Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Balfe, Michael William
BALFE, MICHAEL WILLIAM (1808–1870), musical composer, the third child of William Balfe, was born at 10 Pitt Street, Dublin, 15 May 1808. His father came of a family which had numbered among its members several professional musicians; his mother's maiden name was Kate Ryan. Balfe's first musical instruction was received from his father, who was himself no mean performer on the violin. Under his guidance the boy made such rapid progress that it soon became necessary to place him under a more advanced master. His education was accordingly entrusted to William O'Rourke, though he seems also to have received help in his studies from Alexander Lee, James Barton and a bandmaster named Meadows. At this early period of his life Balfe already distinguished himself both as executant and composer, his first public appearance having been made as a violinist at a concert given on 20 June 1817, while a polacca from his pen was performed, under the direction of his friend Meadows, before he was seven years old. On O'Rourke's leaving Dublin, Balfe studied with James Barton for two years; at the end of that time, just as he was beginning his professional career as a violinist, his father died. This was in 1823, at about the same time an eccentric relation of his mother's, who had amassed a fortune in the West Indies, offered to adopt young Balfe if he would go out to live with him. But the boy would not forsake his profession, and determined to try his fortune in London. Charles Edward Horn, the singer, happened at that time to be fulfilling an engagement in Dublin, and to him Balfe went, emboldened by the praise he had bestowed on a song of the young Irishman's, with a request to be taken to London as an articled pupil. Horn recognised Balfe's genius, and the result was that articles were signed for a period of seven years. Balfe accompanied his new master to London, where he arrived in January 1823. After an unsuccessful début at the Oratorio concerts on 19 March 1823, he recognised the necessity of further study. Accordingly the next few years were spent under the tuition of C. E. Horn and his father, Carl Friedrich — a thoroughly sound musician, who was then organist of St. George's Chapel at Windsor. Meanwhile the young composer supported himself and assisted his mother by his earnings as a violinist in the orchestras of Drury Lane Theatre and the oratorio concerts. When he was about eighteen, finding that his voice was developing the pure quality for which it was afterwards so remarkable, he was induced to try his fortune on the operatic stage, and appeared at the Norwich Theatre as Caspar in a garbled version of Weber's 'Der Freischütz.' Fortunately for the cause of music, this experiment was a decided failure, and Balfe returned to London, where better luck awaited him. His geniality and talent had already made him many friends, and at a dinner at the house of one of them, a Mr. Heath, he met a Count Mazzara, who was so struck by the resemblance between Balfe and an only son whom he had recently lost that he offered to take the young musician with him to Italy. The count was not only a liberal patron but also a wise adviser, for on their way to Home he introduced Balfe to Cherubini, who was so much struck by his talent that he wished him to remain and study in Paris. But Balfe preferred to continue his journey to Italy, though he parted with the stern master on the best of terms, Cherubini making him promise that if he had ever need of them he might demand his services on the plea of 'friendship based on admiration.' At Rome Balfe lived for several months with Count Mazzara. But little is known of his career there, save that he studied in a somewhat desultory manner under the composer Paer. In 1826 his patron returned to England, but previous to his departure he sent Balfe to Milan, where he studied singing and composition with Galli and Federici. Here he was introduced to the manager of the Scala, an Englishman named Glossop, who commissioned him to write the music for a ballet, 'La Pérouse.' This work achieved remarkable success, and Glossop was induced to engage Balfe as a singer. Unfortunately, before the day arrived for his first appearance, the management of the theatre was changed, and the young musician had once more to find a fresh field for his talents. He returned to Paris, went to see Cherubini, and here again fortune befriended him. The Italian maestro introduced him to Rossini, who, it is said, was so charmed by his singing of the air from the 'Barbiere,' 'Largo al factotum,' as to promise him an engagement at the Italian Opera, provided he would study under Bordogni for a year previous to his début. The necessary funds were provided by a friend of Cherubini's, and the Florentine composer himself superintended Balfe's studies. Under these favourable auspices he appeared in 1827 at the Theatre des Italiens, as Figaro in Rossini's 'Barbiere,' the other characters being sung by Graziani, Levasseur, Bordogni, Madame Sontag, and Mdlle. Amigo. His success was so great that he was engaged for three years at a salary of 15,000 francs for the first year, 20,000 for the second, and 25,000 for the third. Balfe's voice was a baritone, of more sweetness of quality than stregth, but his singing was always distinguished for purity of delivery and power of expression. During his engagement at Paris, Balfe did little or nothing to increase his reputation as a composer. He wrote some additional music for a revival