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Michael BALFE (1808-1870)

November 2020

BALFE, Michael (b. Dublin, 15 May1808; d. Rowney Abbey, Ware, Hertfordshire, 20 October 1870)

Balfe was a multi-talented musician, a child prodigy on the violin and an accomplished bass vocalist who sang with many of the greatest singers of his generation, both on the Continent and in Britain.  Best known to posterity as a composer of English Operas, his works were enormously popular with the Victorian general public who frequented the theatres and bought the sheet music for his songs and ballads.  Many of these were sung in concert by the well-known singers of the time.  The popularity of his works has waned with changing taste, and most of his music has not been recorded, but Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland believed that he was of supreme importance and considered it time for his music to be re-discovered and re-evaluated.

Michael William Balfe was born at 10 Pitt Street in Dublin, on 15 May 1808, the eldest child of William Balfe, a dancing master and violinist, and his wife Catherine Teresa née Ryan.  (Pitt Street was renamed Balfe Street in 1917.)  His paternal grandfather had been ballet master at Dublin’s Crow Street Theatre and his great-grandfather was a violinist.  When Balfe was a small child he learnt to dance and play the violin.  His talents became obvious and he received lessons from various musicians working in Dublin and Wexford.  James Barton played in the orchestra at the Crow Street Theatre and wrote a special concerto for Balfe to perform at his first public concerts.  Never very tall, as a child he probably looked younger than his years, so when he first appeared in 1817 he was actually nine years old but said to be only seven.  He played at the Rotunda and at Barton’s and Willman’s benefits at the Theatre Royal, Dublin in May and June 1817.

“During the interval between the Play and the concluding entertainments, at Mr Willman’s benefit on Wednesday evening, the delight of the audience was excited in an intense degree by the wonderful performances on the violin, of Master Balfe, a child only seven years of age, who for the third time, appeared before the public.  We really believe, a more extraordinary exhibition of musical taste and talent, in a child, was never witnessed. … The amazing execution, the delicacy, grace, and sweetness, with which this infant performer played the beautiful Irish air the Minstrel Boy, strongly testified by the most unbounded plaudits. …”  Saunders News Letter, 30 June 1817.

He was also composing from an early age and his first published work, a song The Lover’s Mistake appeared in 1822.  By the time of his father’s death in 1823 at the early age of 40, Balfe was then 14 and persuaded the tenor and composer Charles Edward Horn (1786-1849), who had known him for some time, to take him to London as his apprentice.  Horn had a contract at Drury Lane and the Dublin-born Thomas Simpson Cooke, who was Musical Director there, gave Balfe a job in the orchestra.  Again he appeared at concerts as a child prodigy, his first being on 19 March 1823 at Drury Lane, in ‘A Grand Selection of Antient and Modern Music, under the Direction of Mr. Bochsa. … between the second and third Parts … A new Concerto on the Violin, Master Balfe (his first apperance). … Conductor, Sir George Smart. …’.

From the start of his time in England, he was lucky to be surrounded by the elite of his profession.  His first appearance at Covent Garden was for the Benefit of Miss F. H. Kelly on 7 June 1823.

On 18 September 1824 there was an advertisement in the Norfolk Chronicle for Festival Week.  Edward Crook of Drury Lane opened the Theatre Royal, Norwich for a week and performances included “Master Balfe, The Musical Prodigy, (of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane,) in which he will introduce the favourite Airs of Molly Astore and Mrs M’Cloud, composed expressly for him by Mr T Cooke.”  He is supposed to have made an unsuccessful debut as a singer at Norwich as Caspar in Der Freischütz, possibly it was during this short season when the opera was played.

Balfe then went to the Continent to study and perform for the next eight years.  He arrived in Paris in 1825 where he was introduced to Cherubini.  In 1826 he was in Milan and wrote the ballet music Il naufragio di La Perouse, which had its premiere at Teatro Cannobiana and was quite successful.  In 1828, back in Paris for the season at Théâtre-Italiens, he sang opposite both Henrietta Sontag and also Maria Malibran who became a good friend.  By 1831 he was singing many leading roles in provincial Italian opera houses.  He met the beautiful soprano Alina Roser (known as Lina) in Bergamo where they were appearing at the Teatro Riccardi and later the same year they were married in Lugano, Switzerland.  It was a long and happy marriage and they had four children.

In 1834 Malibran arranged that he should sing at La Scala with her and his first appearance there was as Iago in Otello with Malibran as Desdemona.  In Venice Lina sang Adalgisa with Malibran as Norma.  In May 1835, he was 27 and he and Lina with their small daughter Louisa, travelled to London arriving in time for him to replace Lablache, who was ill, in Mr Begrez’s Morning Concert at the King’s Theatre.

