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“Singer for the Million”

“Singer for the Million”

Henry Russell, Popular Song, and the Solo Recital

(p.201) Chapter 10 “Singer for the Million”
London Voices, 1820-1840
Susan Rutherford
University of Chicago Press

The conflict between ideas of authenticity and commercialism features heavily in current discourses on contemporary popular music, but similar tensions can be identified much earlier. This chapter considers the case of the baritone and composer Henry Russell, one of the most prominent and charismatic "London voices" of the mid-nineteenth century in Britain and the United States. An early exemplar of the solo recitalist, Russell combined both music and rich seams of anecdote in his self-accompanied performances. His popular appeal lay in his distinctive, declamatory singing style (adept at bringing life to either a thrilling descriptive scena or a sentimental ballad), and his catchy melodies with their settings of lyrics by poets aligned with radical political movements such as Charles Mackay and Eliza Cook. Dubbed by the press as the “singer for the million” during the peak of Chartism in 1848, Russell illustrates the complexity of notions of authenticity: not simply in personal terms as a Jew who for most of his career obscured his ethnicity, but also the ways in which his voice and songs both sincerely articulated the needs of the oppressed and served to contain social unrest.

Keywords:   Henry Russell, popular song, authenticity, solo recitals, Jewish musicians, Chartism, applause, Eliza Cook, Charles Mackay

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