of Zingarelli's 'Romeo e Giulietta,' and began an opera on the subject of Chateaubriand's 'Atala, but before the end of his engagement his health broke down, and he was obliged to return to Italy. At Milan he obtained an engagement as leading baritone at Palermo, but on his way there he stopped some time at Bologna, where he met Grisi, who sang in an occasional cantata he wrote at the time. He appeared at Palermo in Bellini's 'La Straniera' on 1 Jan. 1830. In the course of his engagement he wrote and produced his first opera, 'I Rivali di se stessi,' a little work without chorus, which was written in the short space of twenty days. On the termination of his engagement at Palermo, Balfe sang at Piacenza and Bergamo; at the latter place he first met his future wife. Mile. Lina Rosa, an Hungarian singer of great talent and beauty, whom he shortly afterwards married. His next engagement was at Pavia, where he superintended the production of Rossini's 'Mosè in Egitto' and brought out a new work of his own, 'Un Avvertimento ai Gelosi,' in which the celebrated buffo Ronconi made his second appearance on the operatic stage. From Pavia he returned to Milan, where he received a commission for an opera for the Scala. This work, 'Enrico Quarto al Passo del Marno,' though very successful from an artistic point of view, brought Balfe only 200 francs, though even this small pecuniary success was compensated for by the fact that the work attracted the attention of Malibran to the composer. With this great artist he next went on an operatic and concert tour which ended at Venice, and on the recommendation of Malibran and her impresario, Puzzi, Balfe in 1833 returned to England. He was commissioned by Arnold to write an English opera for the opening of the newly built Lyceum Theatre, and in six weeks he produced the 'Siege of Rochelle.' Owing to some hitch in the negotiations, the work was not brought out by Arnold ; but it was promptly secured by Alfred Bunn, the manager of Drury Lane, where it was produced with immense success on 29 Oct. 1835. The libretto was by Edward Fitzball, a versifier who is said once to have described himself as a 'lyric poet.' and was founded on a romance by Madame de Genlis ; the principal parts were sung by Henry Phillips, Paul Bedford, and Miss Shirreff. Balfe's next work, 'The Maid of Artois,' was written to a libretto furnished by Bunn, the first of those astonishing farragoes of balderdash which raised the Drury Lane manager to the first rank amongst poetasters. The opera (for which Balfe received 100l.) was written for Malibran, who appeared in it with the greatest success on 27 May 1836. The 'Maid of Artois' was followed at intervals by 'Catherine Grey' (libretto by George Linley), 'Joan of Arc' (libretto by Fitzball), and 'Diadeste' (libretto by Fitzball), all of which were produced at Drury Lane in 1837 and 1838, though only the last, an opera buffa, was as successful as the composer's earlier works had been. In 1838 Balfe was commissioned by Laporte, the manager of the Italian Opera, to write a work for Her Majesty's Theatre. In accordance with this request he composed a version of the 'Merry Wives of Windsor,' which was produced on 19 July 1838. 'Falstaff,' which contains some of its composer's best music, achieved great success, as could hardly fail to be the case, since the chief parts were sung by such artists as Grisi, Albertazzi, Rubini, Tamburini, and Lablache. Bunn's management of Drury Lane coming to an end in 1838, Balfe accepted an engagement in an opera company at Dublin, after fulfilling which he produced several of his operas in the principal towns of Ireland, and after a successful tour in the west of England returned to London and resolved to start an English opera company on his own account. He opened the Lyceum on 9 March 1841 with a new work of his own, 'Keolanthe' (libretto by Fitzball) ; but though the opera was in every respect successful, internal dissensions broke up the company, and before the end of May the theatre had to be closed. Once more the disheartened composer left England, and again it was in Paris that his good fortune returned to him. A concert was given in order to introduce his works to the Parisian public, and the result was so satisfactory that Scribe, unsolicited, offered to write him a libretto for the Opéra Comique. This work, 'Le Puits d'Amour,' was produced in April 1843, where it achieved remarkable success. Every mark of distinction was showered upon the composer; Louis-Philippe offered him the cordon of the Legion of Honour, and, when his nationality prevented him from accepting it, proposed that he should become a naturalised Frenchman, offering to procure for him a post at the Paris Conservatoire. In the same year as his Parisian triumph, Balfe was recalled to London to superintend the production of an English version of 'Le Puits d'Amour' at the Princess's Theatre, and also to arrange with Bunn for a new opera for Drury Lane. This work was his famous 'Bohemian Girl,' the libretto of which was concocted by Bunn on the foundation of a ballet by St. Georges, the subject of which in its turn was taken from one of the novels of Cervantes. The 'Bohemian Girl' was produced at Drury Lane on 27 Nov. 1843, the principal characters being played by Miss Rainforth, Miss Betts, Harrison, by Stretton, Borrani, and Darnset. The work ran for more than a hundred nights, and was translated into German, Italian, and French, being received everywhere with the greatest success. The following year (1844) witnessed the production