Who was Mr Frobisher?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that digging around old documents can result in 1) deteriorating vision, 2) discovering lost Vivaldi manuscripts or, in my case, 3) finding interesting stories and getting a bit dusty.  A scrapbook I’ve been listing during my voluntary work with the West Yorkshire Archive Service has proven interesting material and piqued my scholarly curiosity.  You can read more about the particular item here, but I want to write today about a person whose name is emblazoned on many of the concert programmes and posters I have listed, yet remained elusive…

Who was Mr Frobisher?  Poster after poster lists his name, a silent reference to his musical skill and dedicated service:

‘Conductor, Mr. Frobisher’

‘Organ, Mr. Frobisher’

‘Leader and Conductor, Mr. Frobisher’

‘Mr. Frobisher will preside at the piano’

I began to wonder who exactly was this Mr. Frobisher?  Why did he crop up again and again?  And just exactly how many times did the poor man have to play Handel’s Messiah?

Joseph H. Frobisher was the organist of Halifax Parish Church, 1838-1862.[1]  I have attempted to trace him further, however it appears there was an entire Frobisher clan in the West Riding in the nineteenth century!  I would propose that the most likely candidate is one Joseph Henry Frabisher (a not insurmountable variation of the surname), christened 26 December 1813 in Halifax, son of Richard and Elizabeth Frabisher.[2] Since he must have been at least 20 years old upon taking up the church organist post, a christening date around 1818 makes sense.

He first turns up in the Halifax scrapbook at a benefit concert in 1834 and appears regularly thereafter in concert with various local choral societies and other groups.[3]  He gave two concerts in 1844 and 1845, not as a soloist but more as an organizer/conductor, judging from the programme for the second ‘dress concert’.  This included three orchestral overtures (Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1, 1st movement served as an overture) and instrumental and vocal solo music by, among others, Charles de Beriot, Shield, Mozart and Weber.  From the scrapbook, it seems that Frobisher led a portfolio-style career that may have been typical of a professional musician in provincial, nineteenth-century Yorkshire, though I will defer to my Victorian musicologist colleagues on this point.  Still Frobisher’s ‘steady job’ was at Halifax Parish Church, and he obviously was actively picking up freelance accompanying work with the various local choral societies, and occasionally staging a concert of his own.

An interesting performance practice point is the seemingly interchangeable use of the terms ‘leader’ and ‘conductor’ in the concert programmes.  Conductors, in the modern sense (directing the choir or orchestra from the front with a baton), did not emerge until the 1830s.  Previously the performers were led by the first violinist (now termed leader or concertmaster) or from the keyboard.[4]  It would seem that the usage we see here indicates that Mr. Frobisher led from the keyboard.  However based on the speed with which provincial Yorkshire performed newly composed repertoire, he may also have taken to the new trend of conducting from the front.[5]

Finally, in case you were wondering, the Messiah count stands at: 15.  The period covered by the scrapbook when Frobisher was active, 1834-1869, means that he was involved in a Messiah performance about every two years, usually around Christmas.

Some other Frobisher oratorio performance tallies for lagniappe (Louisiana term meaning something extra):

Other Handel oratorios = 44

Haydn The Creation = 12

Hadyn The Seasons = 7

Mendelssohn St. Paul = 10

Mendelssohn Elijah = 4

N.B. I’m no statistician, so my tally numbers are approximate and do not always indicate a performance of the complete work. If a work was part of a ‘mash-up’ concert (i.e. a concert combining songs from many works usually Handel oratorios) the entire programme was counted just once.


[1] Nicholas Temperley, ‘Chetham, John’,  Oxford Music OnlineOxford University Press <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/05544&gt; [28 Jun 2013].

[2] ‘Joseph Henry Frabisher, 26 Dec 1813’ in ‘England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975’, FamilySearch <https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/J3K9-WP5&gt; [28 Jun 2013].  University of Huddersfield also holds a collection of papers from the Frobisher family.

[3] GB-Calderdale, West Yorkshire Archive Service, WYC Misc 514/1, p. 9ff.

[4] Clive Brown, ‘Leader’, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/16178&gt; [20 Jul 2013]. Brown points out that in operatic performances before the mid-nineteenth century it was common for the keyboardist to direct the singers, whilst the leader looked after the orchestra. We await Peter Holman’s forthcoming book Before the baton: conducting and musical direction in Georgian Britain for further insight.

[5] The Halifax Orchestral Society, under Mr. Frobisher’s leadership, performed Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul in May 1837 only one year after it premiered in Düsseldorf, and again in 1840 with some of the singers for whom Mendelssohn originially conceived the parts.

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