Ernest Bristow Farrar was born 7 July 1885 in Lewisham, the eldest son of Reverend and Mrs C. D. Farrar. The family moved to Micklefield in Yorkshire in 1887 where Farrar’s father was a clergyman. Farrar was educated at Leeds Grammar School between 1895 and 1903, passing his Associateship Diploma of the Royal College of Organists in 1903.In Michaelmas Term 1904 he then matriculated to Durham University, where his father and brother had also studied as members of University College, and satisfied the examiners in the First Examination for the Degree of Bachelor of Music. While he continues to be listed as an Unattached Member of the University until 1914-15, there are no further records of his study there. Probably, Farrar continued his music degree through a correspondence-type course, common at the time. However, in 1905 Farrar was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he studied composition under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and organ under Sir Walter Parratt which may explain his lack of activity in Durham. He won a number of awards at the RCM including the Arthur Sullivan Prize for composition in 1906 and the Grove Scholarship in 1907. While studying at the RCM, Farrar became a member of the ‘Beloved Vagabonds’, a prestigious musical and social club of influential young musical figures including the composer Frank Bridge and the musicologist Marion Scott. Farrar engaged in a relationship with Scott who was 9 years his senior, which continued even after he left the college in 1909 to take up a 6 month post as organist of All Saints English Church in Dresden and later at St Hilda’s Church in South Shields. The relationship culminated in an awkward encounter when Scott arrived in South Shields to perform a piece that Farrar had written for her, only to discover that he had become engaged to someone else. The two never spoke again.
Farrar married Olive Mason of South Shields in 1912, with Ernest Bullock, future organist of Westminster Abbey and fellow Durham alumnus, as his best man.Incidentally, Olive was great friends with Elinor Brent-Dyer, author of the Chalet School series, who regularly mentioned Farrar’s song ‘Brittany’ in her books. In 1912, Farrar gained a more prestigious appointment as organist and choirmaster at Christ Church, Harrogate where he also taught students including, most notably, Gerald Finzi.Furthermore, Farrar was recognised as one of the most promising young British composers with orchestral works performed across the country and the critic of the Daily Telegraph asking in 1917 why more of Farrar’s music was not heard in London. The reputation of Farrar as an organist can be gathered from his correspondence with important figures such as Ralph Vaughan Williams who wrote to Farrar upon his appointment at South Shields:
I suppose I must congratulate you on your appointment – I certainly congratulate them – but it’s a beastly job being organist and unless one is very careful lowers one’s moral tone (not to speak of one’s musical) horribly.
Ralph Vaughan Williams writing to Farrar, quoted by Robert Weedon in his short biography (www.warcomposers.co.uk)
However, Farrar’s musical career dwindled when he joined the Grenadier Guards in 1916 as a private and was later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant to the Devonshire Regiment in February 1918. He continued composing and performing right up until his deployment, personally conducting the first performance of his major orchestral piece, Heroic Elegy (For Soldiers) in Harrogate on 3 July 1918. Moreover, his last composition, a set of choral Preludes, was accepted by a London publisher on the very morning he left for the front. Farrar was killed on 18 September 1918 aged 33 after only ten days action and only two days with his unit. He was hit by machine gun fire during the Battle of Épehy in the Somme Valley “while gallantly leading his men in a successful attack on a German position, during which the battalion gained 3,000 yards and took many prisoners.” Major-General Eric S. Gridwood wrote that he was “a magnificent example to all of courage and devotion to duty, and was beloved by all ranks of his battalion.”
In the musical world, Robert Weedon has suggested that Farrar’s death went “almost unnoticed” compared to his contemporaries due to a fatigue at so many men having already been killed. However, an obituary for Farrar in The Musical Times suggests that he was highly regarded, describing him as displaying “creative gifts of a high order”, especially praising his setting of the ‘The Blessed Damozel’ by Rossetti, which is “remarkably successful in conveying the mystical atmosphere of Rossetti’s poem. … "He was a musician of the highest ideals, and was devoted to the art he served so faithfully. His many friends and admirers sincerely mourn his loss." Indeed, those close to Farrar were greatly aggrieved by his death, with his teacher Sir Charles Villiers Stanford writing in the Durham University Journal that “Farrar was one of my most loyal and devoted pupils. He was very shy, but full of poetry, and I always thought very high things of him as a composer, and lamented his loss both personally and artistically.” Moreover, composer Julian Clifford wrote and performed a tone-poem called ‘Lights Out’ in Farrar’s memory with the Harrogate Municipal Orchestra, and Frank Bridge dedicated his Piano Sono Farrar. There was also a concerted effort to continue publishing Farrar’s work posthumously, especially by Dan Godfrey who secured the publication of English Pastoral Impressions among other pieces (see Durham University Journal, vol. 22, nos 6, 9-10). Moreover, a number of Farrar’s works were included in a concert held at Aeolian Hall featuring songs and poems by men who fought in memory of those who fell (The Times, 31 October 1919, p.10: subscription resource).
By his family, Farrar was remembered in a Requiem Mass said at Micklefield, his father’s parish, on 29 September 1918.His parents also set up the Farrar Prize for composition at the RCM which included luminaries such as Benjamin Britten among its later recipients. Farrar is listed on the war memorial in St Mary the Virgin Cemetery, Micklefield, and on the war memorial at South Shields. He is buried just outside the churchyard wall in Ronssoy Communal Cemetery Extension in the Somme, in a corner under a few trees.