Singers and Musical Personalities ~ Michael William Balfe 1808 - 70

1.  Balfe

Michael William Balfe 1808 - 70

1.     Michael William Balfe (1808-70), composer and singer. by Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870).  Graphite and wash on paper, 190 x 162 mm. Purchased, Dublin, Mrs. A. Catterson Smith, 1912. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.   [Image in the public domain.]

Balfe enjoyed uninterrupted acclaim throughout his career. The operas he composed were sung everywhere, and they included The Daughter of St. Mark (1844);  The Enchantress (1845); The Rose of Castile (1857); Blanche d Nevers (1863) and Moro, the Painter of Antwerp, or Pittore e Duca (1881), among many others.  None of these, however, enjoyed quite the same fame as The Bohemian Girl.

As theatrical pieces, Balfe's works have not well withstood the test of time. He was sometimes called "the English Rossini" — and for fertility in affecting melody he deserved the title — but his work lacked seriousness of purpose. To modern ears, much of his drama seems shallow, the words almost nonsensical, and the tunes insipid. Where his reputation rests secure, however, is on the memorable and genial ballads he wrote.

One of Balfe's harshest critics, George Bernard Shaw, once compared modern English music of the Bohemian-Girl school to 'a jerry-built suburban square.' Writing of his homeland's musical heritage, he griped that 'the Irishman, lamed by a sense of inferiority, blusters most intolerably, and not infrequently ... goes the length of alleging that Balfe was a great composer' (review of "Irish Symphony" in The World, May 10, 1893). But even Shaw had to admit Balfe's skill in composing musical ballads.

In a scorching review of Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin, he acknowledged Balfe's mastery of the form:

'For, although I have described the form of the opera as Balfian, it must not therefore be inferred that Tchaikowsky's music is as common as Balfe's — ballads apart — generally was. Tchaikowsky composes with the seriousness of a man who knows how to value himself and his work too well to be capable of padding his opera with the childish claptrap that does duty for dramatic music in The Bohemian Girl. Balfe, whose ballads are better than Tchaikowsky's, never, as far as I know, wrote a whole scene well.'

[Text based on the Jamess Joyce website and other sources in the public domain, including The World, October 26, 1892.]


2.   Balfe 1848

Michael William Balfe 1808 - 70

2.    An elegant looking Michael Balfe, age 38, in Vienna (1846) at the time of the premiere of Die Zigeunerin.  {the German version of his famous opera, The Bohemian Girl.}     [Image in the public domain.]

In 1825, with a view to broadening his studies, Balfe went to Paris where he met 'Luigi Cherubini, (1760-1842). He took lessons in composition with Cherubini before moving to Italy to develop a career as an operatic singer and a composer.

While in Milan in the summer of 1825 Balfe was asked to compose the music for a 'Ballo Pantomino Serio' by the Director of the Teatro Canobbiana, an Englishman by the name of Joseph Glossup (1793-1850).  This work, Il Naufragio di La Peyrouse had text by William (Blewit) Barrymore (1759-1830) of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Dissatisfied with his progress in Italy Balfe returned to Paris in 1827 where he met Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) who was at his very zenith as a composer. At Rossini's invitation and after a period of vocal study with Giulio Bordogni (1789-1856) Balfe made his debut early in 1828 at the Theatre des Italiens as Figaro' in Il barbiere di Siviglia, singing opposite Henriette Sontag (1806-1854),  and other leading singers. 

Balfe a baritone, decided to return to Italy late in 1828. Towards the end of December 1828, he was in Milan where he sang in a concert. 'He then went on to Bologna where he became the guest of Rossini's friend, Marchese Francesco Sampieri, a patron of the arts and a composer. 

During this period in Italy, Balfe composed his first and only known Sinfonia and a Cantata for two voices which Giulia Grisi and the tenor Francesco Pedrazzi sang. Balfe was also recognized by the prestigious Bologna 'Academy of Music, for his talents. He was made a honorary lifetime member of the Academy in the composer category.

After Bologna, Balfe moved south, to Palermo, where he had an operatic engagement and also composed his first opera, I rivale di se stessi for  the manager of the Teatro Carolina.  He subsequently sang in several operas including the part of Valdeburgo in  Bellini's opera La straniera in Palermo.

His remaining years in Italy were spent as a singer and a composer of operas. By 1833, he had composed three operas which had been produced at Palermo(1829), I rivali di se stessi; Pavia(1831), Un avvertimento ai gelosi and at the important Teatro Carcano, Milan (1833), Enrico IV al passo della Marna in which both Balfe and his wife Lina sang principal roles.

It was also during this time (1831) while in Milan that he first met and later married (in Lugano, Switzerland), Lina Roser (1810-1888), who was then singing  in Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini operas and the works of other composers at, the Teatro Carcano in Milan and the Teatro Riccardi in Bergamo.

During the early 1830s Balfe and his wife, performed in operas by  Bellini, Pacini, Ricci, Donizetti, Rossini and others in places such as, Venice,  Milan, Trieste, Bergamo, Mantua, Parma, Piacenza, Turin, Varese, Pavia, and Novara. 

[Text based British and Irish World Website.]


3. Balfe

Michael William Balfe 1808 - 70

3.   Michael William Balfe 1808 - 70.  Photograph reproduced in BALFE, MICHAEL WILLIAM (1808-1870) in Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

Balfe also wrote non-dramatic ballads (By Killarney's Lakes was one of the most popular) as well as several "art songs" and musical settings for poems by Tennyson and Longfellow. Come into the Garden, Maud, in particular, became a famous tenor show song.

Retiring in 1864, Balfe continued to compose music to the end of his life. He died at his country estate in Hertfordshire in 1870.

[Text based on the Jamess Joyce website and Credo Reference.]


Balfe Anecdotes

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