(1808-72) HENRY FOTHERGILL CHORLEY
By Robert Bledsoe
pp384 hardback 2 illustrations
Ashgate, October 1998 ISBN 1-84014-257
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Henry Chorley is a name familiar to anyone who
has read about the musical activity of Victorian England. One
can perhaps liken him to the our latterday Matthew Parris and
Brian Sewell. The outspoken confidence found in his journalistic
writings is similar to theirs.
I first came across Chorley's fiery reviews and
libretti when researching the composers, Arthur Sullivan, Michael
Balfe and William Vincent Wallace. To me this was a man who had
wormed his way into the echelons of Victorian high society yet
was an enigma. In this biography I was curious to find out something
about his beginnings and hopefully solve a few riddles that these
composers had taken to the grave.
Henry Chorley was born in Liverpool to
a large and poor family. When his father prematurely died his
mother remarried a local doctor and his family began to enjoy
the comforts of a better home where he was initially tutored privately.
He first worked in book-keeping, a job he loathed. His dream of
some association with the world of art came to reality when he
inherited a substantial sum from first his stepfather and later
as a result of his mother's death, and was able to support a career
as a writer and a critic for the Athenæum magazine. As a
reviewer with considerable self-confidence he could be highly
critical; he would scorn Wagner, Schumann and Verdi yet would
praise all works of Rossini, Mendelssohn, Gounod and Sullivan.
His heyday of activity was during the 1850-60s when he was writing
books, articles and libretti, and became a close friend of Dickens,
Lehmann and Barrett Browning. Amazingly, his blinkered attitude
as a critic didn't get him into hot water and as far as I can
find discover he was never openly snubbed by society figures.
Robert Bledsoe's research is strong and the wealth
of material provided is clearly presented. Fortunately, Chorley
had written an autobiography published (in altered form) after
his death. This provides the foundation for the biography, but
to it Bledsoe has amassed a considerable amount of other source
material to give a more balanced and presumably less egotistical
portrait of Chorley the man. I found it extraordinary that he
was capable of writing a 'good riddance to bad rubbish' obituary
on Alfred Bunn. Bunn had given work to Chorley when Manager of
the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where he was active up to the early
1840s. It would be unusual in a climate of guarded Victorian respectability
to speak so venomously about a person recently deceased, yet Chorley
Throughout the biography a dawning comes to the
reader of how odd this character was in reality. A redhead with
ruddy complexion to match, he dressed gaily in bright colours
(an obvious dandy) and continued to dress this way long after
the fashion had ceased. His mannerisms of rapid eye blinks when
he spoke, quaint pecking gestures and high staccato voice brought
ridicule and a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he might be that
missing link between chimpanzee and cockatoo. One gleans the impression
that Chorley was frequently invited to parties because he could
be witty in conversation. But in later years he would also get
himself incapably drunk and was often likely to disgrace himself.
Coupled with the venom he spat at others he became ostracised,
lost friends and ended up a lonely bachelor.
It is interesting to find that none of the Chorley
children ever married. I hoped that Bledsoe would have provided
us with his assessment of the character and postulate concerning
the dark background he hid from Chorley's memoirs. There are distinct
pointers within the chapters to suggest that Chorley was a latent
and frustrated gay; an outrageous dress sense, a love of the world
of fantasy and the arts, a self-centred egotism and telltale signs
in some of his letters all hint to this.
A letter to Sullivan is very revealing– "My dear
boy, Thank you for your affectionate note…[relating to his sister's
death] …I am very fond of you… …you must not disappoint those
who are attached to you – I hope you will come very often to me
this winter. Affectionately yours, Henry F. Chorley"
In the book I had hoped to find an answer concerning
the presently unfound Sapphire Necklace libretto that Chorley
wrote for Sullivan's first opera (based on a Walter Scott novel)
or at least be provided with some fresh information on it. Written
in 1863 it was composed by Arthur Sullivan following a new friendship
with Chorley. The libretto must have been dire since no theatre
manager would take on the work for performance. The hard-up Sullivan
managed to sell the autograph score to a publisher, but later
bought it back in 1879 so that he could re-deploy the music elsewhere.
The libretto seems to have vanished without trace yet one is curious
to find out how poor the writing is. Chorley also wrote the libretto
for Sullivan's Kenilworth and that survives. It was severely
criticised by the critics for changing Shakespeare's words 'immortal
souls' into 'immortal sounds'. Bledsoe makes no mention of this
controversy, even though it will have surely knocked Chorley's
Another curiosity concerns the fine libretto
written for The Amber Witch. In the biography we have an
account of the Athenæum review written by Chorley about
his own work, and this is interesting in itself. But no light
is shed on how Wallace, its composer, and Chorley got together
in the first place or their activity together. (A Wallace archive
exists in the British Library.)
The book is a very interesting one to dip into
to widen one's knowledge of the Victorian theatre scene.