Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bochsa, Robert Nicholas Charles (1789–1856)

by E. J. Lea-Scarlett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Robert Nicholas Charles Bochsa (1789-1856), musician, was born on 9 August 1789 at Montmédy, France. He received lessons from his father, Karl Bochsa, a flautist and clarinettist, and at 8 had performed his own piano and flute compositions in public as well as taking turn at the harp, violin, 'cello, oboe and kettle-drum in the orchestra of the opera at Lyons. At 12 he had composed a symphony and several ballets, and at 16 composed an opera, Trajan, in honour of Napoleon's visit to Lyons. At the emperor's instigation he was sent to the Paris Conservatoire where he began to specialize in harp-playing. Sebastian Erard had improved the mechanism of this instrument and Bochsa, by publishing a 'method', restored it to popularity. Appointed harpist to Napoleon in 1813, he gave lessons to the Empress Josephine and later to Marie Louise, with the result that harp-playing became a craze among Parisian ladies. Marital alliance with the nobility enabled him to retain his position on the restoration of the Bourbons, and he was appointed harpist to both Louis XVIII and the duc de Berri.

Detected in forgeries in 1817, he fled to England. In his absence he was convicted and sentenced to a fine of 4000 francs and twelve years imprisonment. In London he was fêted as a celebrity and flooded with requests for harp lessons, his pupils including the Duchess of Wellington and the daughters of the Duke of Clarence. In 1820 he accompanied George IV on a visit to Ireland where on St Patrick's Day with exquisite vulgarity he performed on a harp supposed to have been the property of Brian Boru. With Sir George Smart in 1822 he inaugurated the Lenten Oratorios in London, directing them on his own next year. On the institution of the Royal Academy of Music in 1822 he became professor of harp and general secretary, but was forced to abandon these posts five years later in face of undeniable public attacks on his character. From 1826 to 1832 he was conductor of the King's Theatre, giving annual benefit concerts which were often financially successful but artistically distasteful on account of his predilection for novelties such as ridiculously overloaded numbers of performers.

In 1839 Bochsa eloped with the soprano Anna, wife of Sir Henry Bishop. For some years the couple toured America and Europe, always avoiding France, until they arrived in Sydney in the Kit Carson from San Francisco on 3 December 1855. By this time Bochsa was fatally ill with dropsy; a first concert, billed for the Royal Victoria Theatre on 18 December, had to be postponed for two days to allow him to appear, and then again on another pretext. Meanwhile advertisements hailed him as 'Composer and First Harpist of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, Life Governor of the Royal Musical Academy of England, ex-Director of Her Majesty's Italian Opera House, and of the San Carlo at Naples'. He finally appeared on 22 December at the Prince of Wales Theatre, conducting the orchestra and providing piano accompaniments for Anna Bishop, but too ill to give the promised harp performance. Immediately thereafter his condition worsened and although he made three more appearances he had to be carried into the theatre each time, the practical direction of the concerts being assumed by Stephen Marsh. On 6 January 1856 he died at the Royal Hotel, Sydney, and was buried with great pomp in Camperdown cemetery, where a choir sang the requiem which he had composed three days before his death; an orchestral arrangement of the same work was performed during the procession to the cemetery. An ornate memorial erected by Anna Bishop over the grave, featuring a large harp, has been defaced by vandals.

Bochsa's compositions, with characteristic flamboyancy, are multitudinous. Apart from the harp method none was of lasting significance, although some of his songs were in the repertoire of local vocalists for years after his death. His inflated reputation, coupled with the circumstances of his death, have given him an undeserved eminence in Australian musical history.

Select Bibliography

  • F. C. Brewer, The Drama and Music in New South Wales (Syd, 1892)
  • E. Blom (ed), Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Lond, 1954)
  • Empire (Sydney), Dec 1855, Jan 1856.

Citation details

E. J. Lea-Scarlett, 'Bochsa, Robert Nicholas Charles (1789–1856)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bochsa-robert-nicholas-charles-3019/text4423, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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