“His part was admirably supplied by Mr Balfe, who made a successful debut at the Ancient Concerts …” Morning Post, 30 May 1835.

He had already written three operas which had premieres in Palermo, Pavia and Milan, and he was now invited by the Drury Lane manager, Alfred Bunn, to write another.  The Siege of Rochelle had its premiere on 29 October 1835 and proved an instant success.  Altogether Balfe wrote eleven operas for Drury Lane including his best known and most popular opera The Bohemian Girl.  In 1836 their son Michael William Balfe was born.  Balfe was very much a family man, devoted to his wife and children.  He knew the music publisher Frederick Beale well as they lived near each other in Conduit Street.  Balfe used to visit the family regularly when Beale’s son Willert was about eight years old.  In the latter’s book The Light of Other Days, published in 1894, he describes Balfe : – “A blue-eyed handsome little fellow, the very embodiment of sunny smiles and laughter, he was the merriest playmate we children had yet known.  We adored him.  He romped with us, told us fairy tales, sang comic songs to us, until we were completely infatuated and hopelessly fascinated by his good humour and inexhaustible fun.”

His next work was The Maid of Artois for Malibran, which had its premiere at Drury Lane on 27 May 1836.  The news of her death on 23 September in Manchester, must have been a real blow.  They were the same age, only 28, and she had proved to be a good friend, helping him when she already had influence.

As the Balfes had married in a Catholic ceremony, when they were back in London they had to legalise their marriage by having a second wedding in an Anglican church.  This took place at St Marylebone Parish Church on 23 December 1837.  Lina signed the register Alina Balfe née Roser.  Under profession, Balfe describes himself as ‘Esqr.’ and used the same title for his father William’s rank or profession.

In 1838 he returned to Dublin for the first time in 15 years.  He sang in at least eight operas including two of his own.  His mother was not well and he promised to take her back to England with him.  This happened in January 1839 but sadly, she died shortly after their arrival in London.  In May he sang in a season at the Surrey Theatre with Emma Romer and in July he ventured into management for the first time with a short season at the English Opera House (Lyceum).  Lina had just given birth to their fourth child, Edward, so did she did not sing with him in this season.  On 22 July they opened with his opera The Veiled Lady ; or, Diadeste, he sang Count Steno and Miss Rainforth Marchioness Manfredi.  On 31 August he took a benefit which allowed Madame Balfe to make her first appearance on the English stage as Amina in La Sonnambula and received good reviews.

In March 1841, Balfe became Manager of the Theatre Royal English Opera for a second season but this time there were many problems.  The first night had to be postponed because Henry Phillips was late travelling back from Dublin.  They opened on 9 March with the premiere of his latest opera Keolanthe ; or, the Unearthly Bride with Lina Balfe in the main part.  Their little son Edward who was 21 months old died of hydrocephalus on 23 April.  The programme for the previous week had not included either Balfe or Lina but they both sang again in Keolanthe on the day of his funeral, 26 April.  The season had to close early on 22 May following broken promises of new works by other composers and Henry Phillips walking out, which ended their long friendship. Balfe lost a lot of money on the season and had to suffer the embarrassment of details of his bankruptcy proceedings being reported month by month in the newspapers.

Much has been written about Balfe’s most enduring and popular grand opera The Bohemian Girl which opened at Drury Lane on 27 November 1843, with Elizabeth Rainforth, William Harrison, Conrado Borrani and George Stretton.  Balfe conducted and received an ovation when he appeared.  The house was packed and very appreciative, demanding encores, six in all including the overture.  The opera received over 100 performances and within a year more than 80,000 copies of sheet music had been sold, making a fortune for the publishers, as Balfe had evidently sold the copyright for £450.  After his Benefit on 7 December the Balfes then moved on to Paris leaving Julius Benedict to conduct the rest of the season.  Later, there were both French and Italian versions of the opera which differed from the original but were both successful.

On 14 May 1845, his new opera The Enchantress, which he had written especially for Anna Thillon, had its premiere at Drury Lane with Balfe conducting.  Madame Thillon was then taken ill and the second performance could not take place until 26 May.  It was a real success and received 25 performances.  In the last two weeks of the season they sang it every night.  There was a serious accident on 25 June, just after the curtain came down and while Madame Thillon was still on the stage, some heavy machinery somehow fell onto two scene shifters Mr Kirby and Mr Hathaway, who were badly hurt and were taken straight to hospital.  This was reported in many papers but no more news of their fate emerged.  Despite its success, The Enchantress was never performed again in England, but Anna Thillon went on to sing it on her tour of America before her early retirement to Torquay in Devon.

