Michael William Balfe (May 15, 1808 –October 20, 1870) was an Irish composer, best-remembered for his opera The Bohemian Girl. Balfe was born on May 15, 1808, in Dublin, Ireland, where his musical gifts became apparent at an early age. In Dublin he received instruction from his father, William Balfe, a dancing schoolmaster and violinist who offered classes in Dublin and Wexford, violinist James Barton, and the composer William Rooke (1794-1847). His family moved to Wexford when he was a child, where he took violin and music lessons with others. Between 1814 and 1815, Balfe, a child prodigy, played the violin for his father’s dancing-classes, and at the age of seven composed a polacca. In 1817, at age nine, he appeared as a violinist in public at a concert in Dublin’s Rotunda Concert Rooms, and in that year composed a ballad, first called “Young Fanny” and afterwards, when sung in Paul Pry by Madame Vestris, “The Lovers’ Mistake.” It was published in 1822. Other performances quickly followed, at the Crow Street Theatre and again at the Rotunda, all with great success over the next few years. 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. While there, he studied violin with Charles Edward Horn (1786-1849) and composition with Horn’s father Carl Frederick Horn (1762-1830), the organist, from 1824, at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.
In 1824 Balfe, joined the orchestra at the Drury Lane Theatre, which was then under the direction of Irishman Tom Cooke (1782-1848), whom Balfe had known from his days in Dublin. 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, Balfe was interested in broadening his studies and first went to Paris where he was introduced to the great composers, Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), and Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), who took a personal interest in him and his musical talents. On the advice of Rossini, Count Mazzara took him to Rome for vocal and musical studies with Cherubini. He spend the next few years in Italy studying singing with the famous Rossini singer, Filippo Galli (1783-1853), and taking music composition lessons from Ferdinando Paer (1771-1839), in Rome. Later in Milan he studied harmony and counterpoint with Vincenzo Federici (1764-1827).
Balfe also pursued composing: in Italy, he wrote his first dramatic work, a ballet, La Perouse. He became a protégée of Rossini’s, at Rossini’s invitation made his debut early in 1828, appearing as Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Italian opera in Paris, singing opposite Henriette Sontag (1806-54), Giulio Bordogni (1789-1856) and others. He also studied singing with Bordogni. Balfe, a bass-baritone, soon decided to return to Italy in 1829 to gain more experience and was based there 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. He made his debut in the part of Valdeburgo in Bellini’s opera La straniera in Palermo in January 1830. By 1831, when he was only 23 years old, his first three operas had been produced in Palermo, Pavia, and Milan.
Around 1831, during this period while in the Milan (or possibly in the Bergamo) area, Balfe met and married Lina Roser (1806–1888), a Hungarian-born singer of Austrian parentage who was then sharing the stage with him in Bellini and Rossini operas at the Teatro Carcano in Milan early in 1831. The couple had two sons and two daughters. Their elder son, Michael William Jr., died in 1915. Their younger son, Edward, died in infancy. 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 opposite the renowned mezzo-soprano, Maria Malibran (1808-36) at La Scala in 1834. He appeared again with Malibran in Venice early in 1835, singing once more in Rossini and Bellini operas. An unpopular attempt at “improving” Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera, Il crociato in Egitto, by interpolated music of his own, compelled Balfe to give up his engagement at the theatre La Fenice in Venice. Balfe returned to London with his wife and young daughter in May 1835 , participating with the great Lablache, Tamburini, Rubini and Grisi in a concert in Vauxhall Gardens. His initial success took place some months later, with the premiere of The Siege of Rochelle on October 29, 1835 at Drury Lane. This began Balfe’s brilliant career as a composer of operatic works. He was 27 years old! 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. Also in 1838, he made his first return to Ireland where he sang in operas and in concerts. A public dinner was held at Morrison’s’ Hotel in Dublin in December of that year. 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 and L’étoile de Seville (1845) for the Opéra. Their librettos were written by Eugène Scribe and others. Meanwhile, in 1843, Balfe returned to London where he produced his most successful work, The Bohemian Girl, on November 27, 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.
From 1846 to 1852, Balfe was appointed musical director and principal conductor for the Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre, with Max Maretzek as his assistant. There he first produced several of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas for London audiences. He conducted for Jenny Lind at her opera debut and on many occasions thereafter. When Verdi came to London in 1847 to conduct the premiere of his new opera I Masnadieri, starring Jenny Lind, after two performances he turned over his baton to Balfe to finish the run. 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). His last opera, nearly completed when he died, was The Knight of the Leopard and achieved considerable success in Italian as Il Talismano.
Balfe retired in 1864 to Hertfordshire, where he rented a country estate. He died from bronchial asthma (a condition from which he suffered most of his life) complicated by pneumonia at his home in Rowney Abbey, Ware, Hertfordshire, England, on October 20, 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. He had been ill for almost a year before his demise. In a career spanning more than 40 years, Balfe composed at least 29 operas. He also wrote several cantatas (including Mazeppa in 1862), almost 250 songs, a symphony (1829), and other works. Balfe’s only large-scale piece that is still performed regularly today is The Bohemian Girl. He was also a noted conductor, directing Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre for seven years, among other conducting posts.
The following work by Michael William Balfe is contained in my collection:
The Bohemian Girl (1843): Overture.