A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Balfe, Michael William
BALFE, Michael William, was born at Dublin, May 15, 1808. When he was four years old his family resided at Wexford, and it was here, in the eager pleasure he took in listening to a military band, that Balfe gave the first sign of his musical aptitude. At five years of age he took his first lesson on the violin, and at seven was able to score a polacca composed by himself for a band. His father now sought better instruction for him, and placed him under O'Rourke (afterwards known in London as Rooke), who brought him out as a violinist in May 1816 [App. p.530 "June 1817"]. At ten years old he composed a ballad, afterwards sung by Madame Vestris in the comedy of 'Paul Pry,' under the title of 'The Lover's Mistake,' and which even now is remarkable for the freshness of its melody, the gift in which he afterwards proved so eminent. When he was sixteen his father died, and left him to his own resources; he accordingly came to London, and gained considerable credit by his performance of violin solos at the so-called oratorios. He was then engaged in the orchestra at Drury Lane, and when T. Cooke, the director, had to appear on the stage (which was sometimes the case in the important musical pieces), he led the band. At this period he took lessons in composition from C. F. Horn, organist of St. George's Chapel, Windsor, and father of the popular song-writer. In 1825 he met with a patron, the Count Mazzara, whom he accompanied to Italy. At Rome he was located in the house of his patron, and studied counterpoint under Frederici, afterwards head of the Conservatorio at Milan. He next went to Milan, and studied singing under Filippo Galli. Here he made his first public essay as a dramatic composer by writing the music to a ballad [App. p.530 "ballet"] entitled 'La Perouse,' the melody and instrumentation in which created a favourable sensation. He was now in his 2oth year. Visiting Paris, he was introduced to Rossini, then director of the Italian Opera; the maestro was not slow to perceive his talent, and offered him an engagement as principal barytone, on condition that lie should take a course of preparatory lessons from Bordogni. He made his first appearance at the close of 1828 [App. p530 "1827"] in 'Figaro,' with decided success. At the close of his Paris engagement he returned to Italy, and was welcomed by a new patron, the Count Sampieri of Bologna. In the carnival season of 1829-30 he was principal barytone at Palermo, and here produced his first complete opera 'I Rivali di se stessi,' written in the short space of twenty days. This was followed in rapid succession by 'Un Avvertimento ai gelosi,' produced at Pavia, and 'Enrico Quarto' at Milan, where he was engaged to sing with Malibran at the Scala. At Bergamo he met Mlle. Rosen, a German singer, whom he married. He continued to sing on the stage in Italy until the spring of 1835, when he came to London, and appeared at several public and private concerts.
Balfe's career as a writer of English operas commenced from this year, when he produced the 'Siege of Rochelle' at Drury Lane (Oct. 29), with distinguished success. It was played for more than three months without intermission, and completely established the composer's fame. 'The Maid of Artois' came out in the following spring [App. p530 "on May 27, 1836"], its success heightened by the exquisite singing of Malibran. 'The Light of other days' in this opera, says one of his biographers, 'is perhaps the most popular song in England that our days have known.' In the autumn of this year Balfe appeared as a singer at Drury Lane. In 1837 he brought out his 'Catherine Grey' and 'Joan of Arc'—himself singing the part of Theodore; and in the following year (July 19, 38), 'Falstaff' was produced at Her Majesty's Theatre, the first Italian opera written for that establishment by an English composer since Arne's 'Olympiade.' Two months previously 'Diadeste' was given at Drury Lane. In 1839 he was much on the boards, playing Farinelli in Barnett's opera of that name at Drury Lane, and in an English version of Ricci's 'Scaramuccia' at the Lyceum. In 1840 [App. p530 "March 1841"] he entered the field as manager of the Lyceum (the English opera-house), and produced his 'Keolanthe' for the opening night, with Madame Balfe in the principal character; but with all its merited success the opera did not save the enterprise from an untoward close.
