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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




(1808-72)
HENRY FOTHERGILL CHORLEY

Victorian Journalist

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 did so.

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 ego.

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.

Raymond Walker

 

 



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