Notes on the Life of John Francis Brewer,
Organist of the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception,
(Farm Street Church) in Mayfair, London
Organist, composer, music critic, and novelist John Francis Brewer was born November 25, 1864, in Kensington, London. He was the eldest son of Henry W. Brewer, artist, archaeologist, and prominent convert to the Catholic Church, and the grandson of John Sherren Brewer, Jr., “the brilliant editor of the Calendar of Letters of Henry VIII.” Among his siblings were the noted artists Henry C. Brewer and James Alphege Brewer, whose etchings of European cathedrals were well-regarded in the early 20th century and are still collected today.
Brewer was educated at Kensington Catholic Public School and passed the local exams for Oxford in 1879, although there is no record of his studying there. Not too far from the Brewer family lived R. Sutton Swaby, the organist to the Duke of Norfolk and former organist of the Church of Our Lady of Victories, the Pro-Cathedral in Kensington. In September 1874, Swaby had advertised in The Musical Times that he was “ready to receive pupils at his residence” on St. Charles Square, where he had a “new, modern organ, 2 manuals, and full pedals.” Sometime after that, Brewer began studies with him.
In 1880, when Brewer was just 15, The Musical Times announced an organ recital by “Master John F. Brewer (pupil of R. Sutton Swaby, late of Pro-Cathedral) on the new organ in Lancaster Hall.” His program included Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 1, fugues in G minor and D major by Bach, and “The waters overwhelmed their enemies” (from Israel in Egypt) by Handel. In November, he advertised a second recital in Lancaster Hall that included Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 4, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor by Bach, and “William Tell,” an arrangement of the opera overture by Rossini. One review of the performance by “this rising and clever young artist” noted the “vagaries” of the organ and congratulated Brewer on “his strength of nerve under difficulties.”
The following February, he played a longer, more elaborate recital at the Bow and Bromley Institute. It repeated the Mendelssohn Sonata No. 4 and the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor by Bach together with works by Joseph Haydn, Adolf Friedrich Hesse, Handel, and “Air and Variations, and Andante” by his teacher Swaby. Swaby was listed as assisting in the recital, along with vocalist Catherine Penna, T. Harper, trumpet, and F.H. Penna, piano. The Musical Times reported, “All the pieces were well played, and the performer was much applauded by a very large audience.”
That June, The Musical Standard reported that Brewer “gave the first recital of his second course, on Mr. Swaby’s three manual organ.” In addition to the Handel Organ Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and Mozart’s Grand Fantasia in F Minor, he played Charles-Marie Widor’s Scherzo in E Major.
In the winter of 1882, Brewer embarked on a formidable task. The Musical Standard of December 31, 1881, noted that “Master Brewer will commence a series of TWELVE RECITALS at Mr. Swaby’s residence...on the 16th of January. Programmes... include 20 Fugues of Bach, with Preludes or Toccatas; 12 Concertos, Handel; all Mendelssohn’s Organ Works; all Rheinberger’s Sonatas; Sonata, Merkel; Symphonies, Widor; Mozart’s Fantasia in F; Thiele’s Fantasia Chromatica; 16 Operatic Overtures, etc.” By the end of February, Brewer had given seven of these recitals.
A year later, at the age of 18, Brewer was appointed organist of the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception on Farm Street in London. The announcement in The Musical Standard of February 10, 1883, noted that two of his predecessors in this assignment had been Frederic Archer (British composer, conductor, and organist who went on to become conductor of the Boston Oratorio Society in Boston, Massachusetts, and music director of the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens, the influential Belgian organist who taught Charles-Marie Widor and Alexandre Guilmant. Lemmens had married the famous English soprano Helen Sherrington in 1857 and presumably took up the Farm Street post when the couple moved to London in 1869.
In 1889, consultants recommended the replacement of the William Hill organ that had been installed when the church first opened in 1849. The builder Charles Anneessens in Grammont, Belgium (now Andriessen Orgelbouw Anneessens bvba), was chosen for the job. (Was this choice possibly influenced by an association with Brewer’s Belgian predecessor Lemmens?)
In its May 27, 1899, edition, The Tablet, an international Catholic weekly, had reviewed a Farm Street service:
Music at the Jesuits’ Church is in good hands. Mr. Brewer, the organist, has gathered about him an efficient choir of boys and men who have their place in a gallery at the west end of the nave, with a division of the organ on each flank. I was pleased to see that the instrument had fair play for its multitudinous voices, instead of being boxed up in a chamber and half smothered. ...Hardly could more effective and impressive music be desired than that which filled the church last Sunday morning. Gounod's “Mass of the Sacred Heart” is one of that composer's smaller works for worship, but what it lacks in bulk is made up in beauty—a quality which enters also into Luzzi’s Ave Maria, written for tenor solo. The Mass was sung with great feeling, even by the boys, music and ceremony fitting each other precisely, and presenting a consistent whole, sensuous and moving, with means and method as elaborate as the purpose was exalted.
Another mention of Brewer’s playing described the funeral of Madame Christine Vaughan de Arcos on November 29, 1913. She was a close friend of Empress Eugenie, widow of Napoleon III. Brewer played Chopin’s “Marche Funèbre” and other voluntaries during the seating and accompanied soloist and choir in Louis Niedermeyer’s “Pie Jesu” at the offertory.
According to the website of the Farm Street Church, it was renowned for its elaborate orchestral masses on great feasts, but this must have come to an end with the Motu Proprio on Church Music (1903). In 1914, the Anneessens organ was completely rebuilt by Bishop and Son (which had the contract for its repair), saving the case and reusing 20 ranks of pipes. The new organ was first heard at the July 28 Requiem service for Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered World War I.
Brewer left his post at the Farm Street Church in 1916 and was succeeded in 1917 by Belgian Guy Weitz, a student of Widor and Guilmant. Before Weitz started in the job, the organ was revoiced and enlarged by Willis, Son & Lewis, a company with which Weitz was close. At that time, the post at the Farm Street Church, according to Andrew ElRay Stewart Cook (Guy Weitz [1883-1970]), was the “most highly remunerated and most visible of any Catholic post in Great Britain.”
In addition to being an organist, composer, and musical critic, Brewer was, in the words of the Catholic Who’s Who and Year Book 1908, “the author of three very bright novels, one of which was the best of its season, and, as its name betrays, of direct Catholic interest; but as it was published anonymously and much discussed, further particularity might be indiscreet here.”
In 1897, under his own name, he published The Speculators: A Comedy, which reads like a novelization of The Importance of Being Earnest. A decade earlier, when he was just 23, he wrote the sensational “penny dreadful” The Curse upon Mitre Square, among the earliest speculative accounts of the Jack the Ripper murders. His father’s detailed visual reconstructions of London in the time of Henry VIII could have suggested the setting
for the ominous events in the 1530s as described in the novel. Also, Brewer's experience at the Jesuit church would have informed his account of life at the Holy Trinity Priory, whose cloisters were on the site of Mitre Square.
Unfortunately, the “much discussed” book he published anonymously has not been identified. A search of online library catalogs has not turned up any compositions by John Francis Brewer nor his music criticism, but some articles written for the magazine The Girl’s Own Paper are accessible.
In June 1905, at the age of 40, Mr. Brewer married Katherine, née Fuller, the widow of the late Henry Edyvean-Walker, the Squire of Bilton, Rugby, at St. Mary of the Angels, Bayswater, a mission church established by Cardinal Manning. She was musically trained and is said also to have been an organist.
Brewer died June 15, 1921.
--Benjamin S. Dunham, rev. © May 2017