The Reckless Life of Nicholas-Charles Bochsa: The Paganini of the Harp

Discover the fascinating and scandalous life of Nicholas-Charles Bochsa, considered the "Paganini of the harp". From his musical genius and technical innovations to his womanizing ways, forgery convictions, and bigamy scandal, explore the twists and turns of this remarkable artist's life.

The Reckless Life of Nicholas-Charles Bochsa: The Paganini of the Harp
Bochsa's musical journey took him from Naples to Mexico City, where he attempted to compose a national anthem for Mexico. Despite facing numerous challenges, his legacy as a skilled harpist and opportunist lives on. Credit: Wikipedia

In the north of France, Montmédy was never thought of as a place where artists were born. This is because the layout of the city was based on the needs of a military citadel, so the soldiers' needs were always in the way. However, on August 9, 1789—only three weeks after the storming of the Bastille—a portentous musician was born there, whose life trajectory would make streams of ink flow in a variety of ways: from denigration to apology and from praise to invective. You could say that he would make a great subject for movies and books. Sadly, though, his muddled life story is where we find the clues to his ban. Some of his histories concern us Mexicans and, as such, are a dark part of our own.

But who are we talking about? Let us begin by stating that he was the most outstanding harpist of his century—he was considered the "Paganini of the harp" or even the "best harpist of all time"—that his contributions to the literature of the instrument are still in force, and that, thanks to his technical advances, countless generations have benefited. He was also a tireless traveler who dazzled audiences from the most diverse latitudes with his art, a shrewd businessman who saw fortunes pass through his hands, a womanizer, an irresponsible father, and a prolific composer. His first name is Nicholas-Charles; his last name is Bochsa.

After we've established the above, we can move on to the twists and turns of his reckless and reprehensible life. Bochsa's father was a musician from old Bohemia and a member of the band of a battalion that was set up in Montmédy. He taught his son how to play music when he was young. We know nothing about his mother, except that she was a peasant woman from the region and that she favored the aspirations of the little genius she had given birth to. His father taught him a lot of different things, like how to play the flute, clarinet, and piano, and about counterpoint, harmony, and composition. The child was so receptive that from the age of seven, he was able to give concerts, in which he even presented his works (unfortunately, all of them were lost).

After the failed revolution, the Bochsas moved to Lyon because the father got a job as an oboist at the opera house there. Napoleon Bonaparte came to Lyon in 1805, and Bochsa junior wrote an opera for him called Trajan or Triumphant Rome. The work impressed the emperor, especially when he found out that it was written by a teenager. So, the boy moved to Paris with a generous scholarship and the promise that when he finished his formal education at the already famous Parisian conservatory, he would be let into the inner circle of power. The predictions came true, and when Bochsa finished his studies with honors, he was named imperial harpist and Empress Josephine's teacher right away. Later, he joined the clique of Louis XVIII, the "slovenly" king.

As his popularity grew, so did the number of concerts he gave. This was because of his brave attitude and the fact that he was one of the most handsome men in France. He got a young marquise pregnant and made her marry him. She was one of his victims. They had two children, whom Bochsa would abandon without remorse. Despite this, at the height of the social boom,—Parisian gossip chose him as a favorite—the career of our character began to diversify: the forgery of signatures, bills of exchange, and other financial documents became his favorite parallel activity. As we may suppose, justice was not slow in finding out, sentencing him to a sentence of twelve years of hard labor with a fine of four thousand francs.

The Scandalous Life of Bochsa

Bochsa escaped to the capital of the United Kingdom "with one hand behind and the other in front", but that did not matter because, true to his style, he did not take long to sneak into the highest spheres of the English aristocracy. He became a tutor to the Duchess of Wellington and befriended Lord Burghersh, a millionaire whom he convinced of the need to open a school similar to the Paris Conservatoire. From this joint initiative, the Royal Academy of Music was born in 1822; Bochsa was the harp teacher and should have been general secretary in perpetuity.

In England, his concerts were huge hits, and he never stopped playing virtuoso music, but he always took the time to charm any woman who came his way. His next victim belonged to the entourage of the Prince of Wales, a poor, naïve woman who agreed to marry him without imagining that, soon, the accusation of bigamy would fall on the conjugal happiness, forcing the husband to another evasion. But that's not all; Bochsa simultaneously cajoled the soprano Anna Bishop, wife of the famed composer Sir Henry Bishop, then director of Covent Garden.

