Henry Russell (24 December 1812 or 1813 – 8 December 1900) was an English pianist, baritone singer and composer, born into a distinguished Jewish family.
In an eventful life on both sides of the Atlantic, Russell wrote the songs "A Life on the Ocean Wave" and the tune to George Pope Morris's poem Woodman, Spare that Tree while living in United States from 1835 to 1841, before settling in London to produce musical extravaganzas until he retired in 1857. Many of his songs championed social causes like abolition, temperance, and reform of mental asylums.
Russell was born in Sheerness, Kent, a great-nephew of the British Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschel. He began his career as a child singer in Elliston’s Children’s Opera company. While playing the organ at the Presbyterian church in Rochester, New York he discovered that sacred music, played quickly, "makes the best kind of secular music". Old Hundredth, played very fast, became the music for "Get Out of de Way, Ol' Dan Tucker".
Russell's song "The Fine Old English Gentleman" 1831 was made fun of ten years later by Charles Dickens in his identically titled song.
In 1841, he returned to England and performed at the Hanover Square Rooms in London with instant success. Many of his songs were written to lyrics by Charles Mackay, including "There's a Good Time Coming", "Cheer, Boys, Cheer", and "To The West". The Hutchinson Family Singers were fans of Russell's work and performed several of his tunes, including "The Maniac" and "The Ship On Fire."
After retirement he lived partly in France, partly in England. His first wife was Christian; his second wife was Jewish and their family (including their sons, conductor Sir Landon Ronald and impresario Henry Russell) was raised in the Jewish religion.
His portrait was painted by the British painter Walter Goodman and displayed in London at the Institute of Oil Painters in 1889 and at The Grafton Galleries in 1897. The Jewish Chronicle of 21 May that year describes the painting as depicting Russell hale and hearty with flowing beard. He died in London, aged 86 or 87.
A detailed biography, A Life on the Ocean Wave: The Story of Henry Russell by Andrew Lamb, was published by Fullers Wood Press in 2007.