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The Life of Michael William Balfe




Michael William Balfe was born in Dublin in May 1808. His family had been professionally associated with music and the stage for many years. His grandfather played in the band of a Dublin theatre, and it is said that his great-grandfather was a pupil of the famous violinist, Dubourg, who played at the first performance of "The Messiah" in 1742. Balfe’s father was a good violinist himself, and it was from him that the future composer received his first lessons. Later on, being entrusted to a more advanced master, he made such progress that he was able to appear in public -- in the double character of violinist and composer, too! -- before he was seven years old. Two years later, Madame Vestris was singing his ballads before enthusiastic audiences in the comedy of "Paul Pry" -- ballads which are not quite forgotten even now.

Young Balfe went on studying the violin with a view to a professional career until his father died in 1823. Then he determined to try his fortune in London. Charles Edward Horn, the singer (the same who wrote the air of "Cherry Ripe"), happened to be fulfilling an engagement in Dublin. Balfe went to him, and asked to be taken to London as an articled pupil. Horn foresaw a musical future for the young aspirant, and articles were signed for a period of seven years. Balfe had not been many weeks in the metropolis when an unsuccessful début at the Oratorio concerts proved to him the need of further study, and study was diligently pursued for the next few years.

Meanwhile, he had to live, and to that end he accepted engagements as a violinist at Drury Lane Theatre and elsewhere. He conceived an idea that he might make something out of his voice; and the first result of that ideas was an unappreciated appearance on the operatic stage -- at Norwich, as Caspar in "Der Freischutz." Soon after this he had a romantic sort of experience. In London he met a certain Count Mazzara, who seeing in him the very image of a son he had just lost, offered to take Balfe with him to Italy and bear the costs of his further training. Balfe lived in Rome with the Count for some time, pursuing his studies in a somewhat desultory fashion.

At Milan, later, he studied especially singing and composition, and wrote music for a ballet which had a remarkable success. Next we find him in Paris, where the stern old Cherubini introduced him to Rossini. Rossini was so delighted with his singing of an air from "The Barber" that he promised to engage Blafe for the Italian Opera if he would only study under Bordogni for a year before his debut. Money was found for this purpose by a friend of Cherubini, and when the time came, Balfe made such a satisfactory appearance at the Théâtre des Italiens that he was engaged for three years at a salary of 15,000 francs for the first year, 20,000 francs for the second, and 25,000 francs for the third. His health did not hold out to enable him to complete the time, and he returned to Italy, where he sang at Palermo and elsewhere. It was now that he met his future wife, Mdlle. Lina Rosa, a Hungarian singer of great talent and beauty, whom he shortly afterwards married.





A meeting with Malibran resulted in an operatic and concert tour with that great artist. Then he returned to England, where his first notable opera, "The Siege of Rochelle," was produced with immense success at Drury Lane in October 1835. Next year came "The Maid of Artois," written for Malibran, for which he received £100. Opera succeeded opera with wonderful celerity. Balfe was a most prolific composer, having between 1829 and 1870 written no fever than twenty-nine operas. Indeed, with few exceptions, English opera was represented for more than a quarter of a century solely by Balfe. He wrote with great quickness and spontaneity; in fact it has been charged against him that he was "too ready." But he cared very little for the dicta of the pedants and the big-wigs. He "wrote what came at the moment to his mind; he drew his inspiration at an ever-welling fount of melody, a spring that was perennially fresh and sparkling." There is a good illustration of this. The story goes that a young musician applied to Balfe for lessons in harmony and composition. On being told that he had already gone through Albrechtsberger’s and Cherubini’s works on counterpoint and fugue, Balfe very candidly said to the intended pupil: "Then you had better go to some one else, for I’m blest if you don’t understand much more already of such matters than I could teach you in a century."

One would have thought that the labour entailed in the composition of such a host of operatic works would exclude the possibility of other engagements. But night after night found Balfe on the boards at Drury Lane; now playing Theodore in "Joan of Arc." And again sustaining the principal role in "Farinelle," or taking part in "Scaramuzzia" at the Lyceum. There can be no question that Balfe’s knowledge of vocalisation and his powers as a singer helped him greatly to write in that tuneful, mellifluous style which marks him as one of the sweetest melodists of his time.

Grown thus familiar with the stage, we cannot wonder that Balfe should have been tempted, like Handel, to undertake the responsibilities of management. He leased the Lyceum in 1840, and came before the public with "Keolanthe," Madame Balfe playing the principal part. Fortune, alas! forsook him, and the enterprise was abandoned. It was under this disappointment that he removed to Paris, whither his fame had preceded him. In 1843 he was back in England, with "The Bohemian Girl." He went to Paris again in 1845; but next year, on the secession of Sir Michael Costa, he was appointed conductor of the Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre; a post which he was well able to fill by his long acquaintance with operatic details, and his personal skill as a player and singer. At the end of 1852 he was released from all his musical engagements, and the next few years were spent in various musical tours in England and abroad. Balfe’s active career was practically over by this time. In 1864 he gave up his London house and removed to Rowney Abbey, a small estate in Hertfordshire, which he had bought. It was there that he died in the autumn of 1870. His remains rest in Kensal Green Cemetery, and there is a tablet to his memory in Westminster Abbey.





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