Its success may owe more to the American poet who wrote the words than to the English composer of the tune.
Henry Rowley Bishop was the most respected English musician of his generation.
Contemporaries even called him the “English Mozart.” Almost single-handed, he kept the tradition of English opera alive.
English opera and Bishop’s reputation.
“Opera” seems highbrow nowadays. In the early nineteenth century it was the popular music of the upper class–that is, if it was in Italian.
English opera at its best kept the original Italian tunes and replaced the recitative with spoken dialogue and eliminated anything else that was difficult for casual theatergoers to understand.
At its worst, English opera mutilated even the tunes, while the arrangers, Bishop being the most prominent, introduced their own tunes, whether they made any dramatic sense or not.
In between the two extremes, Bishop and others provided musical set pieces for otherwise spoken dramas quite apart from the Italian operatic tradition.
For the most part, Bishop provided the music for an evening at the theater with workmanlike skill, usually good taste, and occasionally excellence.
In other words, English opera was popular music of not quite the highest social status. Popular music by definition is a commercial, nowadays even industrial music, aimed at people who appreciate new songs and rather quickly lose interest in anything very old.
The songs Bishop and others interpolated into English opera remained in favor long after the original theatrical settings were forgotten.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, Bishop’s reputation plunged more steeply than just about anyone else’s of his generation.
Today, he is known only as the composer of “Home, Sweet Home,” which he never claimed as an original composition. It came from a Sicilian Air that he included in a compilation of National Airs he had edited in 1821.
The words, by John Howard Payne
The author of the words, John Howard Payne, began an acting career at the Park Theatre in New York in 1809.
In 1813, he decided to try his hand at acting in London, the first American actor to try to establish a foreign career. He succeeded with the public, but having no business sense, never made a good living.
He became quite successful for a time, not only as an actor, but as a writer.
When he wrote the text for Bishop’s “opera” Clari, or the Maid of Milan, (1823) he included his poem “Home, Sweet Home.” Both became immediately successful, although Payne never benefitted financially from it.
Payne wrote “Home, Sweet Home” at a time of great personal unhappiness and loneliness. The poem tapped into a universally understood pain of separation and loss that almost anyone could relate to.
He had left New York as a young man of 22 shortly after his father died. He had begun his acting career largely because of the death of his mother and the failure of his father’s business.
But he didn’t stay in London. His wandering spirit led him to travel to other cities, where he was always alone. In 1822, he was in Paris, broke, and staying in a cheap room. He composed his poem as he listened to the cheerful, bustling crowds on the street below.
Later in life, he enjoyed telling the story of another time when, broke and alone on a Christmas Eve in London, he stood out on the street listening to people singing “Home, Sweet Home” in a rich man’s parlor.
International success of “Home, Sweet Home”
Composers for the theater always seemed to know which songs would become hits. They reprised them several times to make sure audiences could leave the theater humming them.
Bishop used the Sicilian Air as a theme song in Clari.
Whether because of Bishop’s music or Payne’s poem, the song soon became popular all over Europe and in the United States.
The American premiere of Clari took place in November 12, 1823 at the Park Theatre, just six months after it opened in London.
So many American publishers issued “Home, Sweet Home” that it is not possible to determine which was the first. An unsubstantiated report claims that 100,000 copies were sold during the first year.
“Home, Sweet Home” found its way into many “operas” besides Clari. Bishop himself produced one called Home, Sweet Home in 1829.
Every famous female singer on both sides of the Atlantic performed it for the rest of the century. Soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War loved it. Here’s a lovely version by a 20th-century contralto:
Bishop’s songs were popular in this country at least a decade before “Home, Sweet Home” appeared. His later songs continued to meet with popular approval for the rest of his life, but nothing else ever approached “Home, Sweet Home” in popularity.
The song’s success can hardly be attributed to Bishop’s music. While a newspaper review of the London premiere describes the tune as “altogether of a very superior description,” later critics have judged it harshly, one even calling it one of Bishop’s worst tunes.
No, “Home, Sweet Home” remains popular because Payne, in writing from his own misery, so completely captured the sense of loss and desolation that, in one way or another, everyone else feels from time to time.
Yesterdays: Popular Song in America by Charles Hamm (Norton, 1979)
“Bishop, Sir Henry Rowley” by Nicholas Temperley in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980 edition)
Photo credits: All images public domain.