Michael William Balfe

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Michael William Balfe (May 15, 1808 - October 20, 1870), was an Irish composer, best known today for his opera The Bohemian Girl.

Balfe was born in Dublin, where his musical gifts became apparent at an early age. The only instruction he received was from his father, who was a dancing master, and from a musician, C. E. Horn (17861840). Between 1814 and 1815 he played the violin for his father's dancing-classes, and at the age of seven composed a polacca. In 1817 he appeared as a violinist in public, and in this year composed a ballad, first called "Young Fanny" and afterwards, when sung in Paul Pry by Madame Vestris, "The Lovers' Mistake". On the death of his father in 1823 he was engaged in the orchestra of Drury Lane, and being in possession of a small but pleasant baritone voice, he chose the career of an operatic singer. An unsuccessful debut was made at Norwich in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz. In 1825 he was taken to Rome by Count Mazzara, being introduced to Luigi Cherubini on the way. In Italy he wrote his first dramatic work, a ballet, La Perouse. At the close of 1827 he appeared as Figaro in Rossini's The Barber of Seville, at the Italian opera in Paris.

Balfe soon returned to Italy, where, during the next nine years, he remained, singing at various theatres and composing a number of operas. During this time he married Luisa Roser, a Hungarian singer whom he had met at Bergamo. Fétis says that the public indignation roused by an attempt at "improving" Meyerbeer’s opera Il Crociato by interpolated music of his own, compelled Balfe to throw up his engagement at the theatre La Fenice in Venice.

By this time he had produced his first complete opera, I Rivali di se stessi, at Palermo in the carnival season of 18291830; the opera Un Avvertimento ai gelosi at Pavia; and Enrico Quarto at Milan, where he had been engaged to sing with Malibran at the Scala. He returned to England in the spring of 1833, and on the 29th of October 1835 his Siege of Rochelle was produced and rapturously received at Drury Lane. Encouraged by his success, he produced The Maid of Artois on the 27th of May 1836--the success of the opera being confirmed by the exquisite singing of Malibran.

Balfe was a prolific composer, as may be seen from the following list of his English operas alone:

  • Siege of Rochelle (1835)
  • The Maid of Artois (1836)
  • Catherine Grey (1837)
  • Joan of Arc (1837)
  • Falstaff (1838, Lablache in title-role)
  • Amelia, or the Love Test (1838)
  • Keolanthe (1841)
  • The Bohemian Girl (1844)
  • The Daughter of St. Mark (1844)
  • The Enchantress (1845)
  • The Bondman (1846)
  • The Devil’s in it (1847)
  • The Maid of Honour (1847)
  • The Sicilian Bride (1852)
  • The Rose of Castile (1857)
  • Satanella (1858)
  • Bianca (1860)
  • The Puritan’s Daughter (1861)
  • The Armourer of Nantes (1863)
  • Blanche de Nevers (1863)

Balfe also wrote several operas for the Opéra Comique and Grand Opéra in Paris, where Scribe and Saint-George provided him with the libretti for his LePuits d’amour (1843) and his Les Quatre Fils Aymon (1844). His L’Etoile de Seville was written in 1845 for the Académie Royale.

Though he wrote many works, the only large-scale piece of Balfe's which is remembered today is The Bohemian Girl. Nonetheless, he is probably the second most famous 19th century composer of English language opera (after Arthur Sullivan). He was more famous in his day, both for his singing and for songs such as When other hearts, I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls and Come into the garden, Maud.

Balfe retired to Hertfordshire in 1864, where he owned a farm. He died in 1870, and was buried at Kensal Green. In 1882 a medallion portrait of him was unveiled in Westminster Abbey.

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