In 1846 Benjamin Lumley was Manager of the Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London.  The eminent singers in his company, including Grisi, Mario, Lablache and the conductor Michael Costa with many of the orchestral players deserted Lumley and moved to Covent Garden to fulfil longer contracts than he was offering them for this season.  Balfe was taken on by Lumley as Musical Director and Conductor for the season and remained there until August 1852.  Without a top quality orchestra Lumley could not have put on a season, so Balfe invited the best orchestral players he knew from Europe and, after a short time of intensive rehearsal in London, turned them into a first class orchestra.  Lumley was a control fanatic by his own account and always considered Balfe to be just another of his employees.  He was often grudging in his praise but the London musical critics appreciated what Balfe had achieved in turning the new orchestra into a quality ensemble comparable to anything to be found in Europe.  The season opened 3 March 1846.  Later in the year he wrote The Bondman for Drury Lane which had its premiere on 11 November.

1847 was the year Jenny Lind made her first appearance in England at Her Majesty’s Theatre.  The public had read about her and were anxious to hear her, they flocked to performances and she was mobbed whenever she appeared outside the theatre.  The hysteria that ensued was termed Lind Mania.  After the season ended Balfe accompanied her on her first provincial tour, visiting Brighton, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Norwich, Bristol, Bath and Exeter.  Balfe was with her on all these dates except those in Scotland.

In 1848 Lind again appeared at Her Majesty’s Theatre and went on an even longer tour with Balfe and this time, a number of excellent solo instrumentalists from his orchestra including Monsieur Nadaud (violin), Signor Piatti (cello), Monsieur Remusat (flute) and Mr King (piccolo and flute).  Between 5 September and 4 December they visited Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Hull, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Dublin, Brighton, Southampton, Clifton, Exeter, Bath, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Leamington Spa, Oxford and Leeds.  They were in Dublin from 10 to 24 October, longer than anywhere else on the tour.

From 1852 to 1863, he wrote another nine operas for London, the first of which was The Sicilian Bride premiered on 6 March 1852 at Drury Lane.  Others were for the Pyne Harrison Company.  He and Lina visited their elder daughter Louisa, now Madame Behrens, in Danzig and made a trip to St Petersburg in early 1860.  There, their younger daughter Victoire, then aged 23, was introduced to Sir John Fiennes Crampton who was then Her Majesty’s Minister to the Court of Russia.  He was then 53.  They married on 31 March but it was not to last.  Victoire wanted a divorce but Lina, a staunch Catholic, would not allow it.  In November 1863 there was a court case in which Balfe testified on his daughter’s behalf and Victoire received an annulment on the grounds of her husband’s impotence.  She then applied for a Papal dispensation as she wished to marry again.  This was a scandal in society and perhaps prevented Balfe receiving a knighthood which he richly deserved.

In 1864 the Balfes leased a house, Rowney Abbey at Ware in Hertfordshire and retired to the country.  He began work on his last opera Il Talismano but he never finished it.  In 1865 he was in poor health and went to Eastbourne to recuperate.  He made one more journey to Paris in 1869 for the first performance of La Bohemienne for which he was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the Emperor.  Subsequently his health deteriorated further and he and Lina suffered the loss of their daughter Louisa, on 14 June.   Balfe, who had had bouts of bronchitis for many years, died at home at Rowney Abbey on 20 October 1870.  He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery six days later.

Lina outlived him for another 18 years.  His last opera Il Talismano was produced posthumously at her Majesty’s Theatre, 11 June 1874.  Being unfinished at the time of his death Lina commissioned his friend and colleague Sir Michael Costa to complete it.

On 25 September 1874 the fine statue of Balfe by Louis Auguste Malempré, erected by public subscription was unveiled in the vestibule at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane by Sir Michael Costa.  A fitting tribute was given by Mr C L Gruneisen which was given in full in The London Daily News, 26 September 1874.  His widow, Lina Balfe, was who was not present, sent a bouquet of flowers which was placed at the foot of the statue just before it was unveiled.  There were many gentlemen and five ladies present who were offered a cold collation in the theatre after the ceremony by the Manager, Mr Frederick Chatterton.  The date was chosen as the new piece Richard Coeur de Lion which was based on the same source as Il Talismano was to open at Drury Lane the following evening.

“That Balfe’s statue should stand where it now stands is unanimously admitted ; … our popular composer is at least represented worthily in the vesibule of the scene of his many and well-earned successes.”

© Jennie Bisset 2020

I would like to thank Alex Bisset and Gail Naughton for their invaluable help.

Basil Walsh’s biography Michael W. Balfe, A Unique Victorian Composer (Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2008) has also been of great assistance for which many thanks.