos and organized Sydney’s first music festival in 1838 but fled to Valparaiso soon after to escape debts of almost £2000.[20] The globetrotting Wallace subsequently toured South America and the United States, participating in the inaugural concerts of the New York Philharmonic Society before returning to Europe and achieving fame with his 1845 opera Maritana.[21]

John Sims Reeves (1818-1900), the foremost English tenor of the mid-Victorian era, was born in post-war Woolwich to a Royal Artillery bandsman who had first enlisted in the marines in 1809.[22] Paternal piano lessons (accompanied by raps across the knuckle for false notes) commenced at a predictably early age.[23] Although Reeves did not end up enlisting as a military musician as had initially been planned, the vocal and instrumental skills honed through early immersion in a martial musical milieu proved an invaluable foundation for his illustrious singing career, highlights of which included acclaimed performances in the operas of Balfe and Berlioz. Such was his contemporary celebrity that H.G. Farmer, in his 1904 history of the Royal Artillery Band, refrained from enumerating Reeves’ accomplishments altogether as “his fame is known to every intelligent lover of song” in “all English-speaking lands.”[24]

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John Sims Reeves, 1863 (National Portrait Gallery)

However, although admired in their lifetimes, Wallace, Reeves and Balfe have been largely forgotten today, their operatic achievements overshadowed by the comic juggernaut of Gilbert and Sullivan. Yet by this point it should be no surprise that the musical half of this late Victorian duo, Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900), also boasted military connections.[25] His Irish grandfather, a labourer born in Co. Kerry, fought in the 57th Foot during the Peninsular War and later served with the 66th garrisoning Saint Helena, Napoleon’s island prison.[26] Arthur’s father, Thomas junior, entered the Royal Military Asylum in Chelsea, established to educate soldiers’ sons, in June 1814 at age nine and received musical training. He served in the military band at Royal Military College, Sandhurst from 1820 to 1834, and following a lacklustre stint as a civilian music teacher and theatre orchestra clarinettist, returned to RMC as sergeant-bandmaster in 1845.[27] Arthur Sullivan later emphasized the importance of his Sandhurst upbringing for his subsequent career: “I was intensely interested in all that the band did, and learnt to play every wind instrument, with which I formed not merely a passing acquaintance, but a real, lifelong, intimate friendship… In this way I learnt in the best possible way how to write for an orchestra.”[28]

Clearly, many leading figures of the nineteenth-century British musical and theatrical scenes were indebted to the armed forces for all or part of their training, having either served themselves or benefited from the guidance of enlisted mentors and family members during their formative years. As the examples of Sinclair, Mackay, Wallace and others demonstrate, Napoleonic-era mass mobilization expanded considerably the musical opportunities available to a generation of working-class boys and young men, invigorating and democratizing music-making in Britain, Ireland and the wider Anglophone world.

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Arthur Sullivan, 1888 (National Portrait Gallery)

In their 1879 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan memorably satirized a “modern major-general”, who though well-versed in classics, history, music and mathematics was deficient in matters of basic military knowledge. Yet as Sullivan’s own family history suggests, one notable form of extracurricular indulgence by the Napoleonic-era army – the obsessive pursuit of ever-larger and louder martial ensembles – provided the sponsorship necessary to enable ordinary men to pursue extraordinary musical careers.

