I was wandering around Camperdown Cemetery the other day when I came across an impressive altar tomb which had a large statue on top featuring a (decapitated) mourning figure kneeling before a tree and harp.
I peered at the inscription and saw that it commemorated Nicholas Charles Bochsa, who died in 1856. The inscription recorded that the monument was erected ‘in sincere devotedness by his faithful friend and pupil‘ Anna Bishop.
I’d come across Bochsa previously and knew he was a musician. But who was Anna Bishop? It seemed an awfully large and expensive monument to erect for your music teacher, even if you were a devoted pupil and friend.
Of course I found out all in the Dictionary of Sydney, from two entries written by musicologist Graeme Skinner.
Bochsa’s claim to fame was that he was once the harpist to the French emperor Napoleon. But our musician friend left France under a cloud in 1817 after being convicted of forgery. Nicholas retreated across the channel to London, where he had a successful career for two decades as an opera conductor and music teacher, although bankruptcy, accusations of bigamy and libel cases threatened his respectability.
But then Bochsa scandalised London society in 1839 by eloping with soprano Anna Bishop (wife of distinguished composer Sir Henry Bishop). So Anna, who erected his monument, was not just his ‘pupil’ but also his lover. The tales we find beneath the tombstones!
The lovers spent the next 15 years touring Europe, America, Mexico and then Australia. The American Review in 1847 described his talents in glowing terms:
“Bochsa is another instrumental wonder. The harp in his hands is full of splendid effects; it is capable of infinite variety in power and quality of tone, full of delicacy and of lyric fire.”
Sadly, the celebrated couple had only just arrived in Sydney from San Francisco when Bochsa was taken ill. They performed one concert together, on the 22 December at the Prince of Wales Theatre before Bochsa’s illness prevented him continuing. He died on Sunday 6 January at the Royal Hotel and was buried in a fashionable section of Camperdown Cemetery. A piece he had composed the previous Thursday night for his own funeral was sung over the grave.
The monument still stands, but has lost some of its detail over the years, including the decapitation of the statue of Anna which was destroyed by vandals. The drawing, above, from the Mitchell Library shows how elaborate the memorial was originally. The harp also had broken strings, signifying the musician’s life cut short.
Apart from his compositions, Bochsa is primarily remembered today for the harp method he published before he left France. You can view a digitised copy of this work through the Hathi Trust Digital Library via Trove.
We have a number of entries about Sydney musicians in the Dictionary. Check out our music subject listing: http://dictionaryofsydney.org/subject/music