Balfe now migrated to Paris, where his genius was recognised, and MM. Scribe and St. George furnished him with the dramatic poems which inspired him with the charming music of 'Le Puits d'Amour' (performed in London under the title of 'Geraldine'), and 'Les Quatre fils d'Aymon' (known here as 'The Castle of Aymon'), both given at the Opéra Comique. "While thus maintaining his position before the most fastidious audience of Europe, Balfe returned en passant to England, and produced the most successful of all has works, 'The Bohemian Girl' (Nov. 27, 1843). This opera has been translated into almost every European language, and is as great a favourite on the other side of the Atlantic as on this. In 1844 he brought out 'The Daughter of St. Mark,' and in the following year 'The Enchantress'—both at Drury Lane. In 1845 he wrote 'L'Etoile de Sevill' for the Académie Royale, in the course of the rehearsals of which he was called to London to arrange his engagement as conductor of Her Majesty's Theatre; which office he filled to the closing of that establishment in 1852. 'The Bondman' came out at Drury Lane in the winter of 1846, Balfe having arrived from Vienna specially for the rehearsals. In Dec. 1847 he brought out 'The Maid of Honour,'—the subject of which is the same as Flotow's 'Martha,'—at Drury Lane. In 1849 he went to Berlin to reproduce some of his operas, when the king offered him the decoration of the Prussian Eagle, which as a British subject he was unable to accept. Between this year and 1852, when the 'Sicilian Bride' was given at Drury Lane, and a few weeks later, at the Surrey Theatre, 'The Devil's in it,' [App. p.530 "This production took place in 1847 and should have been mentioned 6 lines higher in the page."] Balfe had undertaken to conduct a series of National Concerts at Her Majesty's Theatre: the plan of these performances was devised with a view to the furtherance of the highest purposes of art, and several important works were produced in the course of the enterprise, which did not, however, meet with success.
At the close of 1852 Balfe visited St. Petersburg with letters of introduction from the Prince of Prussia, now Emperor of Germany, where he was received with all kinds of distinction. Besides popular demonstrations and imperial favour he realised more money in less time than at any other period. The expedition to Trieste, where his next work 'Pittore e Duca,' was given during the Carnival, with such success as the failure of his prima donna could permit, brings us to 1856, when, after an absence of four years, he returned to England. [App. p.530 "An English version of 'Pittore e Duca' under the title of 'Moro,' was given at Her Majesty's by the Carl Rosa company, on Jan. 28, 1882."]
In the year after his return Balfe brought out his daughter Victoire (afterwards married to Sir John Crampton, and subsequently to the Duke de Frias), as a singer at the Italian opera at the Lyceum; and his next work, 'The Rose of Castile,' was produced by the English company also at this theatre on Oct. 29, 1857. This was succeeded, in 1858, by 'La Zingara,' the Italian version of 'The Bohemian Girl,' at Her Majesty's Theatre, and by 'Satanella' at the Lyceum. 'Satanella' had a long run, and one of the songs, 'The power of Love,' became very popular. His next operas were 'Bianca,' 1860; 'The Puritan's Daughter,' 1861; 'The Armourer of Nantes' and 'Blanche de Nevers' in Feb. and Nov. 1863 [App. p.530 "1862"].
In December 1869 the French version of his 'Bohemian Girl' was produced at the Théatre Lyrique of Paris under the title of 'La Bohemienne,' for which the composer wrote several additional pieces, besides recasting and extending the work into five acts. The success attending this revival procured him the twofold honour of being made Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur by the Emperor of the French, and Commander of the Order of Carlos III by the Regent of Spain.
In 1864 Balfe retired into the country, became the proprietor of a small landed property in Hertfordshire, called Rowney Abbey, and turned gentleman farmer. Here he amused himself with agriculture and music, making occasional visits to Paris. He had several severe attacks of bronchitis, and suffered much from the loss of a favourite daughter, which much weakened his constitution. In September 1870 he caught a violent cold, which caused a return of his old complaint, and on October 20 he expired.
'II Talismano,' the Italian version of Balfe's last opera, 'The Knight of the Leopard,' was produced at Drury Lane, on June 11, 1874; and on September 25 in the same year a statue to his memory, by a Belgian artist, M. Mallempre, was placed in the vestibule of Drury Lane, the scene of so many of his triumphs.Balfe's miscellaneous pieces are numerous, including the operetta of 'The Sleeping Queen,' performed at the Gallery of Illustration; three cantatas—'Mazeppa,' performed in London; and two others composed at Paris and Bologna. Many of his ballads are not likely to be soon forgotten. His characteristics as a composer are summed up by a brother artist (Professor Macfarren) in the following words:—'Balfe possesses in a high degree the qualifications that make a natural musician, of quickness of ear, readiness of memory, executive facility, almost unlimited and ceaseless fluency of invention, with a felicitous power of producing striking melodies. His great experience added to these has given him the complete command of orchestral resources, and a remarkable rapidity of production. Against these great advantages is balanced the want of conscientiousness, which makes him contented with the first idea that presents itself, regardless of dramatic truth, and considerate of momentary effect rather than artistic excellence; and this it is that, with all his well-merited success with the million, will for ever prevent his works from ranking among the classics of the art. On the other hand it must be owned that the volatility and spontaneous character of his music would evaporate through elaboration, either ideal or technical; and that the element which makes it evanescent is that which also makes it popular.' (Imp. Dict. of Univ. Biog.; Kenney's Memoir, 1875). [App. p.530 "(Dict. of National Biography, to which the reader is referred for further particulars.)"]
[ E. F. R. ]