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The Music of 'The Bohemian Girl'
An Opera by Michael William Balfe


Opinions differ widely as to the merits of Balfe’s music. The position is well summed up by one of his biographers, Mr. Barclay Squire. To musicians who look at him from the point of view of the old ideal, his brilliancy, melody, and fertility of invention entitle him to a place beside Rossini and Auber; while, on the other hand, by those who look for deeper thought and more intellectual aims in music, he will be regarded as a mere melodist, an ephemeral caterer to a generation who judged rather by manner of expression than by the value of what is expressed. The truth lies midway between these extremes. Balfe’s invention, knowledge of effect, above all his melody, will keep his works from being forgotten; and if they are deficient in those higher qualities demanded by present-day taste, that is no reason why, within their limits, they should cease to please.

"The Bohemian Girl" has been described as a string of melodic pearls, and such indeed it is. Balfe had an inexhaustible vein of tunefulness. Strauss, senior, most popular of German dance-music composers, dubbed him "King of Melody." These airs of his are pure and natural, written spontaneously, as it would seem, without the slightest effort. The musical pedant may sneer at them, but they have a way of finding out the tender spots in the human heart.





"I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls," in the second Act, is one of the world’s most popular favourites. And who that is at all susceptible to the charms of music does not know "When other lips"? In connection with that celebrated air, the following anecdote of Balfe is worth reproducing as characteristic of the impulsive nature of the man. Balfe wrote six or seven settings of the words before he hit on the final form of "When other lips." He had tried, and tried, and tried again for the "right" melody. Late one night a cab drove up to a friend’s door, and a mighty peal of the bell startled the household. His friend, recognising Balfe’s voice outside, went down and opened the door. Balfe rushed in, waving a roll of music over his head, and calling out, "I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I’ve got it!" He ran upstairs to the drawing-room, sat down at the piano, and awoke the surprised echoes of the night with the now-renowned melody.

He can hardly have had such trouble with the other gems of "The Bohemian Girl." The whole thing sounds so natural and easy -- the fascinating melodies; the sparkling, animated choruses; the orchestration charming and restrained; no noise for the sake of noise, no exuberance of sound, no absolute vulgarity. Of course the modern musician may regard Balfe’s orchestration as comparatively feeble, his dramatic grip of a rather elementary kind. But Balfe produces his effect and that is enough.

Much that Balfe wrote in the way of opera has gone quite out of fashion. But "The Bohemian Girl" has never lost its power to please, and it must be many a day before that happens.





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