Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ella, John

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ELLA, JOHN (1802–1888). violinist and director of concerts, born at Thirsk 19 Dec. 1802, was intended by his father, Richard Ella, for the law; but his instinct for music was too strong to be resisted, and in 1819 he was taught the violin by M. Fémy, with a view to adopting the musical profession. On 18 Jan. 1821 he made his first appearance as a professional musician in the orchestra of Drury Lane Theatre, 'in preference to quill-driving in an attorney's office,' as he tells us in his 'Musical Sketches.' In the following year he was promoted to the band of the King's Theatre; but it was not until 1826, on the completion of his musical education under Attwood, and subsequently under Fétis in Paris, that he took his place as a member of all the important orchestras of London, such as the Philharmonic, the Ancient Concerts, &c. The Saltoun Club of Instrumentalists and the Società Lirica are said to have been founded by him as early as this period of his life. They were intended for the practice and performance of unfamiliar operatic music. He played in the orchestra on the occasion of Weber's funeral, 21 June 1826. About this time he was appointed to a subordinate post at the Royal Academy of Music, and became musical editor of the 'Athenæum' and other papers. In 1830 he seems to have given public concerts under the patronage of the Duke of Leinster (Musical Union Record), He wrote a 'Victoria March' on the occasion of her majesty's first visit to the city, in November 1837, and this is almost his only experiment as a composer. During his frequent journeys to the continent he made the acquaintance of a large number of foreign musical celebrities, and it is no doubt to this that he owed not merely the catholicity of his taste, but also much of the success of the undertaking with which his name is identified. The set of chamber concerts which he inaugurated, under the name of the 'Musical Union,' and which originated in a weekly meeting at his own house, had a most important effect on the public taste, not so much perhaps directly as through its successor, the Popular Concerts. By the formation of an aristocratic committee, and by making the concerts in some measure social gatherings, for which the privilege of membership could only be obtained by personal introduction, he secured for his scheme a prestige which had been enjoyed by no concerts except the Concerts of Ancient Music. It was infinitely to Ella's credit that under such circumstances the standard of the music performed, and that of the performances, for which he alone was responsible, remained so high as it did throughout the thirty-five years of the Musical Union's existence. The programme always contained at least two concerted instrumental works of a high order, and the compositions chosen showed the director to be marvellously free from narrowness in musical taste. The executants were generally artists of established position, many of whom had not appeared before in England. The annual series consisted of eight afternoon concerts given during the season, at first in Willis's Rooms, and a benefit concert for the director, when vocal music, at other times excluded, was allowed to form part of the programme. Two excellent details of arrangement characterised the concerts, viz. the placing of the artists in the middle of the room, with the audience surrounding them, and the introduction of analytical programmes, not the formidable pamphlets which are now issued under that title, but a few pages of explanatory matter, which were printed and sent out to the subscribers a few days before the concert. The undertaking met with such support that a series of evening concerts, at somewhat lower prices, was started in the early part of 1852, under the title of 'Musical Winter Evenings.' In 1858 both sets of concerts were transferred to Hanover Square Rooms, and in the following year to the newly opened St. James's Hall. In the same year, the Monday Popular Concerts having been set on foot, Ella's evening series was given up. A project for founding a Musical Union Institute, broached in September 1860, was insufficiently supported. Its object was to provide, for the use of musicians, a musical library, a collection of instruments, and rooms for lectures, rehearsals, and concerts and for a time the institute was advertised as actually existing at Ella's house, 18 Hanover Square. In 1855 he had been appointed musical lecturer to the London Institution, and the substance of three lectures on melody, harmony, and counterpoint was given in the 'Musical Union Record,' i.e. the analytical programme above referred to. Of the many subsequent series delivered by him one only appears to have been published, a set of four on dramatic music (1872). In 1869 he published 'Musical Sketches Abroad and at Home,' a volume of anecdotes, autobiographical and otherwise, bearing on music. The book ran through two editions, and a third, edited by the author's friend, Mr. John Belcher, was published in 1878. A 'Personal Memoir of Meyerbeer, with Analysis of "Les Huguenots,"' is Ella's only important contribution to musical literature besides those we have mentioned. His title of professor was derived from his post at the London Institution. He was honorary member of the Philharmonic Academy of Rome, and of the Philharmonic Society of Paris. The Musical Union ceased to exist in 1880, when the director gave up active work. For the last twenty years of his life he lived at 9 Victoria Square, London, where he died 2 Oct. 1888, after repeated attacks of paralysis. For some years before his death he had been totally blind. He was buried in Brompton cemetery 5 Oct.

[Musical Sketches at Home and Abroad; Musical Union Record, 1845-73; Grove's Dict. of Music, i. 486, ii. 432; obitiuary notice by Mr. T. L. Southgate in the Musical Standard for 6 Oct. 1888.]

J. A. F. M.