The Fallen Angel: An oratorio, unearthed

March 30, 2016
Ray Heigemeir
Archangel Michael Hurls the Rebellious Angels into the Abyss, by Luca Giordano (ca. 1666)

“There was war in heaven: and Satan was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. Rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them: woe to the inhabiters of the earth.” – Revelation 12:7-12

So opens The Fallen Angel, an oratorio by Sir Henry Rowley Bishop. The manuscript score, in Bishop’s hand, has recently been reunited with a full set of manuscript orchestral and choral parts, as item MLM 87 in Stanford’s Memorial Library of Music.

Sir Henry Rowley Bishop (1786-1855) was a lifelong Londoner. His early training was with Neapolitan composer Francesco Bianchi, who had taken up residence for several years at the King’s Theater and had collaborated on a number of operas with Lorenzo Da Ponte. Bishop worked variously as composer, conductor, and arranger at Covent Garden, the King’s Theatre, Vauxhall Gardens, the Drury Lane Theatre, and for the Concerts of Ancient Music.  In the 1840s he held chairs in music at both Edinburgh and Oxford Universities, and was the first English composer to be knighted (by Prince Albert, in 1842). Bishop’s vast compositional output included numerous operas, music dramatic works, incidental music, ballets, and over 600 songs in various forms. He was married twice; his second wife was the noted soprano Anna Bishop, who as it happened eloped with the composer Bochsa at the very time The Fallen Angel was being prepared.

Sir Henry Rowley Bishop, attributed to Isaac Pocock. Oil on canvas, 1813

In 1839, Bishop sought to obtain the BMus degree at Oxford, which he accomplished in one week (this happened before curricular reforms in the 1850s). The Fallen Angel was Bishop’s “musical exercise,” and was presented to a select crowd of 3000 at the Oxford Music Festival on Monday morning, June 10, 1839. It was quite an event, as the Musical World reports: “All was bustle and excitement … Mr. Bishop was loudly cheered from all sides on the conclusion of the performance. The theatre at that moment presented an imposing sight … to witness the magnificent theatre crowded with rank and beauty, as it was on this occasion, was a spectacle which none anticipated.”

Despite his early success and active musical-theatrical career, Bishop died in relative obscurity. An essay in the Musical Times (December 1, 1885), remembering Bishop on his centennial, noted “…the musician who undoubtedly filled a large space in the world of English art has shrunk, under the impartial influences of time, to the dimensions of a pigmy.”

Ophicleides in B flat and C

Over time Bishop's legacy continued to fade and his music is now largely forgotten. One song endures: “Home Sweet Home” (“be it ever so humble…”); championed by performers including Jenny Lind and Anna Bishop, it has found a place in the European-American folksong canon.

The Fallen Angel is scored for chorus and orchestra, with solos for two sopranos, one tenor and one bass.  Instrumentation includes the ophicleide, a keyed brass instrument related to the tuba. There is no evidence that The Fallen Angel was ever published or recorded, and has likely not been heard since its glorious premiere on that long-ago Monday in June.