[1] J.E. Cookson, British Armed Nation, 1793-1815 (Oxford, 1997), 95.
[2] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) entry by J.C. Hadden, rev. A.P. Baker; The Theatrical Inquisitor, Or, Monthly Mirror (London, 1814), vol IV, 67.
[3] Ibid.
[4] London Magazine, September to December 1826 (London, 1826), vol VI, 86.
[5] J. Sainsbury, A Dictionary of Musicians (London, 1824), vol II, 438.
[6] The Theatrical Inquisitor, Or, Monthly Mirror (London, 1814), vol IV, 70-71; T.J. Walsh, Opera in Dublin 1798-1820: Frederick Jones and the Crow Street Theatre (Oxford, 1993), 147.
[7] The Edinburgh Annual Register for 1816 (Edinburgh, 1820), vol IX, parts I and II, cccccxii [512].
[8] Grove Music Online entry by W.H. Husk and J. Warrack; Sainsbury, A Dictionary of Musicians, vol II, 439.
[9] Ibid; W.T. Parke, Musical Memoirs: comprising an account of the general state of music in England (London, 1830), vol II, 193.
[10] London Magazine, September to December 1826 (London, 1826), vol VI, 86.
[11] D. Baptie, Musical Scotland, Past and Present, being a Dictionary of Scottish Musicians (Paisley, 1894), 170; ODNB.
[12] E.G. Burton, Hand-book & Companion to Ramsgate, Margate, Broadstairs, Kingsgate, Minster… (Ramsgate, [1859]), 38-39.
[13] Although John died in 1857, his daughter Catherine (1817-1891) continued the family’s association with show business across the Atlantic, having married prominent American actor Edwin Forrest. Despite receiving a musical education, Catherine had no plans to perform until the costs of her scandalous and widely-reported divorce trial obliged her to monetize her newfound notoriety by taking to the New York stage in 1852. Her tabloid celebrity, a bigger draw than her mediocre talents, ensured a profitable debut. However, Catherine’s spirited eighteenth-month run as manager of San Francisco’s Metropolitan Theatre, despite drawing on the talents of her sister Margaret and a young Edwin Booth (the brother of Lincoln’s assassin), was doomed to insolvency. After further performances in Australia and London, she retired in 1860, living quietly until her death in 1891. See J.K. Curry, Nineteenth-century American Women Theatre Managers (Westport, Conn., 1994), 41-44; A. Rubenstein, “Sinclair, Catherine Norton” in J.B. Litoff and J. McDonnell (eds), European Immigrant Women in the United States: A Biographical Dictionary (New York, 1994), 283; R. Moody, “Forrest, Catherine Norton Sinclair” in E.T. James, J.W. James and P.S. Boyer (eds), Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), vol I, 646-7.
[14] B. Bell, “The Nineteenth Century” in B. Findlay, ed., A History of Scottish Theatre (Edinburgh, 1998), 152; R.S. Mackenzie, Sir Walter Scott: The Story of His Life (Boston, 1871), 275.
[15] J.G. Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (Philadelphia, 1837), vol II, 229.
[16] B. Bell, “The Nineteenth Century”, 154.
[17] W.A. Barrett, Balfe: His Life and Work (London, 1882), 17-18; Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Political Journal, (July-December 1851), vol 38, 66; Men of the Time: Biographical Sketches of Eminent Living Characters (London, 1857), 40.
[18] ODNB entry by Clive Brown.
[19] “William Vincent Wallace”, Monthly literary miscellany ([Detroit], 1852), vols VI-VII, 170-1.
[20] C. Mackerras, “Wallace, William Vincent”, Australian Dictionary of Biography; Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 17 February 1838, 2. See also D. Grant, “William Vincent Wallace and Music in Australia” in L.M. Geary and A.J. McCarthy, eds., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand: history, politics and culture (Dublin, 2008) and G. Skinner, “William Vincent Wallace and family”, Australharmony.
[21] Mackerras, “Wallace, William Vincent”, Australian Dictionary of Biography; David Grant, “William Vincent Wallace”, Dictionary of Irish Biography.
[22] UK National Archives (TNA), WO 97/1257/193, pension record of John Sims Reeves (Senior). See also ODNB entry by George Biddlecombe.
[23] J.S. Reeves, My Jubilee or Fifty Years of Artistic Life (London, [1889]), 4.
[24] H.G. Farmer, Memoirs of the Royal Artillery Band (London, 1904), 76.
[25] Sullivan composed the music while W.S. Gilbert wrote the libretti or text.
[26] M. Ainger, Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography (Oxford, 2002), 6-9; TNA, WO 97/796/121, pension record of Thomas Sullivan.
[27] Ainger, Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, 22-24.
[28] A. Sullivan in T.P. O’Connor (ed), In the Days of My Youth (London, 1901), 86-87.