Henry Russell

henry-russellHenry Russell (December 24, 1812 – December 8, 1900)

Henry Russell was born in Sheerness, Kent, in the South of England, during the year 1812. Russell was a pianist, singer and composer. He was born into a Jewish family, and was dedicated to music from a very young age, and started learning piano from the age of six. When he was a young boy, he started his singing career in Elliston’s Children’s Opera Company. At 14 he studied at the Bologna Conservatoire, and studied under Rossini in Naples.

At the age of 22, in the year 1826, Russell travelled to America, where his career as a musician really excelled. Here Russell composed his famous pieces such as, ‘Cheer boys, Cheer’ ; ‘There’s a good time coming, boys’ and ‘A life on the Ocean Wave.’ In 1842 he returned home to England and took up an artist residency at the Hanover Square Rooms in London, which brought him even more success than before. During his time performing at the Hanover Square rooms, Russell introduced American Negro plantation songs to the English audience.


Musical Style and Influences

Henry Russell’s musical style was that of Parlor songs; Songs of much popularity in nineteenth century America. They consisted of simple piano accompaniment, with a narrow range of vocals. His songs dealt with issues such as abolition, mental health and mental asylums in America at the time.

He was highly influenced by both Italian Opera, and Sacred music. His songs have since been adapted into big band and symphony orchestra scores, for instance, ‘A life on the ocean wave,’ played by the Band of HM Royal Marines.


What was Henry Russell Known For?

The Music of Henry Russell

Henry Russell’s music is descriptive, lyrical, and very popular at the time. His most famous song, Life on the Ocean Wave, which we will talk about in the next section was so immensely popular at the time that it sold thousands of copies in the first year it was published.

Russell’s music is known for its vocalistic and guitar oriented approach to writing, taking poems and turning them into operatic masterpieces or just simple popular tunes of the day. His music was also influenced by his genius on the piano, as he would often sit down and amaze his audience with his abilities.


Henry Russell’s Most Famous Works

Russell’s most infamous song was ‘A Life on the Ocean wave,’ which references a poem written by Epes Sargent. The song details the scene of walking along The Battery in New York City, while ships are entering the harbor. This song represents the Anglo-American connection that Henry Russell’s music embodies; It is now the official march of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and is utilized regularly within the British Navy.

Many of Russell’s lyrics were co-written by Charles Mackay. Here is a list of some of his notable songs that were cowritten by Mackay:

  • To The West
  • There’s a Good Time Coming
  • Hutchinson Family Singers
  • Cheer, Boys, Cheer

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