Michael William Balfe

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Michael William Balfe in France. Michael William Balfe - Atelier Nadar - Original.jpg
Michael William Balfe in France.

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

<i>The Bohemian Girl</i> opera in three acts by Balfe

The Bohemian Girl is a ballad opera composed by Michael William Balfe with a libretto by Alfred Bunn. The plot is loosely based on a Cervantes tale, La Gitanilla.


After a short career as a violinist, Balfe pursued an operatic singing career, while he began to compose. In a career spanning more than 40 years, he composed at least 29 operas, almost 250 songs and other works. He was also a noted conductor, directing Italian Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre for seven years, among other conducting posts.

Her Majestys Theatre theatre in London

Her Majesty's Theatre is a West End theatre situated on Haymarket in the City of Westminster, London. The present building was designed by Charles J. Phipps and was constructed in 1897 for actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who established the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the theatre. In the early decades of the 20th century, Tree produced spectacular productions of Shakespeare and other classical works, and the theatre hosted premieres by major playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Synge, Noël Coward and J. B. Priestley. Since the First World War, the wide stage has made the theatre suitable for large-scale musical productions, and the theatre has accordingly specialised in hosting musicals. The theatre has been home to record-setting musical theatre runs, notably the First World War sensation Chu Chin Chow and the current production, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, which has played continuously at Her Majesty's since 1986.


Early life and career

Balfe in London Michael William Balfe portrait.jpg
Balfe in London

Balfe was born in Dublin, where his musical gifts became apparent at an early age. He received instruction from his father, a dancing master and violinist, and the composer William Rooke. [1] His family moved to Wexford when he was a child. Between 1814 and 1815, Balfe played the violin for his father's dancing-classes, and at the age of seven composed a polacca.

Dublin capital and largest city in Ireland

Dublin is the capital and largest city of Ireland. It is on the east coast of Ireland, in the province of Leinster, at the mouth of the River Liffey, and is bordered on the south by the Wicklow Mountains. It has an urban area population of 1,173,179, while the population of the Dublin Region, as of 2016, was 1,347,359, and the population of the Greater Dublin area was 1,904,806.

William Michael Rooke, was an Irish violinist and composer.

Wexford Place in Leinster, Ireland

Wexford is the county town of County Wexford, Ireland. Wexford lies on the south side of Wexford Harbour, the estuary of the River Slaney near the southeastern corner of the island of Ireland. The town is linked to Dublin by the M11/N11 National Primary Route; and to Rosslare Europort, Cork and Waterford by the N25. The national rail network connects it to Dublin and Rosslare Europort. It had a population of 20,188 according to the 2016 census.

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". In 1823, upon the death of his father, the teenaged Balfe moved to London and was engaged as a violinist in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He eventually became the leader of that orchestra. [2] While there, he studied violin with Charles Edward Horn and composition with Charles Frederick Horn, the organist, from 1824, at St. George's Chapel, Windsor.

Ballad form of verse, often a narrative set to music

A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. Ballads derive from the medieval French chanson balladée or ballade, which were originally "danced songs". Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and song of Ireland and Britain from the later medieval period until the 19th century. They were widely used across Europe, and later in Australia, North Africa, North America and South America. Ballads are often 13 lines with an ABABBCBC form, consisting of couplets of rhymed verse, each of 14 syllables. Another common form is ABAB or ABCB repeated, in alternating 8 and 6 syllable lines.

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Lucia Elizabeth Vestris was an English actress and a contralto opera singer, appearing in works by, among others, Mozart and Rossini. While popular in her time, she was more notable as a theatre producer and manager. After accumulating a fortune from her performances, she leased the Olympic Theatre in London and produced a series of burlesques and extravaganzas, especially popular works by James Planché, for which the house became famous. She also produced his work at other theatres she managed.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane West End theatre building in Covent Garden, London, England

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, commonly known as Drury Lane, is a West End theatre and Grade I listed building in Covent Garden, London, England. The building faces Catherine Street and backs onto Drury Lane. The building is the most recent in a line of four theatres which were built at the same location, the earliest of which dated back to 1663, making it the oldest theatre site in London still in use. According to the author Peter Thomson, for its first two centuries, Drury Lane could "reasonably have claimed to be London's leading theatre". For most of that time, it was one of a handful of patent theatres, granted monopoly rights to the production of "legitimate" drama in London.

