Michael William Balfe(Composer 1808-1870)

Balfe was born in Dublin 15th May 1808 and died in England 20th October 1870.

Despite the fact that nowadays ' The Bohemian Girl '   is   the only one of his 28 Operas performed - though 'The Siege of Rochelle' & 'The Rose of Castile' were performed in the early days of The Wexford Festival - he is really a much neglected  as composer, singer and conductor. [I have a recording of The Rose of Castile  performance and many of the other Operas performed at Wexford  Festival.]

He started his career  in music very early. By the time he was seven he had composed and had publicly performed a Polacca which, according to Barret in his book, was extant at the time the book was published. He made his violin soloist debut at the age of eight in May 1816. He wrote the Ballad "Young Fanny" which with new words by T Haynes Baley was then called "The Lover's Mistake" before he was nine. This ballad was sung by Madam Vestris and many of the leading singers of that time. It was published later in "The Universal Songster " in 1826.

In 1823 shortly after the death of his father he was taken to London where he got a post as violinist in The Drury  Lane Theatre Orchestra- eventually becoming leading Violinist with the orchestra.

He had by now developed a fine  though untrained Baritone voice which, didn't prevent the  famous Mr. Tom Cook  also from Dublin - whom he met in London - from offering him the part of Caspar in  Weber's "Der Freischutz" which was to be produced in Norwich. Regrettably he was not a great success.

Shortly after this he was taken to Italy by Count Mazzara. They travelled via Paris where he met Cherubini who was at that time director of the Royal Conservatoire of Paris. Cherubini,  after hearing Balfe both on the Piano & Violin and gauging the extent of his musical knowledge by a perusal of several compositions submitted to him, was so impressed that he offered to give Balfe instructions and superintend his further education. However, Balfe was set on getting to Italy.

In Italy he studied Singing  under Filippo Galli the famous bass for whom Rossini  had written the part of Assur  [Later to be sung by another Irish Singer Signor Foli] in Semiramide.  After this sojourn in Italy he returned to Paris and at the house of Cherubini he met Rossini. During the evening Rossini and his wife Colbran (The original Rosina in The Barber of Seville) sang duets and when Balfe was asked to sing he accompanied himself on the piano. He very bravely sang Largo al Factotum from the Barber of Saville with such satisfactory effect that Rossini is said to have declared that, till then he had thought that none had been able to play and sing that song but himself. Balfe also sang duets with Colbran. Rossini invited Balfe to call upon him the following day. As a result of all this Rossini offered to procure for him an engagement at The Theatre Italiens if he would study with Bordogni for 12 months. How successful he was may be judged from the fact that at the end of the 12 months he made his debut with a stellar cast which included Sontag,  Bordogni etc in the Il Barbiere di Sivilglia.  He sang nine performances  such was his success that he was offered a 3 year contract.  Barrett says he sang in Cenerentola , Don Giovanni (The Don), La Gazza Ladra & L'Inganno Infelece.

His first major work as a composer  was when he was  recommended by Rossini to compose some additional music for the French performance of Zingarelli's Romeo  e Giuletta . He was required to compose a Overture, Two choruses, a  scene for Malibran, and a Cavatina & aria for Mdlle. Blasis as  Giuletta.

This was followed by his first opera  Atala unfortunately now lost. It was performed privately  by  Malibran & Nourrit though unfinished  at the time of the disappearance of the score. [It is worth noting that he sang for the first time with Malibran in the early 1834 at La Scala] As a result of the excessive work that he had put into "Atala" he collapsed before it was finished. He retired to Italy to recuperate.

The first of Balfe's Operas to be performed in toto - " I Rivali di se Stessi",  was written in 20 days  in 1829. This was the beginning of a wonderful career which was to draw to an end with the posthumous performance of IL TALISMANO in 1874 with Christine Nilsson  & Campanini in the leading roles.

There will be much more to follow on this  biography it is a matter of time. However  Lets have some of  other 27 operas.  I am aware of the difficulty of finding Orchestral parts though Satanella & The Daughter of St. Mark were performed in recent years in England and were recorded at the time. According to a friend of mine The Conductor Arthur Hammond claimed that he had conducted a performance of Les Quatre Fils d'Aymon in Dublin sometime in the 1940/50 . Anybody know of this?

There are two Biographies on Balfe one by  Barrett c 1862 and the other by Kenny written 1875. I have both of these but I am always happy to receive any  information concerning Balfe.  I also have  some  letters written by him , his will, some musical quotations and some playbills. Likewise I wish to purchase any items  like these.

Recordings of some of his Operas

Siege of Rochelle.   RTE Audio tape

Bohemian Girl..EMI LP CLP3651.also has selections from Maritana (Wallace) Lily of Killarney (Benedct) assisting artists Veronica Dunne Soprano, U Deane Tenor & E Hinds Baritone

Bohemian Girl . Complete Opera  2 CDs Argo 433 324-2. N Thomas Soprano, P Power Tenor,   J Summers  Baritone, RTE Symphony Orch. Condt. R Bonynge

Daughter of St.Mark SRRE 141/2. F Black Soprano, G Shovelton Tenor,    M King Bass,  N  Beavan Baritone

Rose of Castile RRE 191/2  RTE Radio recording of The  First Wexford Festival 1951. Maurneen Springer, Soprano,  Angela O'Connor Soprano,  Murray Dickie Tenor,  James Cuthbert Baritone

Satanella RRE 173/4 J Tateossian,Soprano,D Flint Tenor, J Donert Baritone

Concert of Excerpts from Quatre fils d'Aymon, Siege of Rochelle, Maid of Artois, Rose of Castile, Sicilian Bride, Bohemian Girl  Il Talismano,  Joan of Arc, Puits  d'Amour.

Jerry Hadley Age of Bel Canto CD  RCA09026-68030 Arias  from Rose of Castile & Bohemian Girl, also Donizetti,Rossini, Meyerbeer etc

Sumi  Jo Carnaval CD Decca 440679-2  Aria from Puits d'Amour plus others by Thomas,Herold,Adam etc..



Derek Walsh 1995





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