Charles Farncombe

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Charles Farncombe with the cast of Baroque Encounter's 2005 production of Handel's Parnasso in Festa, Glenn Kesby, Shirley Keane and Carmen Lasok

Charles Frederick Farncombe (29 July 1919 – 30 June 2006) was an English conductor.

For London audiences, the conductor Charles Farncombe was primarily associated with the productions of the Handel Opera Society, which he helped found and of which he was musical director for the whole of its 30-year existence, from 1955 onwards (in 1977 it was renamed Handel Opera). He was subsequently conductor of the fundraising concerts of the Malcolm Sargent Festival Choir. His work outside Britain covered a wider range of repertory, though still with an emphasis on vocal music, while near his home in Monmouthshire he founded and directed an annual festival of music and drama remarkable in its scope.


Farncombe was born in London and received his early musical training as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. He continued his education at Dulwich College and at Imperial College, London, where in 1940 he took a degree in civil engineering. After two years of work in that field with John Mowlem and Co. (involved in the laying of cats' eyes), he saw service in the second world war as captain of a tank recovery unit (21st Army Group) with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. A severe wound received at Caen ended his active involvement and left him with a slight limp, though it never inhibited his subsequent enjoyment of walking and swimming.

During recuperation, Farncombe decided to change to a musical career, taking up the French horn. He returned to Canterbury to study at the Royal School of Church Music (1947–48), and went on to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in London (1948–51). Ralph Vaughan Williams encouraged his aptitude for directing amateur choirs, but it was Edward J Dent, professor of music at Cambridge, who pointed Farncombe towards the then neglected repertory of Handel's operas. With the vital help of the administrative skills of Gwyneth McCleary (secretary of the Board of Trade Choir, which Farncombe then directed), Dent's desire was brought to fruition with a staged production of Handel's Deidamia (in Dent's English translation) at the St Pancras Assembly Rooms, London, on 3 June 1955.

Handel Opera Society[edit]

The Handel Opera Society was then formally established with a view to giving annual productions, which duly followed, with their venue being Sadler's Wells from 1959. Several works were given their first modern revivals – in Britain, if not the world – and Farncombe often had to prepare new performing editions of the music.

Not only operas were covered. Dent drew Farncombe's attention to Winton Dean's advocacy of staging Handel's dramatic oratorios (powerfully expressed in Dean's published study of 1959), which required use of the chorus, and in its early years the society's productions of such works as Semele, Hercules and Theodora were as revelatory as those of the Italian operas.

An important landmark came in 1961, when the London production of Rinaldo was taken abroad, to the Komische Oper in Berlin and the Handel Festival, Halle.

Farncombe was able to engage many of the best singers of the time for leading roles, including Joan Sutherland, Jennifer Vyvyan, Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Elizabeth Harwood, Alexander Young, Richard Lewis and Geraint Evans. Some of the society's productions were taken to other festivals, including Göttingen, Halle, Herrenhausen and Liège. Farncombe's musical direction, though sometimes tending to attract the adjective "efficient", was usually animated without loss of dignity at fast tempos, and he could bring great depth of expression to slower numbers.

Like many pioneering organisations, the Handel Opera Society was to some extent a victim of its own success. As Handel's operas and oratorios became more familiar, critical tolerance of the variable quality of the society's productions diminished, especially after English National Opera's Giulio Cesare set a new benchmark in 1979. The society also ignored the implications of the new approach to "early music" led by period-instrument groups, though Farncombe himself worked with period instruments in some productions for Lina Lalandi's English Bach Festival, including the first modern revival of the 1754 version of Rameau's Castor et Pollux in 1981 (it was recorded by Erato). Little else of his operatic performance legacy is preserved in audio recordings, though the Handel Opera Society's performance of Rodelinda (with Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker) is available on Opera d'Oro.

Thus, the Arts Council's decision to discontinue their annual grant to the society after 1984 was not altogether surprising. The coincident demise of the Greater London Council, the other main source of funding, sealed the society's fate. In its dying days the GLC did, however, provide enough to enable the society to finish its operations in the Handel anniversary year of 1985 with a final novelty: the British premiere of Rodrigo, Handel's first Italian opera.

Outside Britain[edit]

Farncombe's most important appointment outside Britain was that of chief conductor of the historic Royal Court Theatre at Drottningholm, Stockholm, from 1968 to 1979, where he helped to bring that remarkably preserved baroque theatre to working life. His success there, and at the Royal Swedish Opera, gained him the gold medal of the Friends of Drottningholm and appointment Knight Commander of the Order of the Polar Star. He was also conductor of the Handel festival at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe from 1985 to 1995, his experience again valuable in the development of a new venture. In 2001, he was invited to return to Karlsruhe for the 25th anniversary of the Handel festival to conduct Handel's Ottone.

Other appointments[edit]

Farncombe declined an OBE in 1975 but two years later was appointed a CBE.[citation needed] City University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1988. From 1985 he was musical director of the Malcolm Sargent Festival Choir – with whom he diversified into Verdi's Requiem, Berlioz's Grande Messe des Mortes and Rossini's Petite messe solennelle – and, in the 1990s, was a regular conductor at the Komische Oper in Berlin. In 2005 – aged 85 – he directed a semi-staged performance of Handel's serenata Parnasso in Festa at St John's Smith Square in London.

Llantilio Crossenny Festival[edit]

Having purchased a farm in Llantilio Crossenny, Monmouthshire, Farncombe established his very own festival there. From 1962 it brought to a rural community an extraordinary sequence of annual staged productions in the local church, beginning with medieval musical dramas (including Farncombe's own transcription of the Play of Elche) and eventually encompassing, in suitably scaled-down form, operas by Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Puccini and many others.

Family life[edit]

In 1963 Farncombe married the American violinist Sally Mae Felps, who was a constant support and a lively front-of-house presence at his performances until her premature death from cancer in 2003. They are survived by their daughter Eleanor, operations manager of the London Opera Players.


Obituaries printed in The Guardian newspaper on 19 August 2006, (written by Anthony Hicks) (primary source), The Telegraph on 31 July 2006 and The Times on 2 August 2006.