While still playing the violin, Balfe pursued a career as an opera singer. He debuted unsuccessfully at Norwich in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz . In 1825, Count Mazzara took him to Rome for vocal and musical studies and introduced him to Luigi Cherubini. Balfe also pursued composing: in Italy, he wrote his first dramatic work, a ballet, La Perouse. He became a protégée of Rossini's, and at the close of 1827, he appeared as Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Italian opera in Paris.

Norwich City and non-metropolitan district in England

Norwich is a historic city in Norfolk, England. Situated on the River Wensum in East Anglia, it lies approximately 100 miles (161 km) north-east of London. It is the county town of Norfolk and is considered the capital of East Anglia, with a population of 141,300. From the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution, Norwich was the largest city in England after London, and one of the most important.

Carl Maria von Weber German composer

Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was a German composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist and critic, and was one of the first significant composers of the Romantic school.

<i>Der Freischütz</i> German opera

Der Freischütz, Op. 77, J. 277, is a German opera with spoken dialogue in three acts by Carl Maria von Weber with a libretto by Friedrich Kind. It premiered on 18 June 1821 at the Schauspielhaus Berlin. It is considered the first important German Romantic opera, especially in its national identity and stark emotionality.

Balfe soon returned to Italy, where he was based for the next eight years, singing and composing several operas. He met Maria Malibran while singing at the Paris Opera during this period. In 1829 in Bologna, Balfe composed his first cantata for the soprano Giulia Grisi, then 18 years old. She performed it with the tenor Francesco Pedrazzi with much success. Balfe produced his first complete opera, I rivali di se stessi, at Palermo in the carnival season of 1829—1830.

Maria Malibran French mezzo-soprano

Maria Felicia Malibran was a Spanish singer who commonly sang both contralto and soprano parts, and was one of the best-known opera singers of the 19th century. Malibran was known for her stormy personality and dramatic intensity, becoming a legendary figure after her death at age 28. Contemporary accounts of her voice describe its range, power and flexibility as extraordinary.

Paris Opera the primary opera company of France

The Paris Opera is the primary opera and ballet company of France. It was founded in 1669 by Louis XIV as the Académie d'Opéra, and shortly thereafter was placed under the leadership of Jean-Baptiste Lully and officially renamed the Académie Royale de Musique, but continued to be known more simply as the Opéra. Classical ballet as it is known today arose within the Paris Opera as the Paris Opera Ballet and has remained an integral and important part of the company. Currently called the Opéra National de Paris, it mainly produces operas at its modern 2700-seat theatre Opéra Bastille which opened in 1989, and ballets and some classical operas at the older 1970-seat Palais Garnier which opened in 1875. Small scale and contemporary works are also staged in the 500-seat Amphitheatre under the Opéra Bastille.

Bologna Comune in Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Bologna is the capital and largest city of the Emilia-Romagna Region in Northern Italy. It is the seventh most populous city in Italy, at the heart of a metropolitan area of about one million people.

Around 1831, he married Lina Roser (1806–1888), a Hungarian-born singer of Austrian parentage whom he had met at Bergamo. [3] The couple had two sons and two daughters. Their younger son, Edward, died in infancy. Their elder son, Michael William Jr., died in 1915. Their daughters were Louisa (1832–1869) and Victoire (1837–1871). Balfe wrote another opera Un avvertimento ai gelosi at Pavia, and Enrico Quarto at Milan, where he had been engaged to sing in Rossini's Otello with Malibran at La Scala in 1834. An unpopular attempt at "improving" Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera, Il crociato in Egitto , by interpolated music of his own, compelled Balfe to throw up his engagement at the theatre La Fenice in Venice.

Composing success

Balfe in 1846 Balfe38(1846).jpg
Balfe in 1846

Balfe returned to London with his wife and young daughter in May 1835. His initial success took place some months later, with the premiere of The Siege of Rochelle on 29 October 1835 at Drury Lane. Encouraged by his success, he produced The Maid of Artois in 1836; which was followed by more operas in English.