at Paris of 'Les Quatre Fils Aymon' and in London of 'The Daughter of St. Mark,' in the libretto of which latter work Bunn excelled himself. These were followed at a short interval by 'L'Etoile de Séville' (Paris, 1845). In 1846, on the secession of Sir Michael Costa, Balfe was appointed conductor of the Italian Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre, then under the management of Lumley, a post for which he was eminently fitted by his personal skill as an instrumentalist and vocalist and his intimate knowledge of operatic details. His chief compositions during this period were the 'Bondman' (Drury Lane, December 1846) , 'The Devil's in it' (Surrey, 1847), and the 'Maid of Honour' (Covent Garden, 1847). The next few years were spent in various musical tours, both in England and abroad, the only work of importance which he composed being the 'Sicilian Bride,' produced at Drury Lane in 1852. In the same year he visited St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Italy, where he wrote an Italian opera, 'Pittore e Duca,' which was produced in 1856, and was played in an English version in London in 1882. In 1857 he returned to England, and was soon occupied in composing for the Pvne-Harrison company at Covent Garden the works which were its main support, the 'Rose of Castille' (October 1857), 'Satanella' (December 1858),'Bianca' (December 1860), the 'Puritan's Daughter' (November 1861), 'Blanche de Nevers' (November 1862), and the 'Armourer of Nantes' (February 1863). These, with a cantata, 'Maseppa,' and an operetta, the 'Sleeping Queen,' were the last works of Balfe's produced during his lifetime. In 1864 he left the house in Seymour Street, where he had lived for the last few years, and moved to Rowney Abbey, a small estate in Hertfordshire which he had bought. It was whilst living here, and on a visit to his daughter (the Duchess de Frias), that he wrote his last opera, the 'Knight of the Leopard,' the libretto of which was founded by the author, Arthur Matthison, on Sir Walter Scott's 'Talisman.' On this work Balfe bestowed more than ordinary care, and it was his hope that it would be performed on the English stage with Mlle. Tietjens and Messrs. Sims Reeves and Santley in the principal parts. With this aim before him ; he declined an offer which was pressed upon him by Napoleon III to have it produced in Paris; but his hope was never to be gratified, and the work was only destined to be produced in an Italian version and with a changed name four years after the composer's death. At the end of 1869 his 'Bohemian Girl' was produced in French at Paris, and once more foreign honours and decorations were conferred upon the Irish composer. In the spring of 1870 he returned from Paris to Rowney, but the severity of the winter and a domestic affliction he had sustained in the loss of his second daughter, Mrs. Behrend, had weakened his constitution to an alarming degree. In September he was taken ill with spasmodic asthma, a complaint from which he had long suffered, and though for a time he seemed to rally, he gradually sank, and died at Rowney Abbey on 20 Oct. 1870. He was buried at Kensal Green, and eight years later a tablet was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey.
In estimating Balfe's position amongst the musicians of his century, it is necessary to bear constantly in mind the circumstances under which he won his renown as an operatic composer. From his Irish parentage he inherited a gift of melody which never deserted him throughout his prolific career; from England he can have gained but little, for in those days English music was practically non-existent: it was from France and Italy that he received his musical education, and it was on French and Italian boards that his first laurels were won. But the period which Balfe's life covers saw the palm of musical pre-eminence transferred from Italy and France to Germany. When the 'Siege of Rochelle' was written, Wagner was unknown. Forty years later, when 'Il Talismano' was produced, the only living Italian composer of eminence had proclaimed to a great extent his adherence to the principles preached by the German school. Thus it is that opinions differ so widely as to the merits of Balfe's music. To musicians who judge him from the point of view of the old ideal, his brilliancy, melody, and fertility of invention will entitle him to a place beside Berlini, Rossini, and Auber, while, on the other hand, by those who look for deeper thought and more intellectual aims in music, he will be regarded as a mere melodist, the ephemeral caterer to a generation who judged rather by manner of expression than by the value of what was expressed. The truth, as is usual in such cases, lies midway between these extremes. His invention, knowledge of effect, and above all his melody, will keep his works from being forgotten ; and if they are deficient in those higher qualities demanded by the taste of the present day, that is no reason why, within their limits, they should cease to please. Balfe's music may not be the highest, but of its kind it attains a very high degree of excellence. A thorough master of the means at his command, and intimately aware of the limits of his powers, he never attempted what he could not perform, and the result was that he produced such a number of works which are always satisfactory and often delightful.[Kenny's Life of Balfe (1865); Barrett's Balfe and his Works (1882); Harmonicon for 1823; contemporary newspapers; Add. MSS. 29261, 29498; information from Madame Balfe.]