(b Birr, Ireland, 17 Jan 1882; d Law, Scotland, 30 Dec 1965). British musicologist, orientalist and conductor. He studied the violin, the clarinet, the piano and harmony, the last two with Vincent Sykes, organist of St Brendan's Church, Birr, where Farmer was a chorister. In London he studied with H.C. Tonking, Mark Andrews and F.A. Borsdorf and in 1895, while on holiday there with his father, he heard the Royal Artillery Orchestra conducted by Ladislao Zavertal; impressed by its performance, he joined as a violinist and clarinettist and after years of private study he served as its principal horn player, 1902–10. Forced by ill-health to abandon the horn, he began a conducting career at the Broadway Theatre, London (1910–13), while teaching music at various county council schools; he also founded the Irish Orchestra in London, which performed at the National Sunday League Concerts under his direction (1911–12). He moved to Glasgow in 1914 and was musical director of the Coliseum Theatre from January until August, after which he was appointed conductor of the Empire Theatre Orchestra, a post he held until 1947. As President of the Glasgow branch of the Amalgamated Musicians' Union, he founded both the Scottish Musicians' Benevolent Fund (1918) and the Glasgow Symphony Orchestra (1919), whose Sunday park concerts he conducted until the 1940s; he also founded the Scottish Music Society in 1936.
Farmer's interest in oriental music and culture may have been influenced by his father, who served with the Army in India and the Middle East and was fluent in both Hindustani and Arabic. In 1913, the London publisher William Reeves commissioned Farmer to translate F.S. Daniel's La musique arabe (1863). Relying for help on the available European literature on Arabic music, Farmer soon realized that he had to study Arabic to resolve the many unclear and conflicting views of such scholars as La Borde, Villoteau, Kiesewetter, Fétis, Riemann and Collangettes. So in 1918 he enrolled as an external student at Glasgow University, studying Arabic with T.H. Wier, and from this period began his lifelong friendship with the noted orientalist James Robson. He completed the MA in 1924 and the PhD in 1926, winning prizes in Arabic and history; he also continued his musical activities, as a member of the BBC's Scottish Advisory Committee on Music (1928–39) and as editor of the Musician's Journal (1929–33).
Farmer was awarded a Carnegie Research Fellowship (1930–31, 1931–2) and a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (1933–5), which enabled him to travel to European libraries in search of Arabic manuscripts. He was the only British representative at the Cairo Conference of Arabic Music (1932), at which he was elected president of the Commission of Manuscripts and History. He delivered the Cramb Music Lectures at Glasgow University (1934) and in 1946 was offered the chair of music at the University of Cairo, which he declined. He was a vice-president of the Glasgow University Oriental Society, 1947–65, and served on the board of directors of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, 1950–62. He was awarded the honorary DLitt by Glasgow University in 1934 and the honorary DMus by Edinburgh University in 1949.
Although Farmer was noted primarily for his contributions to the field of Arabic music, he also wrote important works on the history of Scottish and military music. It was his early publications, primarily ‘Clues for the Arabian Influence on European Musical Theory’ (1925), ‘Arabic Musical Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library’ (1925), A History of Arabic Music to the XIIIth Century (1929) and Historical Facts for the Arabian Musical Influence (1930), that established his reputation. Certain aspects of his early views were severely challenged by European musicologists, by Kathleen Schlesinger in particular, yet Farmer stood his ground in subsequent publications. He was primarily interested in theory, instruments, treatises and other manuscript works dealing with music, and never engaged in active fieldwork; nor was he interested in contemporary folk or classical traditions.
A.J.Racy: ‘Historical World Views of Early Ethnomusicologists: an East-West Encounter in Cairo, 1932’, Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History, ed. S. Blum, P.V. Bohlman and D.M. Neuman (Urbana, IL, 1991), 68–91
C.Cowl and S.M.Craik: Henry George Farmer: a Bibliography (Glasgow, 1999)