We don't know what Bochsa's arts of persuasion were or what his mythomaniac tricks were, but we do know that Anna left her home with three small children and got involved with the philharmonic delinquent in an erotic-artistic adventure with no clear end. The scandal was, of course, a big deal. Victorian society screamed to the heavens and tore its clothes, and the couple packed their trunks to get away from the slander.

From then on, the duet formula was boldly set: they would play together at concerts that he would put together as the soprano's manager and pianist. Needless to say, dubious—or rather, fraudulent—handling of money would be the norm. Thus, in cascade, the tours followed one after the other, with France and Great Britain being prudently avoided. The cities to be looted began with Hamburg, and the list included, for example, Copenhagen, Örebro, Stockholm, Uppsala, St. Petersburg, Odessa, Prague, Krakow, Brno, and Vienna.

In the following season, Budapest, Munich, Frankfurt, Graz, Salzburg, Trieste, Venice, Turin, and Milan stood out. In the Lombard capital, the Bishop-Bochsa duo met a wealthy Neapolitan who invited them to settle on his land, imagining that they would make a splash. He was not mistaken, since the fugitives' stay was extended for two years. Nobody was surprised when Bochsa became director of the San Carlo Theater, and its administration was the showcase for his swindles. He promised salaries that never arrived, and he asked for advances that he pocketed.

The Musical Adventures and Misadventures of Bochsa

After getting away from Naples, the criminals set sail for the New World and landed in New York. In this city and other cities in the Union, the same story was told over and over again, and the great artist's institutionalized kleptomania added to the confusion. To this was added a growing megalomania that depleted budgets. With the horizon of new dupes exhausted, Bochsa and his lover headed for the conquest of the Caribbean, with Havana as their base of operations. They would not last long in their new destination, as the heat of the tropics would burst the harp strings, so the transhumant pair decided to retrace the route of Hernán Cortés.

They wanted to disembark in Veracruz, but from there, the problems began. There was an outburst of anger that made them stay on the ship for hours on end. When they finally managed to set foot on Mexican soil, things did not improve. They seized the bulky harp case, thinking it contained some religious relic, and to get it back, Bochsa had to "bite the bullet". In addition, on the way to Mexico City, they were mugged, and the frightened soprano had to get rid of the jewelry she was wearing.

To put it succinctly, in the ancient domains of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, things turned around, and for the first time in his life, Bochsa was the one who came out "trading" in the negotiations. This happened in Pachuca, in Guadalajara, in Leon, in San Juan de los Lagos, and, of course, in the former Tenochtítlan, although we must say that he almost managed to consolidate a lucrative business with which he would have altered the course of the national identity.

We explain: Bochsa realized, like the consummate opportunist he was, that in 1849 there was still no national anthem—there had been several proposals, but all of them failed—that would unify the feelings of the people and their oppressors. Quick and clear, he composed a Marche mexicaine that he premiered at the Gran Teatro Nacional in the presence of José Joaquín de Herrera, another of our illustrious leaders, best remembered as the one who facilitated the loss of Texas. He dedicated the performance to him.

La Marche did not convince, even though Cuban poet Juan Miguel Lozada wrote the lyrics and the Bishop sang them. Certainly, the verses weren't great, and it wasn't the right time to give a known forger the status he thought he deserved. The quote is worth making sure of: "Mexicans, let us reach the song, proclaiming the beautiful equality; let the songs repeat the echo. Freedom, freedom, freedom".

As a colophon, we must point out that Bochsa left Mexico very upset and that his last pilgrimages led him to Australia. He died in Sydney on January 6, 1856, and his tomb reads: "This monument was erected with the sincere devotion of his faithful friend and disciple Anna Bishop". Perhaps it could have been added: "Here rests the only harpist in the world who got away with his misdeeds and who found the last of his shoes in the Mexican Republic...".

The renowned harpist Gounta Salaks' performance on February 12, 2018, in the Radio UNAM booth at Universum and the Institute of Anthropological Research at UNAM's research program on the anthropology of music made it possible for this recording. The recording engineer was Miguel Goroztieta. UNAM has donated the facsimile of the score to the National Library of Mexico.

Marche mexicaine by Gounta Salaks

Full Citation: Champion, Samuel Máynez. “Un Himno Para Las Hormas Del Zapato | ,