Opera Scotland

Sir Henry Bishop

Henry Bishop

Posted 10 Sep 2013

Henry Bishop (1786-1855), born in London, was a famous musical figure of his day and was the first musician to be knighted. Bishop was appointed as Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, though he resigned after two years. 

Bishop was a prolific musician, composing or arranging some 120 dramatic works including operas, light operas, cantatas and ballets.  He adapted operas to suit popular tastes, to be sung in English. In doing this he also excluded recitatives in order to follow the pattern of the popular ballad operas of the day.  He is remembered now for the songs "Home! Sweet Home!" and "Lo, Hear the Gentle Lark!"

One well-informed critic was Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935), who made pointed comments in his autobiography (A Musician's Narrative, 1927).  Mackenzie hailed from Edinburgh and was steeped in the local musical scene: his great-grandfather was a bandsman, his grandfather was a violinist in Edinburgh and Aberdeen while his father was a violinist and conductor of the band in Edinburgh's Theatre Royal.  Mackenzie himself was said to have performed regularly in this band from the age of eight. We therefore have to pay attention to Mackenzie when he says that opera, "even in the questionable state in which it had been presented just before my time, has always been popular, our playgoers being keen lovers of music."  Mackenzie recalled that "the odd adaptations of Henry Bishop were then beginning to pass from the boards.  Is it not told that Mozart's Figaro, 'translated, altered and arranged by Henry R. Bishop', was given with ten songs and six dances by the ruthless adapter?"

Bishop's own operas came to Scotland - for example, Guy Mannering, first performed in London in 1816, reached Edinburgh in 1818.  But to what extent did his adaptations of Mozart's operas also come north? 

We have yet to research the full story, but on 31 July 1819 a performance of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro was announced in Edinburgh's Caledonian Mercury for that evening.  It was described as "A comic opera in three acts, as produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, to the greatest applause."

The Scenery, Machinery, Dresses and Decorations are partly

new, and partly selected.

The music chiefly selected from Mozart's operas (sic) and

adapted to the British stage by Mr Bishop

In the Third Act of the Opera will be introduced

A VIEW OF THE GARDENS OF COUNT ALMAVIVA

and also of

THE PALACE BY MOONLIGHT

 

To which will be added the farce of

HUSBANDS AND  WIVES

 

How much does authenticity matter?  Bishop's versions have attracted criticism over the years, but musicians have always adapted work for their audiences.  In our times, we embrace and enjoy mash-up opera.  Perhaps we should not be too critical of the standards of those days.

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