Barnett, John (1802-1890) (DNB01)

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BARNETT, JOHN (1802–1890), musical composer, born at Bedford on 15 July 1802, was the eldest son of a German, Bernhard Beer, and of an Hungarian mother. The opera composer, Meyer Beer, was his second cousin. During the long residence of the Beers in England they changed their name to Barnett.

Barnett, 'when a tiny boy, sang like a bird' (Diehl, Musical Memories), and, at the age of ten, was articled to Samuel James Arnold [q. v.] Barnett made his first appearance at the Lyceum, on 22 July 1813, as Dick in 'The Shipwreck,' and at Drury Lane in the winter pantomime, when he sang 'The Death of Abercrombie.' The sweetness and strength of his contralto and his command of voice were remarkable in a boy of eleven. Barnett continued to sing until 1817. By this time his voice must have broken, and he definitely left the stage. Early studies under Horn and the chorus-master, Price, were now supplemented by lessons from Perez, organist to the Spanish embassy, Ferdinand Ries, Kalkbrenner, William Horsley, and, later, Schneider von Wartensee at Frankfort.

Before 1818 Barnett had composed a mass and published songs; of the latter, 'The Groves of Pomona,' a grand scena, was sung by Braham. In these early attempts Barnett's strength, of talent and vein of poetic feeling were at once recognised, and he was advised to cultivate the higher branches of his art (Quarterly Musical Magazine, 1821-8, passim). His music to Wolfe's 'Not a Drum was heard,' had extraordinary merit; but he first won popularity through 'The Light Guitar,' sung by Madame Vestris. Henceforward he produced songs and ballads with surprising facility, some of the most melodious of them ('Rise, gentle Moon,' 'My Fatherland,' and others) being composed for the plays with music then in vogue. For the Lyceum, and especially for the Olympic, where Barnett was musical director in 1832, he composed a number of musical farces.

This inartistic employment wearied a musician of the calibre of Barnett, whose aim it became to wed music to poetry in true dramatic form, and whose ambition seems to have been to write a national English opera. But his 'Mountain Sylph,' which was produced at the Lyceum on 25 Aug. 1834, was written under the inspiration of legendary forest magi and mountain spectres belonging to Germany. It met nevertheless with the earnest commendation of contemporary critics, and after sixty yeai's compels admiration.

The traditional English romance of 'Fair Rosamond,' on the other hand, afforded Barnett a subject which might have awakened lasting national interest. His opera on the subject was produced at Drury Lane on 28 Feb. 1837. But the librettists perversely reduced the story to the level of burlesque. The melodies and recitatives after the style of Purcell, and the orchestration modelled on that of Weber, were wasted upon an absurd straining after 'a happy end' (cf. Musical World, March 1837, pp. 172, 188). Subsequently Barnett opened St. James's Theatre for English opera, but he achieved there little success. His consultations with Bishop, Rodwell, and others on the best means of reforming opera resulted in the promise of a patent for the establishment of English opera from William IV, who, however, died immediately afterwards.

Barnett now devoted himself to the teaching of singing (publishing in 1844 a 'School for the Voice,' which showed his mastery of that subject) and the composing of songs, part-songs, and instrumental music. These, when set to poetry, were generally distinguished by a tender yet virile strain of melody, but in the case of many of his two thousand pieces he had to be content with humdrum 'words for music'

After a residence for several years from 1840 onwards at Cheltenham, Barnett withdrew to the greater quiet of the Cotswolds. He died on 16 April 1890, in his eighty-eighth year. He was buried at Leckhampton, near Cheltenham. He married in 1837 the youngest daughter of Robert Lindley [q. v.], the violoncellist. She survived him until February 1899. Of their children, two daughters, who formerly sang under the names of Rosmunda and Clara Doria, are now Mrs. R. E. Francillon and Mrs. Henry M. Rogers. A portrait in oils of Barnett at the age of thirty-seven was painted by a French artist, and is now in the possession of Mrs. R. E. Francillon, and another painting by Sydney Paget belongs to his son, Mr. Eugene Barnett; an engraved portrait is given in Athol Mayhew's 'Jorum of Punch.'

Barnett's operas are: 1. 'The Mountain Sylph,' produced and published 1834, revived 1836. 2. 'Fair Rosamond,' 28 Feb. 1837. 3. 'Farinelli,' 8 Feb. 1839. 4. 'Kathleen,' unpublished. He also published an oratorio, 'The Omnipresence of the Deity,' 1830. A long list of songs, duets, part-songs, pieces, and musical farces is supplied in Brown's 'Biographical Dictionary' and Brown and Stratton's 'Musicians.'

[European Mag. 1813, p. 46; Theatrical Inquisitor, 1813, passim; Biograph, vi. 455; Diehl's Musical Memories, p. 298; Davey's Hist. of English Music, pp. 463-6; Grove's Dict. of Music, i. 140, 489; private information; authorities cited.]

L. M. M.