In July 1838, Balfe composed a new opera, Falstaff, for The Italian Opera House, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor , with an Italian libretto by S. Manfredo Maggione. The production starred his friends Luigi Lablache (bass) in the title role, Giulia Grisi (soprano), Giovanni Battista Rubini (tenor), and Antonio Tamburini (baritone). The same four singers had premiered Bellini's, I puritani at the Italian Opera in Paris in 1835. [3]

In 1841, Balfe founded the National Opera at the Lyceum Theatre, but the venture was a failure. The same year, he premiered his opera, Keolanthe. He then moved to Paris, presenting Le Puits d'amour (1843) in early 1843, followed by his opera based on Les quatre fils Aymon (1844) for the Opéra-Comique (also popular in German-speaking countries for many years as Die vier Haimonskinder) and L'étoile de Seville (1845) for the Opéra. Their librettos were written by Eugène Scribe and others. [4] Meanwhile, in 1843, Balfe returned to London where he produced his most successful work, The Bohemian Girl , on 27 November 1843 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The piece ran for over 100 nights, and productions were soon mounted in New York, Dublin, Philadelphia, Vienna (in German), Sydney, and throughout Europe and elsewhere. In 1854, an Italian adaptation called La Zingara was mounted in Trieste with great success, and it too was performed internationally in both Italian and German. In 1862, a four-act French version, entitled La Bohemienne was produced in France and was again a success. [3]

Later years

Balfe's funerary monument at Kensal Green Cemetery, London, photographed in 2014 Michael William Balfe grave Kensal Green 2014.jpg
Balfe's funerary monument at Kensal Green Cemetery, London, photographed in 2014

From 1846 to 1852, Balfe was appointed musical director and principal conductor for the Italian Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre, [5] with Max Maretzek as his assistant. [6] There he first produced several of Verdi's operas for London audiences. He conducted for Jenny Lind at her opera debut and on many occasions thereafter. [3]

In 1851, in anticipation of the Great International Exhibition in London, Balfe composed an innovative cantata, Inno Delle Nazioni, sung by nine female singers, each representing a country. Balfe continued to compose new operas in English, including The Armourer of Nantes (1863), and wrote hundreds of songs, such as "When other hearts", "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" (from The Bohemian Girl), "Come into the Garden, Maud", "Killarney" and "Excelsior" (a setting of the poem by Longfellow). [7] His last opera, nearly completed when he died, was The Knight of the Leopard and achieved considerable success in Italian as Il Talismano. [3] [8]

Balfe retired in 1864 to Hertfordshire, where he rented a country estate. He died at his home in Rowney Abbey, Ware, Hertfordshire, in 1870, aged 62, and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London, next to fellow Irish composer William Vincent Wallace, who had died five years before. In 1882, a medallion portrait of him was unveiled in Westminster Abbey. A London County Council plaque unveiled in 1912 commemorates Balfe at 12 Seymour Street, Marylebone. [9]

In all, Balfe composed at least 29 operas. [10] He also wrote several cantatas (including Mazeppa in 1862) and a symphony (1829). Balfe's only large-scale piece that is still performed regularly today is The Bohemian Girl.[ citation needed ]

Selected compositions

Operas, with first performances [10]


Recordings of Balfe's work include the following: [11]

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  1. Michael William Balfe, Oxford Music Online, accessed 17 November 2012 (subscription required)
  2. 1 2 Falstaff recording, RTÉ LyricFM CD119, CD notes by Basil Walsh (2008)
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Walsh Basil. "Michael William Balfe" at the British and Irish World website
  4. Burton, in Sadie (ed.) 1998, p. 288
  5. Walsh, Basil. "Michael W. Balfe (1808–70): His Life and Career" Victoria Web, accessed 7 February 2008
  6. "This day, May 15, in Jewish history". Cleveland Jewish News.
  7. "What's in a name?" Archived 5 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine . at the Excelsior Trust website. Accessed 17 August 2010.
  8. Trutt, David. Introduction and link to English-language libretto of Il Talismano, The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, accessed 2 October 2010
  9. "Balfe, Michael William (1808–1870)". English Heritage. Retrieved 19 October 2012.
  10. 1 2 Walsh (2008), pp. 184–216
  11. Klein, Axel. "Michael William Balfe", Axel Klein – Irish Music Research, accessed 4 March 2015