Sir Henry Rowley Bishop

Sir Henry Rowley Bishop


• 1786 1855


Composer Henry R. Bishop dominated the musical landscape in London's theatrical world in the years 1810 - 1840. In the twenty-first century, he is known, if at all, as the composer of the popular song "Home, Sweet Home!" with lyrics by the American dramatist John Howard Payne. Bishop's father was a haberdasher, and Bishop entered the musical world with barely any formal training, working at a music shop as a salesman and publishing his first pieces through them in 1801. By 1806 Bishop was already making a name for himself in the London musical scene, writing insertion numbers and ballets. The first of his full-length efforts, The Circassian Bride (1809) was a hit on its first night, but on its second, the Drury Lane Theater, where the premiere was held, burnt down. After his second full-length effort, The Maniac, or the Swiss Banditi (1809; containing 25 numbers), Bishop would concern himself primarily with writing brief insertions -- songs that could be repeated several times in a show -- in addition to overtures and other short set pieces. His worklist seems to contain a mind-boggling array of operas, numbering into the hundreds, but the vast majority of these are really musical plays that have just a few numbers apiece. The quality of Bishop's workmanship, whether with his own melodic ideas or some tune cribbed from elsewhere, was highly variable, ranging from his glees (more than 300 of them, many of outstanding quality) to his pastiches drawn from Mozart and Rossini (among the worst in the genre).

Bishop became associated with Covent Garden in 1811, and by the time he left in 1824 he had contributed music to some 70 of their productions. Some of the songs Bishop wrote for Shakespeare plays, such as "Lo, here the gentle lark" (1819) and "Bid me discourse" (1820), have hung onto the outer fringes of English song repertory, and certain dances Bishop composed are still heard in the British Isles; one has even been adopted as a regimental march. But "Home, Sweet Home!" from the operetta Clari, or The Maid of Milan (1823) has proven by far the most enduring of Bishop's settings. Afterward, he worked on one more piece, Aladdin (1826), which has enough music in it to nearly constitute an opera. Bishop also expanded "Home, Sweet Home!" into an "opera" of its own (1829), writing an overture for it that likewise highlights the hit tune. Bishop's instrumental output is scant, but does contain 48 overtures and a surprisingly proficient String Quartet (1816).

After 1838, Bishop got out of the theater and tried his hand at teaching. Due to his tremendous popularity, Bishop was named to a number of important posts, none of which he held very long -- his own education in music was not up to the task. On June 1, 1842, Bishop was made a knight of the British Empire by Queen Victoria, the first musician in the history of the realm to be so dubbed.